Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 796
At nearly one thousand pages, Wizard of the Crow is a massive work. Writing since the 1960’s, Ngugi wa Thiong’o has always been concerned with the politics of his native Kenya. It would be impossible to discuss the relevance and structure of the novel without understanding first the background of its author. Imprisoned for a year in 1977 for his involvement in the Gikuyu-language play Ngaahika Ndeenda (pr. 1977, pb. 1980; with Ngugi wa Mirii; I Will Marry When I Want, 1982), Ngugi was able to escape further persecution, and perhaps even execution by the Moi government, only by choosing exile in the West. This exile has proven to be a hindrance to him as a Kenyan trying to affect Kenyan politics, yet it has also given him visibility as an African writer in the West. Ngugi’s interest in issues of dominant and dominated languages has its roots in the postcolonial histories of Kenya and other African nations. Ngugi has contributed much to the writing on colonialism and language.
Unlike Ngugi’s other novels, Wizard of the Crow portrays not Kenya but a fictional African country. In the vein of oral literature, Wizard of the Crow weaves together several different stories and characters that may seem unrelated but in the end create a much larger and more vibrant picture. The main plot is often interrupted by stories-within-the-story, tales, and rumors passed between villagers, all of which serve to mimic the feel of African orality. In addition, Ngugi provides allusions to his own work, including direct references to his novel Caitaani Mtharaba-In (1980; Devil on the Cross, 1982). It can be conjectured that the story he begins in Devil on the Cross, of a Kenya mired in the desire for capitalist trappings, is one he finishes with Wizard of the Crow, which features a country indistinguishable from any other postcolonial country in Africa—complete with incessant corruption leading to starvation and one leader just as irresponsible as the next.
The characters of Kamt and Nyawra are two representations of the “native intellectual” described in Frantz Fanon’s Les Damnés de la terre (1961; The Damned, 1963; better known as The Wretched of the Earth, 1965). Ngugi, who has been influenced by Fanon’s writing, has crafted characters that embody the Marxist fundamentals necessary to overthrow a stalwart regime. Educated and culturally proud, Kamt and Nyawra are also young enough to be optimistic but experienced enough to know that their struggle is one that has been fought for generations. Also important is Ngugi’s choice of a woman as the main hero. Nyawra shares the role of sorcerer with Kamt; it is her home that he uses as his shrine, and it is she who leads the Movement for the Voice of the People by organizing demonstrations. Ngugi’s usage of a woman as the leader of a freedom movement underscores the important role women have always played as revolutionaries, especially in Mau Mau-era Kenya.
Ngugi utilizes emotional imagery to depict another theme common in African postcolonial literature, a theme he refers to as “white-ache.” Ngugi has coined this term to designate the desire not merely to possess what a rich white person possesses but actually to be white—to become the symbol of the power and dignity that white colonizers long denied to Africans. The Ruler experiences white-ache to such a degree that he physically blows up like a balloon, in a satirical nod to the innumerable African postcolonial dictators (such as Robert Mugabe, Daniel Arap Moi, and Charles Taylor) who no doubt provided Ngugi with his inspiration. Tajirika, who has the benefit of being aware of his own white-ache, could choose to take the road of Kamt and Nyawra and become a freedom fighter. Instead, at the last minute he reverts to his white-ache and becomes a mutant. Self-mutilated to the point of grotesquerie, Tajirika betrays himself and his country. The further symbolism of the tree that grows dollars that are eaten by white grubs shows Ngugi’s belief in the ephemeral nature of capitalism, which ingests what is produced and still remains unsated.
Wizard of the Crow appropriates a phrase from Ngugi’s earlier Devil on the Cross. The latter work’s “The nation is pregnant; what it will give birth to, no one knows” becomes the former’s “The Ruler is pregnant; what he will give birth to, no one knows.” The country hopes to rid itself of its leader, only to find that the new leader is equally incompetent and greedy. The unfortunate truth, as Ngugi knows, is that neocolonialism is one stage in the long and arduous process of moving from colonialism to modernity. In the end, the characters maintain their resolve, as do ordinary citizens all over Africa, that one day freedom and democracy will take root.