In writing the novel, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o drew on traditional African storytelling methods, and the mixture of these with contemporary concerns was one of the most fascinating things about it. Even though I’m not familiar with the techniques, it was still possible to sense the underlying rhythms and patterns of the story. However, the setting is the modern day, in a post-Soviet globalised world. The attempt to show the inner workings of a 21st century dictatorship, using traditional techniques, made the book a unique reading experience.
Key to the book’s success are its characters. All the major players of the narrative have strongly defined personalities, and these are what drive the plot. While there are elements of caricature to figures such as the Ruler, his ministers, and the many others involved the story, they are still believably flawed and human, with their own idiosyncrasies and foibles. They’re memorable and interesting, and stay with you after the book is finished.
Wizard of the Crow is above all else a farce. The idea is not just to criticise authoritarianism, but to mock it. This is a laudable goal, since tyrannical regimes rely on fear to sustain them, and are threatened when not taken seriously. The comedy in the book pokes fun at the nonsensical logic behind dictatorships, and their self-contradictory nature. Misunderstandings and miscommunications are rife in Wizard of the Crow, and nobody in the book really understands what anyone else doing. It reminded of the 2017 film The Death of Stalin, which does a similar job of taking potshots at authoritarianism.
It doesn’t surprise me that Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o has long been seen as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Wizard of the Crow is a work by a master at the top of his game, comparable in scale to War and Peace and Les Misérables. African literature has long struggled to be recognised as equivalent to European or American, and Wizard of the Crow absolutely makes the case that it does. Ngũgĩ’s stated goal was ‘to sum up Africa of the 20th century in the context of 2,000 years of world history’, and it achieves that aim and then some. It’s a masterpiece, and deserves to be much more widely read.
Review by Charlie Alcock