I'm curious what people make of the narrative structure of the book, the way it sometimes introduces ideas and stories in one narrative strand, then later works backward to bring in more explanation (for instance, exactly what the women did to so offend The Ruler and the cabinet in front of the people from the Global Bank is not revealed until we've seen the reaction to it all). I thought this contributed to the suspense of the book and added as well to the feeling of it as a story told to an audience that has experienced it all already -- the sense of us being in on the tale, and the tale being something narrated by a particular narrator.
I thought the usage of this type of narrative was a great idea, especially with a book of this length. I think it added to the suspense, and also added to my own interest level as a reader – realizing how things might just be resolved at different times than when I might generally expect them to.
We’re talking about the choices that Thiongo made in constructing the narrative, but I was really more impressed by how well he executes on the choices he makes. Like any big book, WIZARD has its minor longueurs and repetition, but faults are so trivial and there’s so much to enjoy here in terms of language, character, and ideas. And I think you’re right, Matt – as a reader, your incomplete knowledge at different points make you feel like you’re almost hearing the story from the perspective of the characters.
One of the things I personally loved about this book was that tension between, say, Dostoyevsky and Tolkien: the exhaustively deep and detailed study of characters and motivations and the nuances of events, and the highly symbolic, over-the-top magic and strangeness of fantasy. Aside from the fun weirdness of the enlarged body parts and the fantastical Babel-like project of Marching to Heaven itself, it allows the author to create the iconic contrasts and symbols that are available to fantasy writers: the nature-paradise where Kamiti and Nyawira retreat in order to return equipped to the urban world of men (a la Midsummer Night's Dream, maybe?), the "castle" (Rapunzel style) where the Ruler has bound his defiant wife (and by implication all women), the shrine of the Wizard itself, a place of confrontation and resolution and safety.
The magical realism label has been so overused that I almost hate to bring it up, but I did find a lot in WIZARD that reminded me as much of Latin American novels as any African novel I’ve read. That combination you mention, Jessica, of the fantastic events and ordinary characters – that reminds me a lot of Garcia Marquez. The way Tajirika and Vinjinia come to simply accept a flock of birds frozen in flight – and then all the animals in the “Museum of Arrested Motion” – is a nice example. The name they give the magical valley, and the magical properties of words throughout the novel – not only words, but words in all their forms: names, titles, signs, songs, incantations.
What amazes me about WIZARD OF THE CROW is that it forces the reader to live with the troubles of Africa (much) longer, and while not soft-peddling anything or letting anyone off the hook, makes them liveable. Because even though Nyawira and Kamiti and the Ruler and his bizarre ministers are in some ways part of a complex, strange folk tale, they're also people who continue to live in this African world, with joys and sorrows in different measures. As Anne mentions, even the hopeless corrupt Tajirika is a loveable character, because he's fully human, and his motivations are so painfully, hilariously clear. It's certainly a bit of a literary cliché, but Ngugi wa Thiongo accomplishes that writerly task: to make a foreign world one that we can live in for the space of a story, so that we come out of it with our own experience broadened.
I love that way Thiongo allows some tensions to remain tensions, like that between the Christianity of Maritha and Mariko and the Wizard's magic, or Nyawira's privileged background and her leftist ideals, or Kamiti's insistence on transcendence and Nyawira's insistence upon action. Actually, these are tensions hardly exclusive to Africa – they're pretty obviously part of our contemporary scene as well. Watching them play out in this foreign, magical context both defamiliarizes and highlights them.
Another tension that energizes this great book is that between satire and beauty. I naturally thought of “Catch-22” often when reading this book, but I don’t remember Joseph Heller ever coming up with exquisite, surprising moments like the love scene between the Kamiti and Nyawira, or the completely unexpected frozen world that Tajirika and Vinjinia stumble into (this last touch is, to me, completely bewildering, in that I have no idea how the author thinks it fits into the overall story, and yet somehow it does!). I would call this magical realism, yes, as Sam does above – but even magical realism can be mundane, but Ngugi clearly has a special talent for it.
I have a question for Matt – why do you say that it’s wrong to read this novel as specifically about the Daniel arap Moi regime in Kenya? I agree of course that we should always look for broad and universal interpretations, but in this case Ngugi seems to point at a literal interpretation with the “Acknowledgements”, in which he tells us that the book is based on a specific period of struggle. Matt, I know you were in Kenya (and I wasn’t) so I’m inclined to think you know more about this than me, but doesn’t the evidence show that the Ruler is based very much on Moi? I guess I took the obfuscation to be a satirist’s necessary device, rather than an indication that the book’s focus is not very specific. But I certainly may be wrong.