The Magic of Satire: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow

Reviewed by Lisa Clements

At the risk of falling under criticism for being too reductive, the strain of hardship in contemporary and past African living in magical realism seems to be countered by three things: resilient courage, a faith in the familial aspect of close community, and a sense of humorous reality that serves as a kind of metaphorical lifebuoy in the midst of chaos and tragedy (ironically, it can also be the downfall when too idealistic). Of course, this isn’t always the kind of sentiment which is captured in the works which emerge from the Diaspora; as Davina Kawuma succinctly articulates in her article “The Nature(s) of African Writers” the trend to treat all works emerging from the continent as homogenous is a naive misinterpretation of the multitude of emotions and perspectives captured by writers of African literature. But in the case of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who has successfully unified two worlds that Kawuma mentions – the world of successful publishing while remaining true to his voice of origin – satire and parody especially play a powerful theatrical and philosophical role.

Ngũgĩ’s brilliantly-crafted Wizard of the Crow might not be classified as magical realism by all critics, but it certainly contains a similar recipe of ingredients which make the experience of reading it a kind of phantasmagoric dream which blurs the surface of the text yet reveals a definitive state of consciousness beneath. There are luminous sequences of multiple sensory effects that surge between the spiritually-elevated and the gritty reality of everyday, larger than life characters, and a fascination with the profanity and excess of zealous overlords. The sheer horror and injustice which is found in the fictional “Free” Republic of Abruria is portrayed with a blunt and mocking light – disclosing the hedonistic habits and delusional grandeur of “the Ruler” which is in direct conflict with its citizens.

Ironically Elevated Rhetoric

It is this dramatic contrast between the sacred and profane, rich and poor, that make Ngũgĩ’s use of humor so powerful. Just like the impossible “Marching to Heaven” project – the Ruler’s own Tower of Babel – the hierarchical structure is so unbalanced that it threatens to topple at all times because there is no tangible middle class to flesh out the center, and the weight of the corporations teeter precariously at the peak. There can be no progress without a solid foundation, a concept which neither the political party nor the blood-sucking corporations – who endeavor to turn the country into a commercial colony – can grasp.

In reading this novel, there comes a realization that only through fiction can a writer reveal the truth about the world, and the situations which Ngũgĩ stages may verge on hysterical realism, but are a faithful representation of the West’s merciless money lust and the plague of neocolonial sentiments that wage war through the voice of the dictator and his elite henchmen: Machokali and Sikiokuu – rivals who go to extreme physical lengths to gain the upper hand.

Turning the System on Itself

The rest of Ngũgĩ’s characters are equally theatrical and amusing, with some undergoing a few surprising transformations. Tajirika’s selfish and aggressive nature is reversed when his power is taken from him and he become a victim of the government himself, and his prison rebellion is magnificently executed with one simple weapon: phobia. Playing on the fears of fellow officers, the most-taboo subject of Africa serves as an effective tool. Rather than a pandering coward, Tajirika embraces the kind of personhood he sought to oppress, and adopts a gentler, more thoughtful attitude towards his kin.

The Voice of Hope

Kamiti appears to experience more in the spiritual realm than the real one, but is able to utilize his affinity with the spiritual world through a material and means through the savvy and down-to-earth genius of Nyawira. The Wizard becomes a mystical, revered and dangerous presence, encompassing the kind of exotic allure which is so stereotyped by the system but in turn performs the perfect resistance against it. Yet their business in wizardry at least inspires hope, and Nyawira is able to continue fighting for her cause to empower the people, proving herself to be the strongest and most vigilant character. That Nyawira is capable as well as hopeful is crucial; the good activism that is generally attributed to day-dreamers with their head in the clouds is not a stereotype that Ngũgĩ wishes to endorse, instead suggesting that despite adversity, there can always be the chance for change by innovative minds. This is something very important given that this is the first novel to rise from the author’s pen in over two decades, and written in his native Gikuyu. He leaves long traces and blatant cries of disillusionment but always seems to encourage the reader not to give up just yet, making every little victory that much more satisfying.

How the Corporate World Fails

The Ruler, while increasingly cruel, is never as horrible as his political peons who squander their power ridiculously. Ngũgĩ adds another level to the satirical side when he exposes the unfaithfulness of religion, of counterfeit personal capital like fake degrees and qualifications which can be bought for the right price. Esteemed institutions and organizations like the Africa Legal Network, medical and charity NGOs are virtually non-existent, but take their form as harsher versions of a system which begins on the pretense of goodwill yet ultimately fails. Intelligent youngsters like Kamiti travel abroad to study and find themselves returning to a land without jobs or prospects, a humiliation. Access to resources is extremely limited, and citizens are pushed to study and implement their own niche markets in law and medicine to succeed. This is one of the few ways in which people are actually able to triumph. Since exposing the flaws in the system is near fatal, the best thing to do is to get the system to work against itself.

Wizard of the Crow is a masterful work of puppetry; Ngũgĩ places his trust in the reader to find startling truth beneath the satire, and even hope. That people can change, that the young are not swayed by material temptation but understand how to fight against it is a sign that Ngũgĩ himself continues to believe in the cause, despite his own traumatic experiences at the hands of his own country. For a lengthy exile in the West, Ngũgĩ is not dazzled by the high publishing world and stays very much in touch with his inner voice.

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