It’s been a while since I’ve gotten myself completely absorbed in a good long book. Right now I’m two-thirds of the way through The Wizard of the Crow by the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and it is absolutely spellbinding.
It’s a mature novel. Ngũgĩ developed his writer’s talent as James Ngugi, writing in the 1960s in English– books about the colonial encounter, independence, first-generation stuff. A Grain of Wheat was a fine and nuanced novel, with complex and sympathetic but broken characters. When you think of classic postcolonial lit, you think of A Grain of Wheat.
Then he started to get very political, changed his name back to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and wrote a sprawling, magical epic called Petals of Blood which was bizarre and compelling and polemic. The characters of this novel felt like caricatures– they existed to make a point about the tragedies of neocolonial politics.
Ngũgĩ was arrested for that book, and while in prison he renounced writing in English and began to compose– on toilet paper– the first ever novel written in Gĩkũyũ. Caitaani mũtharaba-Inĩ was a magical and bloody farce, polemic and fantastic and poetic. I read the author’s English translation, Devil on the Cross.
Then Ngũgĩ was released from prison and went into exile, teaching at universities in the United States. He published his second Gĩkũyũ novel, Matigari, with another author’s translation. This re-telling of a Gĩkũyũ epic was again a magical farce with flat characters.
Twenty years later, Ngũgĩ has published his third novel in Gĩkũyũ, whose English translation is called Wizard of the Crow. It is brilliant. Its characters are as rich, sympathetic and complex as those in Petals of Blood, but its polemics, magic, and allegory is even fuller than that of the previous Gĩkũyũ novels. It’s a really, really good story. It’s about twenty-first century Africa with all her disillusionment and farce. Read it.