Speaking in Tongues

Reviewed by Aminatta Forna
Sunday, September 10, 2006


A Novel

By Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Pantheon. 768 pp. $30

In the year in which the despotic leader of the fictional African nation of Aburiria announces a grand scheme to build the world's tallest building, Kamiti, a luckless job seeker, wakes up on a rubbish heap to find himself possessed of magical powers.

So begins Wizard of the Crow , Ngugi wa Thiong'o's epic African political satire, his first novel in 20 years. Daunting in its ambition and scale, spanning more than 700 pages, it is, in the author's own words, the story of "Africa of the twentieth century in the context of two thousand years of world history."

The Aburiria of Ngugi's imagination is representative of many African dictatorships. Its leader -- known only as "the Ruler" -- and his band of sycophantic and feuding ministers govern (the term is used loosely) through a blend of showmanship and brutality. Corruption is rife, the economy nonexistent, and the giant building -- "Marching to Heaven" -- is intended to shore up their leader's popularity. In the era of globalization, all those who have fought for Africa's soul in the past -- church, despots and sorcerers -- are now joined by the Global Bank, on whom the government depends to finance its project. Since the end of the Cold War, the Ruler, like many Third World strongmen once useful to First World powers, now finds himself dispensable. His efforts to secure the funding for his world's tallest building project provide the arc of the novel's narrative.

The tale is in turns fantastical, surreal and scatological. One cabinet minister has undergone plastic surgery to enlarge his eyes "to the size of electric bulbs" in order to spot the Ruler's enemies. Not to be outdone, his main rival has his ears enlarged to the size of a rabbit's in order to be able to detect danger from any direction. On the day the building scheme is announced, the stage full of cabinet ministers and visiting dignitaries collapses and sinks into a pit of foul ooze. These flights of the imagination, the merging of real and unreal worlds, are in keeping with the qualities of African oral literature, as is the fast-paced narrative, marked by short chapters packed with continuous action.

Meanwhile, Kamiti, the poor job seeker, inadvertently becomes involved in a protest by the underground Movement for the Voice of the People during a visit by a delegation from the Global Bank. Kamiti, along with the mysterious female leader of the Movement, a woman named Nyawira, finds himself running for his life, chased by policemen. Hiding out in Nyawira's house, he comes up with the ingenious notion of posting a sign claiming the property is inhabited by a powerful sorcerer in order to frighten the pursuers away.

But what begins as a ruse soon takes on a life of its own. The Wizard, played by Kamiti but sometimes Nyawira, begins to receive a stream of visitors. First comes the policeman who pursued them and who becomes an occasional narrator in the novel, seeking help in winning a promotion. When his dream comes true, word spreads of the Wizard's power. After the wealthy come the poor and the oppressed by the thousands.

In a world that seems hopeless, magic provides the only possibility of hope. But what at first appears to be all smoke and mirrors, plus a basic understanding of human psychology, soon has both Kamiti and Nyawira wondering if Kamiti does indeed have magical powers. During a trip home to his family village, Kamiti's father reveals that Kamiti comes from a long line of sorcerers. When a corrupt businessman loses the power of speech, the Wizard diagnoses it as a case of "whiteache," the yearning to be European. Later, a similar ailment, though with a different cause, afflicts the Ruler. And the common people themselves feel the same weight of silence, which explains the appeal of the Movement of the Voice. "We want our voice back," cry protesters.

The themes of speech and silence have long preoccupied Ngugi, who achieved international fame with Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), in which he wrote, "The bullet was the means of physical subjugation. Language was a means of spiritual subjugation." In Kenya, English became the official language of education and communication. Ngugi pointed out that his own arrest and detention (without charge and in a maximum security prison) came only after he began to write in Kikuyu instead of English, thereby reaching a far greater number of ordinary Kenyans, a development that the authorities found threatening. Ever since, Ngugi has questioned the gulf between African intellectuals and their audience and resolved to write in his own tongue; Wizard of the Crow was first written in Kikuyu and translated by the author into English. If the language sometimes feels simple and if the narrative contains somewhat didactic set pieces on AIDS and domestic violence, it is worth remembering that Ngugi's works are often read aloud in public spaces.

Wizard of the Crow is first and foremost a great, spellbinding tale, probably the crowning glory of Ngugi's life's work. He has done for East Africa what Ahmadou Kourouma's Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote did for West Africa: He has turned the power of storytelling into a weapon against totalitarianism. ยท

Aminatta Forna is the author of "The Devil That Danced on the Water." Her new novel, "Ancestor Stones," will be published in the United States in September.

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