Carlton Barrett Reviews Ngugi Wa Thiong’O

Hi, book lovers, how have you been? Hope you all enjoyed last week’s book review @ Terra. For those who couldn’t make it, not to worry, the next one is on September 4, 2010. So, watch out! 

Carlton Lindsay Barrett, poet, novelist, essayist and playwright did a review of Farafina title, Wizard of the Crow written by Ngugi wa Thiong’O. In this review, Lindsay shed light on Ngugi’s thematic preoccupations and why he uses an effective tool; satire, to reflect the African situation. Ngugi also expounded on his theory of the relevance of literary production in the original languages of Africa. Enjoy!

 

A FINELY TUNED FANTASY EXPOSING CHILLING REALITIES OF AFRICAN POLITICS

When Ngugi wa Thiong’O, Kenya’s most distinguished novelist, appeared at the Garden City Literary Festival in Port Harcourt, Nigeria in September 2009, his masterly and impassioned advocacy of literary expression in the traditional languages of Africa became the hallmark of his participation. Unfortunately, it is reasonably certain that most of the youthful Nigerian audience that listened to him there had not read his masterpiece Wizard of the Crow, itself originally written in his native Gikuyu language, at that time.  If they had, the wisdom and courage of his views on this subject might have resonated with greater relevance to the political circumstances that have existed and continue to exist in their own society.   This is a work that can genuinely be described as a tour de force. Apart from its substantial length and the prodigious feats of both linguistic dexterity and imaginative fertility displayed by Ngugi in the course of telling his incredible tale, the book is simply a most impressive example of pure African storytelling. Although it is a complex satire on the exigencies of confusion and dictatorial ignorance that has bedevilled governance in many African nations of the post-colonial era, it is more than anything else a cracking adventure story as well as a fantastic psychological thriller. Ngugi has managed to compose a believable tale out of the antics and presumptions of a most unbelievable set of characters. He keeps his readers enthralled through the credible emotional resemblance of the situations that he weaves to events in the contemporary history of several African nations.

This portrait of a nation whose leader is an overbearing patriarch can fit several African nations in every sub-region of the continent, but there is hardly any doubt that Kenya of the immediate post independence period of the sixties and seventies, and maybe its neighbour Uganda in the same era, served as models for the country of Aburiria. The portrayal of incredible brutality disguised as buffoonery that characterises not only The Ruler but also his entourage of sycophantic followers brings back haunting memories of Idi Amin’s Uganda.  At the same time, the use of mythical structures to move the tale forward suggests that Ngugi is telling a tale that is both universal and local thus indicating that his own experience of oppression in his home nation is the fundamental source of the narrative. The most profound element of this rollicking and farcical romp is neither its humour nor its challenging imaginative fertility, but its accuracy in analysing governance as a betrayal of the trust of the ordinary people in modern African society. In this wise, the novel is one of the most important creative experiments to have arisen out of the maelstrom of creative responses to African independence. It is both a cautionary tale and a critical masterpiece of literary adventure. In some ways, while it can be read as a straightforward fantasy of Swiftian intensity, it should also be regarded as an accurate depiction of the modern reality of many African nations. When it is read in this spirit, the book becomes not just an exciting story but also a frightening reflection of a catalogue of uncomfortable truths.

Opening with a prismatic section of short chapters suggesting that The Ruler has already disappeared, the novel immediately informs the readers that it will be a history of tragedy and disaster and that the tales they will be told are meant to explain the unexplainable. This device serves to whet the appetite of any reader who is likely to be attracted to good storytelling in the way that a narrator of oral myths and legends might have entranced his or her audience at the beginning of a performance in the pre-literate past. As the tale progresses, the reader is drawn into a world of incredulous fantasy even while being regaled with reports of impeccably detailed realism. The definition of political objectivity in Aburirian society is supposed to be selfless loyalty to the dreams and desires of The Ruler. This is symbolised by an almost suicidal self-enslavement on the part of members of the ruling cabinet. Some Ministers have become so enslaved both mentally and physically that they engage in self mutilation to display the extent of their loyalty. One Minister has had his ears enlarged to serve as the listening post for The Ruler while another has had his tongue stretched to enable him splatter the platitudes and clichés that represent the ruler’s thoughts throughout the nation. These are only two of scores of such satirical characters deployed by the author to illustrate the endemic sycophancy of authoritarian rule, but in the overall work the key figure is not one of the followers but rather one who by simply being himself symbolises resistance to such improbable submissiveness, the Wizard of the Crow.

