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Friday, August 18, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"Wizard of the Crow": Rooted in reality, steeped in the supernatural

Special to The Seattle Times

"Wizard of the Crow"
by Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Pantheon, 768 pp., $30

The Ruler of Aburiria, a fictitious East African nation mired in poverty and corruption, seeks funding for the planet's next superwonder — "Heavenscrape or simply Marching to Heaven," the world's tallest building, from whose top story he hopes to commune face-to-face with God.

The dictator, whose name is unknown, surrounds himself with pandering ministers, one whose greatly elongated tongue echoes the Ruler's threats and commands, another whose massive ears hear any dissent from the people, and a third whose huge eyes spy upon suspected dissidents. These sycophants compete for control of the construction project, since it promises ample opportunities for profit-skimming, graft and palm-greasing.

Not that every Aburirian embraces "Marching to Heaven." Most citizens only pretend to support the project while going about their exploited, impoverished lives, grumbling under their breaths, fearing the Ruler's sadistic reprisals. A few idealistic naifs work secretively against the dictator's regime.

By now, a reader with even minimal knowledge of East African politics appreciates author Ngugi wa Thiong'o's often phantasmagoric dark humor as he lampoons life and politics in post-British colonial Kenya.

Author appearances

NGUGI WA THIONG'O will be interviewed on stage, along with Ashok Mathur, by Charles Tonderai Mudede at 12:30 p.m. Sept. 3 at Bumbershoot, Alki Room, Seattle Center (www.bumbershoot.org).

He will speak at 7 p.m. Nov. 8 at the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas, Pigott Auditorium, Seattle University, 900 Broadway, Seattle; $5 (206-323-4032 or www.cdforum.org).

John Updike, in a recent issue of The New Yorker, provided some background on Ngugi. Born in 1938 in Kenya into a Gikuyu family, educated in Uganda and at Leeds in England, Ngugi published his first novel in 1964 and subsequently became involved in his home village's community theater, writing plays in the Gikuyu language.

In 1977, Ngugi published "Petals of Blood," a transparent indictment of Kenya's contemporary government. That same year his theater was razed by the authorities and Ngugi himself was imprisoned in a maximum-security facility without charges by Daniel arap Moi (then vice president, later president of Kenya).

In 1982 Ngugi was stripped of his post at Nairobi University and went into exile, first in London, then California, where today he is a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine. His attempt to return to post-arap Moi Kenya in 2004 resulted in a brutal attack on him and his wife.

His rough encounters with dictatorial power are mirrored in grotesque fashion throughout "Wizard of the Crow," which he wrote first in Gikuyu before translating it into English. Indeed, the title character, initially introduced to readers as a starving, unemployed university graduate, might be his alter-ego.

Kamiti wa Karimiri, when we meet him, is asleep in a garbage truck, about to be compacted with its load. Making his escape, Kamiti continues to look for work and, through a series of misunderstandings, is mistaken for a wizard.

Soon his reputation spreads. People seeking to crush their enemies or gain favors from the Ruler flock to the "Wizard of the Crow." Because his sorcery succeeds, great sacks of money pile up around Kamiti.

Meanwhile the Ruler, in New York to seek funding for his super project, finds his body inexplicably expanding at an alarming rate. He also starts emitting a foul "stench." The Wizard is summoned to treat him — and things just get more surreal from there.

Heavily infused with biblical symbolism, rife with mysticism and sorcery, and peopled by shape-shifting characters, "Wizard of the Crow" — in brilliant jabberwocky and fantastical imagery — takes on all neocolonial corruption, whether African, Asian, or Latin American.

Where colonialism once ruled, after all, its remnants inspire imitation by former slaves and lackeys who recall how they once envied their rulers. No moral attaches itself to this novel's loosely woven tale — only timeless wisdom gained by following each of its characters' journeys.

Why should a reader invest in "Wizard of the Crow's" nearly 800-page bulk? Simply because this novel is a literary masterpiece, woven in the rich nuance of Africa's oral tradition, as real as spilt blood, a mythical dance of great power.

Skye K. Moody's new book, "Washed Up: The Curious Journeys of Flotsam and Jetsam," will be published by Sasquatch Books next month.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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