As mentioned before, Wizard of the Crow, by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, has been selected by the LBC as the Winter 2006 Read This! title. This week will see posts by individual LBC members, a podcast interview of the author, and a roundtable discussion of the book by several LBC members. There is always the possibility of more, such as a contest or two, as in past weeks, and who knows what else. The following is the beginning of the roundtable discussion:
I loved this book so much that it’s hard for me to start talking about it: I really think it’s a masterpiece, but I am going to try to actually talk about it, rather than just jumping up and down and exclaiming that it’s amazing and fun and funny and moving.
Just by chance, I read Book One, Power Demons twice. That really helped me “get” the story. I began Wizard of the Crow and then had to leave it aside for a few weeks. When I returned, I was only a little ways in, so I just started over. The five theories of the origin of the Ruler’s illness serve as a key to the whole book, so I was really grateful to have that bit resonating strongly in my head. Since the Ruler doesn’t really become ill until much later in the book, I liked having the preview of some of the arc of the story. But I was really surprised to find that all of the characters in the prologue of this many-charactered book are important. Gloss over the name of the security guard, forget that we first encounter the Wizard of the Crow in the company of some garbage collectors, and you’ll be jogging your memory later. I’m curious how others kept the whole cast in their heads.
Reading Book One twice is a good strategy – I had to, because a few weeks and a few other books separated my beginning the book and finishing it. Inside the front of the book I stuck a Post-It note with the names, government positions, and enhanced body part of Machokali, Sikiokuu, and Mambo, plus the names of The Ruler's sons, and this was helpful as the book went along -- after a while, of course, they were all clear to me, but in the beginning there is so much going on, so many different characters and situations introduced, that I needed a cheat sheet.
I also think you were both wise to re-read that first section. There were times I found myself flipping back to it to collect my bearings with people and places. I think had I taken the time at any of those given flippings, to just have re-read the entire section, it might have reduced the remaining number of times I had to go back.
I may be a good test of how easy or difficult the book is to follow, since I offer an extreme case: I started the book on page 292. I read from the middle to the end, and then from the beginning to the middle. Although I made no special effort to keep the names straight, I didn’t have any trouble following the characters and events, and I enjoyed the heck out of the book. I don’t know, maybe it was more fun having to guess what “Queing Mania” was, and what could possibly be meant by “Marching to Heaven.” At any rate, it was nice to get to the last page and know that I had another 300 pages to enjoy.
I’ve read and taught some African literature but am by no means an expert. And I remember learning great things about Jomo Kenyatta as a girl in school: the great liberator of Kenya, brave survivor of the Mau Mau Rebellion. I don’t imagine that now, after the Cold War, children are learning the same, to say the least. Still, that memory of America’s shift away from admiration for an African dictator helped put this novel in to focus. How much African history do you have? How much did you want? Did you find yourself seeing the fictional Aburiria as Kenya, where Ngugi is from, where he spent time in prison? Did you find yourself running to Wikipedia?
I'm impressed Jomo Kenyatta was mentioned in classes you had, Anne. I never learned anything of Africa either in high school or as an undergraduate, not even Things Fall Apart. Yet I was growing up during the 1980s, when South Africa was on the TV news every night. I started teaching myself about the literature and history of Africa only after I became a teacher myself and happened to mention apartheid in passing and none of my students knew what the word referred to. Then I realized my own knowledge was at best superficial. So I started reading, and eventually moved beyond South African history and literature. When researching African literature, the literature of Nigeria -- particularly Soyinka and Achebe -- was what I found the most references to, but I also discovered Ngugi's A Grain of Wheat, Devil on the Cross, and some of his essays.
In December, I went to Kenya for two weeks for a writers' conference. I knew Wizard of the Crow was one of our nominees by then, and I read the first 100 pages or so, then decided to wait until I got back home to finish it. Inevitably, then, I couldn't help placing the Aburiria of the novel into the Kenya in my memory, although I didn't completely equate The Ruler with Kenyatta or Daniel arap Moi, and certainly Ngugi doesn't intend us to -- The Ruler is not a caricature of any particular leader, but rather an amalgamation of many, including people from outside Africa such as Marcos and Pinochet.
I'm greatly impressed with how much you all are aware of African history and politics, and have been for so long. I confess my knowledge is pretty much limited to the (tragically late) Ryzsard Kapuscinski's collection The Shadow of the Sun – which wrecked my sleep and conversation for weeks, because I couldn't stop thinking or talking about how bad things are/were in so many places on the continent. But then, gradually, I forgot about it. Because I had to, in order to keep functioning in my daily life. It was impossible to hold in my mind all that corruption, and suffering, and completely solveable but unsolved problems, feeling helpless to do anything about them, and buy my readily available groceries or sleep in my comfortable bed or continue with my obtainable education (much less spend too much money on clothing or beer or books).
One thing that troubled me a bit, and I wonder if others struggled with it as well. I find myself falling into the Western trap of conflating all of "Africa" as one place – forgetting the welter of individual countries and individuals and histories and situations. In some ways, I feel that an allegorical tale like WIZARD, which as Matt points out evokes universal instances of tyranny, feeds that ignorance a little. Or maybe, like some, wa Thiongo feels like African nations have a commonality of experience that should lead to greater unity, and thinking of their stories in universals contributes to that. Is it possible for allegory to artificially simplify our thinking? Or is the revelation of common themes a way of pointing out, and avoiding, the repeated mistakes of history?
I think this fear--that the fictionalized African nation melts into some kind of Angelina Jolie “AFRICA”--is well-founded. It’s a risk Ngugi takes. For me, its offset by a couple things: as Matt points out, this country is sufficiently Kenya-like to help us narrow it down: it’s a former colony that was a cold war player and the Ruler, like Moi, is the second man to take over since independence. It’s not North Africa; it’s not Central Africa; its connections to the West are financial rather than deep and real (it’s not a settler colony with many white residents like Zimbabwe); it’s certainly not South Africa. So, I think that the fake Aburiria is specific enough, when you start narrowing it down and yet general enough--like Global Bank or the Ruler--to make another key point: that the aftermath of the Cold War has dealt a new blow to former African colonies.
Long as the book is, I knew I was going to love it from the first page where Ngugi talks about the Ruler’s failure “to land an interview with Global Network News on its famous program MEET THE GLOBAL MIGHTY.” Meet the Global Mighty! That’s a total bull’s eye for me: a great capturing of the self-satisfaction of the whole cabal--network, host, and guests, of those Sunday morning chat shows. But it also shows the light touch that for me makes this book so delightful, such a pleasure.
For all the breadth of the satire, it was the characters that pulled me through. I was delighted and relieved to find such interesting, strong and intelligent women throughout the book, affecting and moving the plot along: not only Nyawira but also the silent and long-suffering Rachael and the troubled but brave Vinjinia. Still, I found that, in spite of myself my favorite character was the craven, ambitious construction company owner, Tajirika. And I got the sense that Ngugi liked him--and all his characters--too. I’m wondering how others of you read the satire and the characters in the book.
The characters motivations were totally plausible to me – even when they were (as with Tajirika) wrongheaded or unsympathetic or preposterous.
The novel has stories within stories, storytellers within storytellers: there is a first-person narrator who has access to documents and newspaper accounts which, as he notes, don’t tell the whole story but help fill in some gaps but I especially loved A. G., the police officer who begins all his stories with “True! Haki ya Mungu!”