Saturday, January 22, 2011

Wizard Of The Crow - A Farce For The Ages

Ngugi wa Thiong'o is an exiled Kenyan writer. Born in Kenya he was baptized as a Christian. He renounced it, even English, changed his name to ' Ngugi wa Thiong'o' and writes in his native tongue. He then translates them back himself to English. This is how his novels are published. He is also an opponent of the oppressive Kenyan government and has suffered a lot due to that. More on that later. His novels do not focus on the effect of colonization and conversion to Christianity in Africa as is the case with several African writers, but more on that post-colonial effects of them, when the tin-pot dictators take over tiny countries and let loose a reign of terror. 'Wizard Of The Crow' is not a completely heavy and tragic novel like his 'Petals Of Blood'. It is a political farce, a sprawling tragicomedy of epic proportions running to over 700 pages, full of dark humor, funny, sad and even heartbreaking at times. The novel need not be taken as an indictment of current political situation in Kenya alone, it is relevant for all places where people with power lord over those who are without it. (Heck, even a Councillor of a small place does indulge in absurdities matching up to his reputation isn't it?) 

What is the novel about. It is set in the imaginary country of 'Abruria'. It is being ruled by a person termed as 'The Ruler'. No one knows much else about him, expect that he has powers to do anything he wants. For instance he can even stop time. If he says a day is 'Saturday' it will remain so until he himself relents and changes it (shades of 'The Autumn Of The Patriarch'  by Marquez at times). He can even simulate time. For instance he has exiled his wife to solitary confinement, since she had offended him. What has he done there? The time and the situation in that place is exactly the same as the exact moment when she offended him (i.e) the clock is always at a particular time, the rooms are in the same state, the radio plays the same song etc. The Ruler is now engaged in building the biggest tower in the world a la Tower of Babel.

The main protagonist in the novel is Kamiti. He is an educated by unemployed person from one of the inner villages. During one of his interviews, he meets 'Grace' a woman with whom he strikes up a friendship.  Grace is part of an underground movement which opposes the government. They try to disrupt and cause chaos by letting lose plastic snakes in a meeting and stuff like that. The Ruler wants all snakes to be banned from the country :). Slowly Kamiti gets involved with it. One day, he and Grace are being chased by government officials. Both are disguised as beggars and run from the officials. To escape, they enter an uninhabited house and take refuge there. Kamiti hangs a sign at the front of the house that says 'Warning! This property belongs to a wizard whose power brings down hawks and crows from the sky. Touch this house at your peril. Sgd. Wizard of the Crow.". This is where the novel actually starts to kick off. The government officials and other people who see this sign take it seriously and start coming to Kamiti to solve their problems. Ministers come so that they can succeed over the other ministers, business men come so that they can top their competitors, ordinary persons come for their day to day problems. For Kamiti it becomes a case of catching a tiger by the tail, he cannot let go of it and whatever solution he gives somehow seems to click and he becomes very famous. Enormous queues start to line up outside his place. 
Kamiti has unwittingly started something that he cannot control and that which has taken a life of its own.

This sprawling novel cannot be summarized more since it would spoil the ending, but suffice to say that it has lots of twists and turns, caustic political commentary on nearly all its pages. We get an idea of the dysfunctional way in which the country is operating as we read through the novel. For e.g. there is a'Help Needed' sign put up in front of an office. Due to unemployment, people start lining up before it, after sometime, people start standing in it without even knowing that that line is for. It becomes such a huge line that it's end cannot be seen. People get lost while trying to search for it. The government instead of just dispersing the line, puts forth a news item saying that the queue is a sign of support for the Ruler. The underground movement then hijacks the idea, but organizing protests where people stand in queue to decry the government. The Ruler then banks 'queues' everywhere, which as we can infer causes a lot of problems. There cannot be queues for buses, stalls etc. People have to be standing in random and when a bus comes they just have to get into it as quickly as possible. 

Ngugi wa Thiong'o has suffered a lot at the hands of the government and has been writing against all odds. His novel T'he Devil on the Cross' was written in toilet paper while in prison. When he and his wife came back to Kenya some years ago after their exile, his wife was sexually assaulted by some unidentified persons, ostensibly at the orders of the government. With so much suffering, it would be perfectly normal if a person turns cynical. But no,  Ngugi wa Thiong'o has not become fully cynical, he has not lost his sense of humor, Wizard Of the Crow has a lot of dark humor, but is never heavy, cynical or gives an impression of being world weary.  It is almost as if all his suffering and pain has been channelled into this terrible, funny farce for all ages. For that alone Ngugi wa Thiong'o deserves the greatest respect. In a world where a lot of writers live in pretty comfortable conditions, in a fairly democratic set up and decry their governments, here is a man who has faced the utmost adversity and has always held his head high, always fighting against it.  If you come across his books, don't hesitate buy it.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o was one of the contenders for this year's Nobel prize along with Mario Vargas Losa and Cormac McCarthy. All there were deserving candidates, but Mario won this year. Well, here's hoping that Ngugi wa Thiong'o wins it in the future and reaches a far wider audience. His life and his works deserve a much wider appreciation.

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