"African languages refused to die," wrote Ngugi wa Thiong'o two decades ago in his seminal volume Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, evoking the vitality and defiance with which Africans have met the specter of linguistic annihilation. At the core of Ngugi's own aesthetic lies an analogous pairing of vigor and resistance, sustained by his commitment, also declared in that book, to composing his works in African languages (specifically, Kikuyu and Kiswahili) rather than in English. More generally, he has written that "the real language of humankind" is the "language of struggle," and in Wizard of the Crow, the satiric political allegory that is his most ambitious novel to date, the turmoil convulsing the fictional state of Aburiria is cast as a fight for the voice of the nation. "We want our voice back," shout the demonstrators gathered to oppose Aburiria's reigning despot, known only as the Ruler. The country's chief antigovernment faction, the Movement for the Voice of the People, identifies itself primarily not with justice or even self-determination but with a much more fundamental power: speech.
The opposition's boldness in claiming its rightful voice is set against the emergence of a mysterious linguistic illness, whose first victim is Titus Tajirika, an ambitious, greedy businessman so sycophantic that, after the Ruler shakes his hand, he dons a glove to preserve the handshake's imprint. Suddenly a "prisoner of silence," Tajirika finds himself unable to speak beyond feral barking of the words if and if only. When his wife, desperate for a cure, brings him to the Wizard of the Crow, the sorcerer and healer of the novel's title, his repetitive babbling is diagnosed as a symptom of "white-ache," a pathological yearning to be white. His malady shows him to be "a black man celebrating the negation of himself"; when treating Tajirika's ailment, the Wizard of the Crow remarks, "A slave first loses his name, then his language." The episode is characteristic of Ngugi's didactic method throughout the novel, which is insistent but rarely preachy: The link between speech and identity is instead articulated through riotous physical comedy.
The Wizard of the Crow comes into being as the desperate creation of Kamiti, one of Aburiria's many unemployed men, and this sorcerer's invention as a character can itself be regarded as a liberating speech act. He is conjured out of thin air at the end of a long chain of events, beginning when Kamiti inadvertently joins a protest against Marching to Heaven, the Ruler's grandiose plan to erect the world's tallest skyscraper. (Here, as throughout the novel, Ngugi takes aim at former Kenyan dictator Daniel arap Moi, who unsuccessfully schemed to build what was to be Africa's largest office tower on the site of a popular Nairobi park.) The demonstration occurs outside a politically sensitive meeting with Western banking officials at the posh Paradise hotel, so the authorities shut down the protest. In the ensuing chaos, the police pursue Kamiti and Nyawira, the charismatic female leader of the Movement for the Voice of the People, until the hunted pair takes refuge in her house. Fearing they'll be found, Kamiti concocts a brilliant ruse: "THIS PROPERTY BELONGS TO A WIZARD WHOSE POWER BRINGS DOWN HAWKS AND CROWS FROM THE SKY," he writes on a cardboard sign. "TOUCH THIS HOUSE AT YOUR PERIL. SGD. WIZARD OF THE CROW." Out of fear comes resourcefulness: Kamiti discovers a usable past, as it were, and exploits it to fabricate a "traditional" witch doctor whose aura of supernatural power keeps the couple out of the police's hands.
What begins as a necessary improvisation soon takes on a life of its own, as the Wizard of the Crow becomes legendary when the rumor spreads that "the man is human yet more than human. He removes all burdens from the heart." Soon the wizard, usually played by Kamiti but sometimes by Nyawira, is receiving a steady procession of visitors seeking advice, healing, and a magic fix to help them prevail against their enemies. The wizard's performances, replete with cryptic pronouncements and an adroit use of mirrors, are highly stylized: "From the bedroom where she sat, Nyawira could not see the actors, but she heard every word between Kamiti and his clients. The whole thing seemed like ritual theater."