Kamiti, the Wizard of the Crow, must rank as one of the most interesting central characters of world literature if only because he is portrayed as a reluctant and almost unconscious hero. He did not set out to antagonise or oppose the system. The central prognosis of the story is that by regarding the true course of life as the need to relate to his fellow human beings with compassion and honesty, he became not only the most beloved member of society but also the most intransigent enemy of the state. Ironically, Kamiti did not know or understand his power as a cathartic advocate and mobiliser of resistance when he commenced pretending to have powers of prophecy and divination. He was actually making fun of the state’s attempt to suppress his will when he threatened to unleash his supernatural wrath on the security apparatus. The author’s finest achievement is that he is able to turn this improbable circumstance into a believable challenge to authority. In doing so, he tells the story of the implosion of authoritarian excess in a credible and exciting modern novel while paying homage to age-old traditional values. The work utilises the fundamental principles of traditional narrative exposition in a fresh and dynamic manner and provides a unifying theme between the content and the method of its creation. As a consequence, the underlying theme of the battle for moral regeneration under the siege of official greed and corruption is delivered with a powerful tone of voice.

This work is a stylistic as well as an intellectual triumph. The fact that it has been translated from the original Gikuyu by the author himself might explain the adventurous use of the English language. His early novels like Weep Not Child and A Grain of Wheat displayed a sense of pastoral poesy that is not as evident in the overall pattern of narration in this work. There are, however, some unique passages in which the description of the lives and thoughts of the masses is detailed with a passion and strength of imagery that is remarkable.  In such passages, his use of the English language reads not like a translation but rather like a direct expression of experience narrated without the detachment of the translator. In such moments, this book becomes a diary of pain and disenchantment that is so intensely realised that it takes on the guise of several different genres of literary endeavour. Some sections read like science fiction while others resemble nothing so much as a retelling of ancient myths. At the core of this passionate work, there is also a deep attachment to the belief that the human spirit can be transformed into a superhuman, not to say supernatural, force when confronted with tyranny. As this element is developed throughout the narrative, the modern tale is suffused with a mytho-poetic strength that is unique in African literature of the last five decades. For this reason if for no other Wizard of the Crow should be compulsory reading for all students of modern literature as well as for anyone who enjoys reading good fiction for either pleasure or enlightenment.   

The most impressive strength of this work might very well be in the way that it examines the role and relevance assigned to women in modern African society. One of the underlying themes of the tale is the role assigned to male dominance in modern African communities and the attendant folly that this engenders. The assumption on the part of the dominant men that women by their sexual provenance are less than first class citizens proves to be the undoing of scores of presumptuous so-called leaders of society and this device also provides the foundation for some of the most hilarious and devastatingly satirical events in the tale. Ngugi has an incredible sense of the absurd and it is deployed to maximum effect in his examination of the sexual divide. His depiction of the harmony of sexual compassion between characters who have overcome the folly of gender-based chauvinism by confronting and overcoming their own false presumptions is remarkable. This adds weight to the resolution of the tale as it draws to an inevitably moralistic conclusion and the protagonist is shown to be almost dependent on his female mentor, Nyawira. In fact, by the end of this work, it is clear that the real heroes are the heroines and Nyawira is in many ways an even more fully realised creation as the symbol of the resistance to tyranny than is Kamiti himself. The finely tuned use of fantasy as the basis for challenging the conventions of the African political space that suffuses this work cannot be defined as a vehicle for any single message or theme. It is a diverse and prolific outpouring of love and disenchantment that exposes the most chilling realities of Africa’s post-colonial experience in a cathartic but ultimately redemptive expression of self-analysis.

