Wizard of the Crow (English translation from Gikuyu)
Author: Ngugi wa Thiong’o
Publ: Anchor Books
Reviewer: Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye
This paper examines the narrative and stylistic mechanisms of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s English version of Wizard of the Crow. Since the story is presented as a fable it diverges from the precisely located series of events in Ngugi’s earlier novels. Wizard of the Crow is perceived not as a climax but as a further stage in Ngugi’s continuing exploration of communal experience and aspirations.
The review first appeared in The Egerton Journal, Vol.VII, No. 2 & 3, 2008 the author has very kindly provided an abridged version for AwaaZ readers.
Wizard of the Crow is a monumental novel and a long awaited addition to the literature of Kenya. It is an extended fable, dealing with the nature of government and in particular government in Kenya. It has been hailed as Ngugi’s greatest book and as the longest single item written in an African language (Gikuyu). One blurb on the EAEP edition calls it ‘a magisterial magic realist account of 20th century African history’.
Some would question this definition, but it is an important and readable book. Happily the sheer bulk and rave reviews call attention to Kenya’s greatest writer, and to the conceptual link between works in African languages and translated versions.
Since Ngugi has made his own translation, with perfect command of both languages, it is his personal method rather than any linguistic theory that has to be examined. And how closely does it relate to the construction of experience by ordinary people.
Ngugi has been best known for realistic novels and short stories redolent of Kenyan life in all aspects but channelled through Gikuyu experience. These tend to schematise group relationships but still portray memorable individuals and incidents. Petals of Blood interweaves the story of Ilmorog with national and international concerns. A fable, by definition, generalises and universalises its themes, which then become accessible to many people, but a novel recreates and nuances a local experience which the reader is invited to share, enlarging sympathies and leaving room for comparison. Allegory, unlike fable, sometimes strains our patience by insisting on a one to one relationship between ‘symbols’ and ‘meanings’.
Wizard of the Crow is full of references to Kenyan events and will no doubt evoke similar happenings in other countries, but the incidents are not literally historical. ‘Queuing mania’ reminds us of the one party mlolongo elections, but the queues in Eldores only express conformity. They neither advance the action nor set a realistic scene. They do not prepare us for 2008 when millions of people would forcibly express themselves. Top Aburirians may resort to plastic surgery but the raia of the story are not attuned to blogs and SMSs. To this extent Wizard conforms to the timeless classical concept of fable. Tortoise wins the race against hare: the story stops there. Mouse discomfits Elephant: we do not write their biographies. But Wizard does not stop there. It has another 600 pages to go. It has the same chance as other novels to add a catch-phrase to the language. We remember ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’ because we have enjoyed Orwell’s Animal Farm. ‘Catch 22’ exemplifies bureaucracy’s dealing with individuals. Will Wizard infiltrate ‘Whiteache’, ‘Word disease’ and ‘SIE’ into Kenyan speech? The events suspend disbelief. The reader’s credulity will be stretched but reason is not discarded. This is where fable merges with novel.
Fables do not waste words, though oral narratives sometimes do, if they reproduce all the accretions brought in by audience participation. Novels are planned. There is nothing arbitrary about the sequence of events in Wizard of the Crow. It is divided into six books, each including ‘Daemon’ in the title. The introductory and final books are shorter than the other four, and each of those four has three sections. Each book or section is divided into short chapters, numbered but untitled, generally signalling a change of scene. The political themes are all laid down in the 43 pages of Book I, though it is only in the second book that Kamiti and Nyawira meet and set up the consultancy of the Wizard of the Crow. The motor cycle riders who set out on p.165 to monitor the queues do not return till p.747. This is how intricate the plotting is. But we do not find out what interaction they have had with ordinary Aburirians or the wider world.
We sense disjunction between the named and unnamed characters. This cannot be by accident. Ngugi is far too experienced a presenter to let his personnel slip out of control, or to see workers as a dull collective. The reader knows that there are activists like the Women Dancers hidden among the job-seekers in the lines, yet they are not graphically portrayed as ordinary Aburirians who chat, grumble, share newspapers and keep one another’s places in the queue. It appears that their only positive future lies in joining the Voice of the People movement, but it is not very clear how they can do so. They may be paralysed in the Museum of Arrested Movement, but the puppet-ministers in the story lack enough charisma to dominate the workers. Perhaps the writer is telling us something about the banality of evil.
Comparisons with other writers of magical realism or fiction may be instructive. Sikiokuu tells the Wizard, ‘Even when he [the Ruler] goes away he leaves a bit of his power behind’ (405). Actually it is not a scent of power that emanates from the portrait of the Ruler but traces of the ordure that Tajirika has introduced to threaten Sikiokuu. The power that keeps Aburirians from seizing their rights is illusory, but it robs them of individuality. There is a curious lack of coincidence and the interlocking relationships so characteristic of Kenya. How often do we see a friend off at the airport without bumping into someone from the clan or local market doing the same? We greet one another on slight acquaintance. How is it that none of the women dancers claims relationship with Vinjinia, none of the prison warders was at school with Kamiti, no college classmate resolves to ignore the reward for turning Nyawira in? The old man who twice dares address the Ruler direct (17, 699) is a credible character because we all know people of that persistence and consistency. The three garbage collectors and the three named policemen punctuate the action, but they cannot be the only ones putting two and two together.
