Wednesday, March 2

Considering Ngugi wa Thiong'o's "Wizard of the Crow"

We have an obsession with villains. Victorian readers turned Satan into the hero of Paradise Lost. Grendel and Sauron became the protagonists of their own novels by John Gardner and Yisroel Markov. Darth Vader is the most enduring character in Star Wars, and Heath Ledger won his Oscar as the Joker, while no one paid any attention to Christian Bale or Gary Oldman. For the kids, this summer saw the release of Despicable Me and Megamind whose protagonists respectively planned on stealing the moon and defeated Metro Man.

Maybe it has something to do with Tolstoy's line that all happy families are happy in the same way while the unhappy are miserable each in their own way. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that villains are active. They rob banks, kidnap presidents and threaten cities while the heroes passively react to them. Maybe we all just want to be villains and be free law and morality to do whatever we will. I don't know.

In any case, the trend continues in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow. The villains are the best part of the novel. When the story followed the Ruler and his plans for Marching to Heaven, a project to rival the Tower of Babel in size and ambition, and the power plays of his ministers Machokali and Sikiokuu, the story rollicked. When the story followed Kamiti and Nyawira as they healed peoples' souls and advocated for equal rights for women and against the dictatorship in Aburiria, a thinly disguised Kenya, the story collapsed.

The problem is that you already know Kamiti and Nyawira. There is no mystery to what they will do. They are prophets with ideas heavily inspired by Buddhism. Without guile, they treat everyone who asks for their help. They lack conflict and bore.

The Ruler and his lackies, however, you never know what they'll do, who they'll double cross, from whom they'll beg forgiveness. Tajirika takes over an entire prison with the bucket he used as a toilet for a week and cows all of his guards by telling them he has the death virus. Machokali has surgery to expand his eyes to the size of light bulbs in order to see the Ruler's enemies no matter how far they run, and Sikiokuu takes ears the size of a rabbit's to hear the most private of conversations regarding the Ruler. Urged by the Global Bank to turn Aburiria into a multi-party democracy before they will release the loans necessary to fund Marching to Heaven, the Ruler gives birth to Baby D and makes himself the titular head of all parties.

In a masterstroke, Ngugi does not make these villains implacable opponents on the level of Lex Luthor or Archie Costello. Rather, they have more in common with the Shredder and Cobra Commander of the 1980's cartoons. Their insanity only serves to mask their gross incompetency. Ambition paves the fastest path to the crocodiles of the Red River. Sycophancy and groveling are the keys to success. When lines of people converge in protest in the capital, the Ruler decrees that no more than five people can stand in line together, forgetting that he had earlier dispatched motorcycle riders in every direction of the compass to make lines in support of the government. The Movement for the Voice of the People disrupts the Ruler's birthday with plastic snakes. The ministers overhaul the education system so that the only proper textbooks are those written by the Ruler.

By all rights the government should have collapsed under its own weight long ago, but it has had support in the West. The Ruler came to power by slaughtering some seven thousand suspected Communists during the Cold War, and now, when times have changed, the West is pleased with the slightest movements toward democracy. A complete lack of understanding of Aburiria and its people only complicates the problem. In one of the best scenes, women protesters disguised as tribal dancers and official entertainment for the Ruler and representatives of the Global Bank moon their audience and proceed to defecate all over. The Global Bank men want to laugh but see the stony expression of the Ruler and become convinced it is actually a very solemn dance.

In this, Ngugi draws a clear picture of the ills that continue to afflict far too much of sub-Saharan Africa. His ambitions to prescribe remedies are not as effective, but what he offers us is enough.

I read another of Ngugi's books, Petals of Blood. You can read my thoughts on it here.

No comments: