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
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 Red Book 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
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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

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Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

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The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

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Time's Arrow

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The Foundation Trilogy

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I, Robot

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The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

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The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

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The Crystal World

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The Drowned World

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Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

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Giles Goat-Boy

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The Demolished Man

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The Complete Short Stories

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A Case of Conscience

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Dandelion Wine

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Fahrenheit 451

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The Illustrated Man

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The Martian Chronicles

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Something Wicked This Way Comes

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The View from the Seventh Layer

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World War Z

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The Master and Margarita

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Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

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Demons by Daylight

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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

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A Fall of Moondust

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2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

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Ready Player One

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Jurassic Park

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Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

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.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

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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

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

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

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

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Stranger in a Strange Land

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Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

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

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Off Season

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Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

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The Orange Eats Creeps

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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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

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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

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.

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

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Wittgenstein's Mistress

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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

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Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
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Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

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Noon, Jeff

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

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

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

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

Stross, Charles

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.

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

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

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

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

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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

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