Wizard of the Crow, by Ngugi wa’Thiong’o
9/10, a terrifically engaging magical fiction story lampooning African dictatorships and modern society
I don’t remember where I read about “Wizard of the Crow.” Probably in Salon Books or somewhere like that. Anyway, it was slated to come out many months later on Amazon, so I put in a pre-order and forgot about it until the following year, when I got a message telling me it was about to be shipped. I vaguely remembered ordering it and thought, well, I’ll trust my past self; he thought I should have it.
It’s a bit intimidating, a trade paperback over 700 pages long with fairly small print. And it resembles “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” in scope, but it’s far more engaging and humorous, and just magical enough to be intriguing. It’s the only book I’ve read this year that almost made me miss a train stop. Fortunately, I have had enough plane rides over the last month to get through a lot of reading, including all of this delightful book.
The story, roughly: Kamiti (all accents on names are omitted from this review because I don’t know how to render the tildes over vowels), a young man educated in India returning to his home, the fictional country of Aburiria, to find a job, falls in with a young woman named Nyawira. In the course of running from the police, he calls on some of the pranks of his youth to masquerade as a sorcerer named “Wizard of the Crow” so that the police will leave them alone. His masquerade works too well; soon he has a line of people outside his door waiting for the cures the wizard is reputed to dispense.
Aburiria, meanwhile, is in the midst of petitioning the Global Bank for funds to build Marching to Heaven, a modern-day Tower of Babel, as a birthday present for its Ruler. The Ruler assumes various degrees of omnipotence depending on the situation, and his two highest ministers fight for his favor, to the point of having their eyes and ears surgically enlarged (the better to see and hear what goes on in his country). The way in which these two stories intertwine is skillful enough to be engaging, but it’s the backdrop that makes this a remarkable book.
Ngugi mixes African folklore and superstition with modern society, so that a man might call his wife on a mobile phone to tell her the latest rumor about the sorcerer in town. The Aburirian people love to tell and retell stories (one of the main characters, a policeman by the name of A.G., recounts much of his narrative from a bar), and the stories grow in a folkloric/magical kind of way. Ngugi sometimes shows the reader the original event and then the stories; sometimes he leads off a section with references to the event and builds backwards to it. Never does he lose sight of his many story threads (probably a dozen characters could be counted as important, with their own plots), nor of the silly, charming, ruthless, and brutal characters he has created.
There is humor both broad and subtle: the ridiculousness of the various cosmetic surgeries of the ministers, and the fact that despite the magic in the book, the “sorcerer” uses very little in his healing ways. There are lessons here about how to live, the power and corrupting influence of money and power, but it’s told comically rather than sternly. Kamiti is the one who learns several lessons over the course of the book, its main character who seems to start from a peaceful equilibrium but faces problems and temptations over the course of the story.
If you have a little while to devote to a good read over the holidays, pick up this book. It reminds me somewhat of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but more readable and more enjoyable overall: a great and unexpected surprise.