The novel is replete with examples of Ngugi’s courageous intellectual opinions about the way government business is conducted in Africa and the bold and irrepressible candour of his perception of social issues. These are qualities for which he paid an enormous price in the past. This book does not relent in reiterating his convictions however and in some ways he seems to have been reinforced in his determination to expose the rot in officialdom as well as in conventional society by having experienced the most brutal abuse and torture that a government could mete out to its antagonists. In particular, this work examines the predilection for fundamentalist fanaticism that has become prevalent in so many African nations as they grapple with the legacy of colonial religions. The effort made by the new middle class elite to justify the adherence to alien myths by claiming to find traditional mystic relevance in their teachings is satirised effectively throughout the novel. But it is in the final pages that this theme comes into its own as he brings the entire charade to a fitting climax. His accurate portrayal of the proliferation of sects and cults parading as representatives of the spiritual cleansing of the nation while actually perpetrating and intensifying the corruption of the national spirit challenges the reader’s own sense of values. The book is not an easy read but it is an exciting and always facetious pageant of creativity. Anyone who meets the challenge of finishing its more than seven hundred tightly packed pages will be left with the feeling of having not merely witnessed but also been immersed in a life-changing experience.

The aforementioned final pages contain an appropriate twist of fate that all such works must include in order to resonate with the universal themes that the early sections have promised. The disappearance of the iconic tyrant occurs but instead of leading to the liberation of the people, it provides the opportunity for the emergence of more subtle and insidious tyrannies. The moral regeneration that the resistance movement visualises is still a work-in-progress as the novel ends but the twin protagonists Kamiti and Nyawira survive their own confrontation with terminal violence. They seem to symbolise the hope that the challenge of truth will remain a viable process in the nation. Ngugi placed the burden of history and the demands of the popular will on their frail and often beleaguered shoulders throughout the tale. At the end of it, he embarks upon a discourse about the complexities of global betrayal of the will of the simple people and places the challenge of a new order on the frail but resilient scale of their personal love. If there is anything that seems difficult to countenance in this novel strangely enough, it is this profound belief in the strength of simple compassion. Ngugi has made the fantasy at the novel’s core such an arguably realistic portrayal of the world of post-colonial relationships in the Aburirian society that the hope that he continues to promote as the story draws to a close appears to be unrealisable for now.  The overwhelming message is rather that the corrupt political class is a self-perpetuating monster that is almost impossible to defeat.

The suspension of the reader’s belief in the protagonists’ revolutionary prowess at the climax of the tale does not lessen the power of the fable. Instead, the overwhelming impression that we are left with is that in the very process of telling the tale, a miracle of redemption has been achieved. This message is conveyed by a remarkable literary device. The author introduces a narrator who is an insider and an outsider at the same time. A.G. the ex-policeman is portrayed as one who tells the entire story to a rapt audience as an act of repentance for his own role in the perpetuation of tyranny in the past. This consummate storyteller appears and reappears throughout the tale marked by his emphatic exclamation of “haki ya mungu” that seems to be something like saying “As God is my witness”. As the tale ends, it is clear that his determined belief in the powers of redemption and moral regeneration of the unknown is a growing force. Because of this, it appears that the restoration of popular will as the basis for a better future is the key to the hope of the success of any resistance. The novel ends with a simple expression of the reaffirmation of this hope as the protagonists pass the unlikely storyteller telling his tale to a rapt crowd and silently wish him well while mentally thanking him for rescuing them from death. This sentiment is appropriate to the reader’s gratitude to Ngugi himself for his courage and prowess in creating such an incredible masterpiece out of what must have been an unforgettably traumatic experience.

Jamaican/Nigerian author, photo-journalist and broadcaster, Lindsay Barrett lives in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. 

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