Thematic symbols – the cat, the Word disease, Whiteache, self-induced reflections in mirrors – are cleverly maintained but distanced by the length of the intervening narrative. In any housing estate we come across other cats, other parades of symptoms, other illusions. People ask one another what they are queuing for and what their new neighbours are up to. To be convincing, the symbolic has to rub shoulders with the everyday, the actual weight of the pilgrim’s pack, the paraphernalia of the commercial herbalist.
In this novel there are gaps in the physical space between neighbourhoods, parallel with gaps in the presentation of the new order. Ironically, some groupings come close to events that occurred after the book was published.
Many incidents in the novel are no more absurd than those we encounter in our daily newspapers, but in real life we may have to suppress our amusement. The incident of the ‘Armenian brothers’ in 2006 is something we could read about in a thriller and not believe. The Ruler’s plan to drop money from a helicopter (705) has actually been emulated by a Kenyan politician, disrupting a funeral ceremony. Prisoners under police guard have escaped without the intervention of donkeys and mikokoteni (631).
The Wizard’s taking refuge in All Saints Cathedral reflects the plight of Mothers of Political Prisoners; but with the public awareness and sympathy omitted (658). The physical expansion of the Ruler is a humorous metaphor reinforced by the use of obscure medical terms. Unsurprisingly an American company is founded to monopolise media rights (654). But the fear that a coup may have taken place (590) and the Ruler’s anger at diplomatic proposals (582) are not exaggerated. Non-African readers may need help to distinguish satire from reality. Being forbidden even to imagine the death of a Ruler (342) takes us back to the days of the Kenyatta succession. The rumours and evasions (644 etc) concerning the disappearance of Machokali remind us of the death of Dr. Robert Ouko. This is not a roman à clef and young readers may miss some of the allusions which are implied rather than stated.
We have seen that characters in fable need not be individualised in detail. Big mouth, Big-ears, Big-eyes and Get-rich-quick may be found in any society, though with variations as to what they can get away with. In the novel, it is characters who make the events intelligible but can also obscure them through layers of reported speech. So it is not surprising that in Wizard of the Crow the most developed characters are not the lead actors – The Ruler, the Ministers and Kamiti and Nyawira who share the role of Wizard – but those who, not being fabulous, change the course of the action. AG, with his cleverly repetitive diction, saves Kamiti’s life: his sense of individual responsibility maybe the cause of his dismissal. Vinjinia’s personal identity enlarges as her husband’s becomes submerged in the quest for riches and power. She becomes an efficient civil servant but is not interested in the title of Empress. The three garbage collectors react separately to the sight of Kamiti apparently rising from the dead, and their lives are changed.
Maritha and Mariko cease to be figures of fun when they become actively engaged in the struggle for progress. They take the Wizard’s advice seriously and so their church allegiance can also be taken seriously. The motor-cyclists who monitor the queues are likened to the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (164) but they deliver no conclusive message.
Ngugi claims a primary audience among mother tongue speakers. But since he has an international audience already, he cannot confine himself to readers of Gikuyu and his political assertion of Kenyanness would make this inappropriate. It is not the choice of language which dominates his narrative method. Wizard of the Crow does not read like a translation and we never expected it would, since Ngugi is both a master-craftsman and a university teacher of translation theory. So the text as a non-Gikuyu speaker receives it does not appear to reproduce Gikuyu idioms or sentence structure in Achebe’s manner; and does not provide an alternative dialect for different voices. There are not many language jokes, though even Kenyans may pause before recognising mbondambonda as a Kikuyu pronunciation of bodaboda, bicycle-taxi. There is no tolerance of colloquial Kenyan English like ‘slowly by slowly’ or ‘he is my follower’. Since Gikuyu speakers participate in every detail of economic and intellectual discourse, there is no need to down the full range of language though some real life specialists fail to internalize professional terms in the mother-tongue.
Like actors, writers have to compromise between what is authentic and what is intelligible to the intended audience. There is a danger of tautology. One wonders what Gikuyu expression requires the translation ‘changing horses in mid-stream’ (244) or ‘the fait that was about to become accompli’ (595). The paradox, ‘The price of internal vigilance is freedom’ (559) is brilliant, but the English source is well-known. Some English clichés like ‘Leave no stone unturned’ must be familiar in all our languages but few rural ears would pick the student slogan, rendered as ‘a-loot-a continua’.
Ngugi’s writing remains graceful and fluent, punctuated by his habitual apostrophes to the reader. There is recognition of oral narrative techniques, but no regularly responsive audience comparable to the telepathic voices of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
Ngugi has lived outside Kenya for a long time. Kamiti is depicted as having been away in India, but Nyawira and the job-seekers, the Soldiers of Christ, the police and the patrons of the Mars Café have taken social changes in their stride and developed a vocabulary to confront them. They must be listened to.
Tolstoy distinguishes between what a writer wishes immediately to say and what he has in him, overall to express. Obviously Wizard sets forth what Ngugi in his 60s needed to say. But I believe it is only part of what he is able to express. Therefore we should see it not as the acme of his career but as one more step forward in defining Kenya for itself and the world through Kenyan eyes.