Ngugi is a playwright as well as a novelist, and in one sense Wizard of the Crow is a meditation on theatricality, particularly the theatricality of politics. As a student, Nyawira was a brilliant actress: "She could change herself into any character, sometimes so realistically that even those who thought they knew her well because of seeing her on the platforms in many student political events were often unable to say whether it was really Nyawira on the stage." She brings a mischievous sense of spectacle to her activism, as when she disrupts official state functions by using lifelike plastic snakes to scare off the assembled crowds. At first, Kamiti, who becomes Nyawira's lover as they continue to impersonate the Wizard of the Crow, distrusts her effortless imitation of others: "Was Nyawira one of these women of his childhood fears? . . . [W]hen telling stories, she had constantly been changing her voice in her mimicking of various characters. . . . There was something about her that did not add up." Such fears are aligned with misgivings about acting the part of the wizard, his initial sense that he is "merely playing a role, briefly" as a "quack of a wizard." Temperamentally inclined to introspection and quietude, Kamiti is a reluctant hero in the unavoidably politicized world of Aburiria; his hero's journey involves casting aside doubts about role playing and merging himself completely with the persona of the Wizard of the Crow, a guise that entails inevitable risks and responsibilities. To Kamiti's surprise, the wizard's magic turns out to be effective, and as he becomes aware of the extent of his powers, he seeks to direct them toward the right ends. As much as Kamiti invents the wizard, the wizard in turn invents him.
Ngugi's emphasis on dynamic self-fashioning and cultural renewal—he has long conceived his own relationship to indigenous African forms, particularly storytelling, as a productive dialogue rather than a nostalgic embrace of tradition—complements the value placed on the quest for an authentic voice, whether individual or collective, that is at the heart of the novel's politics and morality. It also anchors the book's ferocious and often very funny satire by offering an alternative to the other brand of theatrics on display in Wizard of the Crow—the sinister histrionics of the Ruler, his ministers, and their groveling cronies such as Tajirika. Aburiria is not so much ruled as it is stage-managed; when its officials are not squabbling among themselves, the government is exclusively devoted to mounting elaborate spectacles to glorify the Ruler and attempting to stifle all opposition. As epitomized by his plans for Marching to Heaven, the Ruler is obsessed with the maintenance of his public image, both as telegraphed to the Western officials controlling the flow of aid money and as disseminated at home, where he is always on television: "His every moment—eating, shitting, sneezing, or blowing his nose—[was] captured on camera. Even his yawns were news because, whether triggered by boredom, fatigue, hunger, or thirst, they were often followed by some national drama: his enemies were lashed in the public square with a sjambok, whole villages were blown to bits or people were pierced to death by a bows-and-arrows squad, their carcasses left in the open as food for hyenas and vultures." His megalomania is channeled into a barbaric form of absurdist theater, in which something as innocuous as a facial motion leads to repressive, arbitrary violence.
In the face of such outrages—Aburiria, though largely inspired by recent Kenyan history, more generally stands in for all of Africa—Ngugi employs a satiric mode that is often angry, though never sour or misanthropic. Rather, it is raucous, earthy, and at times scatological, and uses a vocabulary of outsize bodily gestures and distortions, culminating in the grotesque inflation of the Ruler into an enormous floating ball, which prompts rumors among Aburiria's populace of a fantastic male pregnancy—a humiliating emasculation for a man preoccupied with male potency and power.
The physicality of the satire is part of Wizard of the Crow's buoyant immediacy and lively imaginative propulsion, qualities drawn from African oral literature. Though long, the novel has few longueurs, and races ahead with the animated pacing of traditional storytelling. Indeed, what might be called the armature of values undergirding Wizard of the Crow, its concern with the welfare of its imperiled fictional society and its stark opposition between those menacing the community and those seeking to preserve it, occupies the same moral universe as the stories Ngugi heard growing up in pre-independence Kenya. Addressing primarily a popular Kenyan audience that includes the nonliterate—his works are often read aloud in bars—Ngugi has perfected in Wizard of the Crow an art of radical simplicity, of sharply defined conflicts that, paradoxically, is less reductive than ostensibly more nuanced accounts of Africa proffered by historians and political analysts. At once an epic burlesque of a sick, lumbering state and a praise song to the manifold forms of African resilience, the phantasmagoric saga of Aburiria is as clear a view of Africa as we are likely to get for some time.
James Gibbons is a frequent contributor to Bookforum.