Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow is a bold, eviscerating satire of modern Africa and a deeply humane meditation on love, community, and politicized morality. Set in the capital city of Eldares in the imaginary Free Republic of Aburiria, Wizard of the Crow will be immediately recognizable to those familiar with Catch-22 in its depiction of a dismally zany nightmare of a hierarchical political structure, in this case imposed by a neglectful and pettily paranoiac regime that thrives off the deprivation, dispossession, and silence of its subjects. The novel is a breezy 768 pages, moving full-tilt but somewhat askew between a cast of recognizable caricatures from the the corrupt despot and his sycophants to the business owners, law enforcement, and bureaucrats both at the mercy of and enthralled by the power of the Ruler to the abject common people.
On one level the story centers around two people repeatedly separated and drawn together in a hostile world. The strength they find to stand against overwhelming state power comes from their common decency, imagination, and a little magic. The novel opens with Kamiti, a former grad student and current beggar, discovering he can transcend his human form and transform into a bird while he is wasting away on the streets of Eldares. Thus the kernel of truth in what will become the mysterious persona of the Wizard of the Crow illuminates the necessity of the lie that allows you to tell the truth. Kamiti goes to a humiliating job interview where he meets Nyawira, an office worker who continually proves to be more than she seems and who generously offers him refuge in the face of persecution. Events force our two heroes to seek ever more inventive methods to elude apprehension, and when Kamiti leaves a sign outside Nyawira’s home stating, “THIS PROPERTY BELONGS TO A WIZARD WHOSE POWER BRINGS DOWN HAWKS AND CROWS FROM THE SKY. TOUCH THIS HOUSE AT YOUR PERIL. SGD. WIZARD OF THE CROW,” he unwittingly ignites the legend of the Wizard of the Crow, a figure who becomes many things for many people in Aburiria.
Ngugi deliberately occupies a literary space for an embattled culture and draws the reader’s attention to what is at risk at the level of language. Ngugi was forced into exile more than once from Kenya. The first time was after being detained for his involvement as coauthor of the feminist play written in Gikuyu, I Will Marry When I Want. It was while in jail that he resolved to write in Gikuyu and miraculously produced the other excellent novel, Devil on the Cross, on scrounged toilet paper.
Wizard of the Crow may frustrate the readers’ expectations. In fact, it may not give the full intended picture to readers because the work belongs to a precolonial tradition of dramatized storytelling and is recited as well as read in Gikuyu, reaching out to an audience that is not necessarily literate or English-speaking. Also, we think of novels as solitary explorations whereas in Wizard of the Crow its social component elicits strong feelings of solidarity. In this way, it is its own unique medium of communication. Speech and language are at the heart of this work and in order to circumvent the role relegated to them by society the characters must be able to continually transform. And performances, such as the recitations of this book, are the way we transform.