Thursday, February 08, 2007

Read this: new Ngugi

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s new novel The Wizard of the Crow is this quarter’s READ THIS selection from the LBC. I was a little sorry that my nominee, the wonderful Seven Loves by Valerie Trueblood didn’t win. Still, there’s no shame in losing to a masterpiece written by a master.

Ngugi is the author of many novels and plays--Petals of Blood and A Grain of Wheat are the best known; he spent years in prison in his native Kenya for the ideas expressed in his books; he has taught all over the U.S. (And why, oh why, when he & I overlapped, did I not take his class?) After writing his first couple novels in English, he did what many, many postcolonial writers cannot do or dare not do: he switched to writing in Gikuyu. He then translates his books into English. Ngugi is a powerful advocate against colonialism and the continued colonialist financial exploitation of Africa and the developing world more generally. His “Decolonizing the Mind” is a widely anthologized polemic, an essay about the power of walking away from English, the colonial language.

All of this is pretty serious stuff and I admit that, although I am glad to have read A Grain of Wheat, I don’t look back on the experience of reading it with joy. So, why should you read The Wizard of the Crow?

Well, as interesting as it is to know all this stuff about Ngugi, put it aside and pop over to the LBC and read some of the other enthusiastic accounts about this new novel there. The Wizard of the Crow is a great, serious, hilarious satire. At its heart is a love story and, to my delight, the woman and man are evenly matched and she is lovely, strong, complex and interesting. At the heart of their story--the tension in their friendship and wary courting--is the conflict between what George Orwell called the desire to live inside the whale with the need to step out of his belly and prophesy. That is, in the face of overwhelming violence and corruption, don’t you just want to retreat to the forests and live the life of a mystic? But how can you leave behind the sufferings of your neighbors, your people? There are layers and layers of storytelling, which make the book, for all its heft, just sing along. And, though every character is weak and flawed--some much more than others--Ngugi shows such affection for and understanding of them all that you finish feeling the joy and variety of life as much as the corruption of society. Someone said Catch-22 and, if I’d been able to finish that book, I think I’d agree with the comparison to be apt. Maybe John Irving at his best. Or Rushdie at his. And yes, absolutely Garcia Marquez. But really, what I think of is Dickens: that broad, teeming canvas, full of eccentricities and joy.

So, do yourself a favor and READ THIS!!! Man, it’s good!

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