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 Read Books 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).



Publication date: October 8, 2017
Check out our sister sites:

The New Canon
Great literary works
published since 1985

Great Books Guide
Reviews of current books

Postmodern Mystery
Experimental works of mystery &
suspense

Fractious Fiction
Radical, unconventional and
experimental fiction
Wizard of the Crow

by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Essay by Ted Gioia
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.

Click here for the other titles
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.
Fledgling

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gardner, John
Grendel

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady
Horrorstör

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel
Submission

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen
Carrie

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.
Tales

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram
Dracula

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Yamada, Taichi
Strangers

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List



Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

_____


SF Site
io9
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog


Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction
and its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials from
publishers, authors,  publicists or other
parties.

All rights reserved