In 1977, Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o embarked on a bold new approach to African theater, staging a play about village life that allowed for improvisation and audience participation. His goal was to demystify the artistic process and create a fluid work that broke down barriers between performer and onlooker—an approach both experimental but also embracing the communal creativity of traditional African culture. The play, entitled Ngaahika Ndeenda, made its debut on October 2, 1977 in the author's home town Kamirithu at an open-air theater constructed by the performers themselves. From the start, it enjoyed a great success. Even people from distant villages flocked to the theater, hiring buses and other vehicles when necessary. Lines from the play entered the common parlance.
The success was short-lived. The Kenyan government shut down Ngaahika Ndeenda on November 16, less than two months after its premiere. Six weeks later, on the last day of 2017, a caravan of police cars and Land Rovers pulled into the author’s yard in the middle of the night. A cadre of armed men brandishing rifles, pistols and machine guns stormed Ngũgĩ’s home, searching his library for subversive literature, and taking him off to jail—only for questioning, he was told. He wasn’t under official arrest.
In fact, Ngũgĩ was never formally arrested. He wasn’t tried or convicted, and no formal charges were ever filed against him. But he was imprisoned for more than a year—a "preventative detention" in response to his growing reputation as a critic of the Kenyan government. This neo-colonial kleptocracy, he claimed, adopted a pose of liberators while perpetuating a system of oppression and disenfranchisement of the populace.
While in prison, Ngũgĩ started keeping a diary composed on toilet paper—the only writing material available to him—and also completed his political novel Devil on the Cross. Although he had started his career writing in English under the name James Ngugi, he now composed his works in his native Gikuyu tongue, spoken by around seven million Kenyans, and under a traditional name in that language (which means Ngũgĩ son of Thiong'o).
Amnesty International publicized the illegal detainment of Ngũgĩ, and played a key role in securing his release. He left Kenya and remade his life as an exile in the United States. But in a way, he turned into an even more loyal advocate of his native land in his new setting. He continued writing in Gikuyu, and if that had been problematic in Kenya, as an American author it seemed guaranteed to assure marginalization and obscurity for his work. He wrote about African politics and culture, and spent two decades on his most ambitious work of fiction, a 800-page novel entitled Wizard of the Crow, finally published in 2006 when Ngũgĩ was 68-years-old. Although he wrote the book in Gikuyu, he also translated it into English.
The novel is set in the Free Republic of Aburĩria, a thinly-disguised version of Kenya during the period of his imprisonment. In the opening pages, an amazing government project is announced on the occasion of the Ruler’s birthday. Aburĩria is launching the Heavenscrape program, or Marching to Heaven as it is informally called—a construction project based on the Biblical Tower of Babel. The resulting edifice aims to reach to the heavens, and allow the Ruler to converse directly with God.
What remarkable benefits for Aburĩria! The country can only prosper when the Ruler has the ear of God at his disposal on a daily basis. Alas, technology causes as many problems as it solves. How will the Ruler ascend to the top of such a larger tower? Walking up stairs will exhaust him, and even an elevator will take far too much time to travel such a great height. Fortunately a sycophantic minister has a solution: Aburĩria will build a personal space ship that the Ruler can pilot to reach the heavenly heights!
As such details indicate, we have quickly entered into the realm of the absurd in this political novel. But such absurdity requires no fanciful plans of towers and spaceships to make itself manifest. Dictatorships always embrace absurdity at every opportunity, even in something as simple as the everyday use of language. The Free Republic of Aburĩria is neither free nor a republic, and its very name is an assertion of a myth. Later in the book the Ruler announces a new kind of democracy in which he is the head of every party. By the same token, crooks are appointed as upholders of the law, and their very criminality praised as a virtue. And at another juncture in the novel, enemies of the state who are already declared dead are put on trial and executed a second time in absentia. I suspect that Ngũgĩ’s experience with a detainment that wasn't an official arrest has made him more sensitive than most to such linguistic paradoxes in the life of authoritarian regimes.
Perhaps this is why magical realism is such an effective platform for political discourse. It reaches into the essence of abusive governments, which are based in every case on an imposed fantasy, on a subjugation of the real in favor of the ruler’s imagination. In the world of Wizard of the Crow, there really isn’t much difference between the lies published everyday in the newspapers and the attempt to build a Tower of Babel. In fact, what could serve as a better symbol of the distortions of politicians’ doublespeak than the Biblical story of an overreaching so great that God acts to “confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech” (Genesis 11:7).
In the midst of this turmoil, a mysterious figure arises, a sorcerer known as the Wizard of the Crow. He originally takes on this identity as a subterfuge to avoid arrest under his real name Kamiti wa Karimiri. He previously struggled as an unsuccessful job seeker reduced to beggary, but in his new guise gradually gains acclaim as one of the most powerful and respected people in the country. But it isn’t all a fraud. The Wizard of the Crow discovers, even to his own surprise, that he has genuine shamanistic powers. He can cure ailments, predict the future, and even transfer his spirit to the body of bird.
He sets up a shrine where he is assisted by Nyawira, a leader of an underground movement seeking reforms and stirring up political unrest. They are an odd couple: Kamiti believes in individual transformation through spirituality while Nyawira aims for widespread social change through group action. But this is perhaps precisely the kind of marriage required to transform Aburĩria. Over the course of the novel, the two rebels move closer together, both ideologically and emotionally, and manage to shake the foundations of the regime.
Much of the novel is given over to political intrigue, and Ngũgĩ shows endless enthusiasm in charting the rise and fall of various ministers and hangers-on. I suspect that a reader with more granular knowledge of Kenyan political history would get greater satisfaction out of these subplots. This is the one area of the novel that could have been trimmed down to good effect, in my opinion. But the deeper message is clear: In a regime built on backstabbing and abuse of power, those who rise to the top turn into targets for others even more ruthless. It’s survival of the fittest, but in a kind of reverse evolution where the worst traits and actions prevail.
Yet there is poetic justice here. Almost every minister and sycophant gets arrested and brutalized or denounced at some point in this book. Many simply suffer the fate of SID—a newspaper acronym for “Self Imposed Disappearance,” an increasingly useful euphemism used to describe vanishing office holders. Those passages must have been very satisfying for Ngũgĩ to write. He gets to put the oppressor in a prison cell or interrogation chair, where they find out firsthand what “preventative detention” is all about.
It’s interesting how many of the great magical realism novels are about national rebirth.That’s certainly the case with the three defining works of the genre: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o achieves something similar in these pages, paradoxically proving that the more outlandish he makes his story, the more deeply it deconstructs the homegrown absurdities of Kenyan politics.
As such Wizard of the Crow reminds us that fantasy is not just a storytelling device but a tool of oppression—indeed, what are works such as Mein Kampf or the Little Red Book if not projects of anti-realism?—while writing that exposes the fantasy is a powerful first step toward constraining its abuses. That’s the kind of book he delivers in Wizard of the Crow, a book of magic that undermines the fantasy. That too may be a paradox, but finally one that sets matters aright.
Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books. His most recent book is How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).
Ted Gioia is publishing essays on his 50 favorite works of non-realist fiction released since 2000. Featured books will include works of magical realism, alternative history, sci-fi, horror, and fantasy, as well as mainstream literary fiction that pushes boundaries and challenges conventional notions of verisimilitude.