Fall back on plot summary, you say. Well……..
The Wizard of the Crow is about the probably crazed ruler of a fictional African nation, his underlings, their attempt to build a tower that will reach up to heaven called “Marching to Heaven,” and the ruler’s subsequent illness which causes him to swell up like a big balloon. The ruler’s efforts to get funding from the World Bank for “Marching to Heaven” are thwarted by the Wizard of the Crow, a powerful sorcerer who seems determined to undermine the government by convincing every citizen in the nation to leave their homes and queue up outside government buildings bringing the country to a standstill. In “reality,” the Wizard of the Crow is two people, a man and a woman, both down on their luck, both opposed to the government, who declared themselves a wizard to prevent the police from entering their home and arresting them.
You can see my problem.
Clearly Wizard of the Crow is satire, but the subject of its satire is not a subject I’m familiar enough with to get all of the jokes or to determine if the book is good satire. For example….
One of the government ministers develops a condition that leaves him able to speak only a single word, “If.” Both he and his wife become gravely concerned that he’ll face ruin if his condition is discovered so they seek help from the Wizard of the Crow. Through a complicated examination that largely involves looking at the minister’s reflection in mirrors, the Wizard of the Crow determines that the he suffers from whiteache. Since he has risen has high as a black African can rise, the only way for him to achieve a greater position is to become a white man. His case of whiteache is so severe that he is unable to say anything but “If,” short for “If only I was a white man.” The Wizard of the Crow is able to cure him by convincing him that if he became a white man the chances are that he would be a poor, under-educated white man with little money or position since this is what most white Europeans actually are. The minister is cured. Later in the novel this same minister visits America where his whiteache returns once he realizes that if he were a white American man he could become anything. The minister proceeds to have his arms and legs replaced with the limbs of a white man. Once he reveals this to the people back home, they are forced to acknowledge he is a very powerful wizard himself, capable of changing into a white man.
Whether or not Wizard of the Crow is for you depends on your reaction to this sort of scene. If you can play along with the satire and the humor, I think you’ll enjoy Wizard of the Crow. If this sort of thing irritates you, avoid the book. I found it to be great fun, an African Voltaire. The satire is cutting, the story is fascinating. Wizard of the Crow won’t leave you with a factual education but it will help you understand Africa and the longstanding problems with so many African national governments. It’s all too easy to link the fictional leader with figures like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
I don’t know quite what to make of the sorcery in Wizard of the Crow. Early in the novel it struck me that Ngugi was having fun with belief in sorcery. I’ve no idea how widespread these beliefs are among African people so it’s difficult for me to say just how insulting Ngugi’s portrayal of them could potentially be. All of the characters in the book believe that sorcery is real, even the two who start out faking it to escape the police come to believe that they really are the Wizard of the Crow. Neither the narrator, nor the narrative itself, do anything to suggest that sorcery is anything but real as far as I can tell. Someone with more knowledge of African sorcery would probably get much more out of Wizard of the Crow than I did. That said, I still loved the book.
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, who writes in his native language, Gikuyu and then translates his own work into English, has lived in exile from his homeland, Kenya for several decades. It’s easy to see how this experience colors his view of African politics, and easy to see why governments like the one he describes in Wizard of the Crow would force him to leave. One thing a dictator cannot stand is criticism.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., I’ve kept my copy of Wizard of the Crow to reread in my old age, but I think I may get around to it before retirement. It really was a fun read something which I hope this review conveys. I checked his website to see if he is still in exile today. The answer is yes. He and his wife did return to Kenya in 2004 but they were attacked by four gunmen. I was not able to find where he is currently living.