Welcome to Aburiria: a fabled postcolonial African nation where an ailing, aging, autocrat reigns supreme, where mansions and luxury cars nestle next to shanty towns and donkey carts, and where the desperation of the people is seen in their endless search for food, jobs, and freedom.
Firmly entrenched in the African allegorical tradition and magical realism, Wizard of the Crow, by exiled Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o, presents readers with images of Africa they may feel they already know too well: the hungry bodies and even hungrier souls of the people, and a government characterized by corruption, greed, and an absurdly deified leader.
But Thiong'o doesn't deal in mere stereotypes. "Wizard of the Crow" is rich in metaphor, symbolism, and biblical allusion, and Thiong'o employs his razor-sharp wit throughout the book to contrast two parallel worlds – that of the powerful and that of the powerless.
The Ruler is surrounded by both self-adulation and the sycophancy of his ministerial toadies, who are so intent on winning his favor that they have traveled to various Western European capitals to surgically alter their eyes and ears to better serve "his excellency." (The implication of messy, post-colonial, Western entanglements, shouldn't be lost on readers.)
The Ruler embraces the plan of these ministers to construct a modern day Tower of Babel and even hopes that it will be bankrolled by the Global Bank. "Aburiria would now do what the Israelites could not do." It's absurd, of course, but it's also a biting indictment of the real-life forces that allow such government excesses to continue unimpeded.
But the Ruler's power isn't entirely unchecked. Although he does have the authority to change the national calendar at will or decimate entire villages, the Ruler's position remains a precarious one. Thiong'o is quick to remind readers of the lingering "sword of Damocles" that hangs perilously over the tyrant's reign.
Thiong'o also deftly sketches the strengths and weaknesses of the Aburirian people, assigning power to a few individuals who are brave enough to work toward a new nation.
The richness of "Wizard in the Crow" is best displayed in the stories of Kamiti and Nyawira and the power of their love for each other. Kamiti is a well-educated young Aburirian who becomes disillusioned when his long search for a job turns up fruitless. Nyawira is the consummate symbol of the powerful woman and an important figure in the rebel group "The Movement for the Voice of the People," which is concerned with reform.
It is through their chance meeting that Kamiti finds himself acting the part of the "Wizard of the Crow," a mythical sorcerer to whom the people flock to rid themselves of their enemies. In Kamiti's earnestness, the "magic" that his alter ego possesses becomes accessible and entirely humane.
The novel reaches new heights of absurdity when the Ruler travels to New York to personally petition the Global Bank to fund his tower ("Marching to Heaven") even as a coup d'état brews at home.
When things don't work out as planned, the Ruler is forced to turn to the "Wizard," considered to be an enemy of the state. This is only the beginning of a turn of events that will alter the Aburiran landscape forever.
Thiong'o wields symbolism as his weapon of choice, using it to bring a searing indictment against the Ruler, who represents a composite type of the bloody, tyrannical African leader.
But Thiong'o's work isn't simply about Africa. It's also about similar autocratic leaders from around the world, as well as the local and global frameworks that allow for their existence.
Despite the magically imbued story line, "Wizard of the Crow" deals in reality across the spectrum, touching on everything from the scourge of AIDS to poverty to the "white-ache" that black Africans suffer when they long to be more European. In doing so, Thiong'o manages to endow the imaginary Aburiria with a certain degree of stark realism.
Thiong'o's aim "to sum up Africa of the twentieth century in the context of two thousand years of world history" is an ambitious one, evidenced by the heft of this 700-plus page book. "Wizard of the Crow" is not an easy read. But the comically absurd underpinnings and constantly shifting story lines offer relief.
The novel ends on an ambiguous note. The solution creates an entirely different problem, and the reader is left with the image of the nation's people in "queues without end," their basic needs still unmet.
We are left to wonder how long the people of Aburiria must wait.
• Elizabeth Owuor was an intern at the Monitor this summer.