SINCE I was slightly early for my meeting with the exiled Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o, I sat in a Soho café with an espresso and the newspapers. There was an article about government proposals to revise the recommended authors for the A Level English syllabus and, along with Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer and Maya Angelou, one of the novelists about to be dropped was Ngugi.
Ministerial myopia cannot come much more pronounced than this. I have every expectation that his new novel, Wizard of the Crow, will be seen in years to come as the equal of Midnight's Children, The Tin Drum or One Hundred Years of Solitude; a magisterial magic realist account of 20th-century African history. It is unreservedly a masterpiece.
When I mention it to him in person, he seems sanguine, and enthuses that young people should read Fielding and Austen. His lack of bitterness or resentment is perhaps his most characteristic aspect. His smile - sometimes beatific, sometimes mischievous - represents a supreme victory.
Born in 1938, Ngugi studied English literature at Makerere University College in Kampala, and in Leeds. His first novel, Weep Not, Child, appeared in 1964 and was the first novel in English to be published by an East African. With A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood (both now published as Penguin Classics), he embraced Fanonist Marxism. This intellectual trajectory led him to reject English, and write exclusively in his native language, Gikuyu.
These politics, and the language he chose to express them in, led to his arrest on the orders of Daniel arap Moi, and he was detained in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. There, on prison toilet paper, he wrote the first modern novel in Gikuyu, Devil on the Cross. He went into exile, and returned to Kenya in August 2004 after the fall of the Moi regime.
Three days later, thugs broke into his home, brutalised him, sexually assaulted his wife and stole his computer. Whether they were opportunistic villains or loyalists to the old regime, their message was clear. Ngugi left, and is now director of the International Centre for Writing and Translation at the University of California. And he has published his first novel in 20 years, simultaneously issued in Gikuyu and English.
It's a different novel to those he wrote in English. "My previous novels were very much within a certain traditional realism, generally, a 19th-century tradition - that's what actually influenced me, as a student of English literature, the work of Jane Austen or George Eliot. But when it comes to Africa in the 20th century we find that truth is stranger than fiction, so how do you write about a situation which is itself like fiction?
"Increasingly I found that kind of realism cannot cope adequately with the absurdity of the real. I needed to find a way to break free from those strictures of time and space - and we'd always had that as part of African orature."
Set in the fictitious Free Republic of Aburiria, under the rule of the enigmatic, autarchic Ruler, it opens with the announcement of "Marching to Heaven" - Africa's own space programme. Two young, liberal people, Nyawira and Kamiti, are on the run from the police, and Kamiti deflects their attention by leaving a message signed "The Wizard of the Crow". The myth of the powerful, mysterious sorcerer is thus born, and Ngugi takes the reader on an ambitious, anarchic journey through contemporary African history. It's a novel full of startling images, balancing horror and farce perfectly. The pinstripe on the Ruler's trademark suit, with leopard skin patches, is made up of the phrase Might is Right in tiny letters. His two closest aides have had their eyes and ears surgically enlarged. There is a plague of queuing, and an outbreak of speech-loss, where the victims can only say "If".
WRITING IN Gikuyu allowed Ngugi access to the kind of fantastical realm that reflects the tragicomedy of African dictatorships. "In the oral tale, there is a movement between species, characters can become trees, animals can become human, you can send a message via a bird, there are conversations between animals and humans. Orature allows more freedom to the imagination, while realism restricts imagination." It also draws heavily on the traditional "trickster" figure, a character constantly reinventing himself.
Ngugi himself translated Wizard of the Crow into English. Was this difficult? "The difficulty", he says, "is the transition from where one is creating, exploring a narrative, with its many surprises, twists and turns, to where one is working with a narrative already completed. In the first instance one is swimming with the stream; in the other one is walking by the stream."
He believes his commitment to Gikuyu helped with the translation. "My commitment to African languages has made me more experimental with English," he says. "I'm not bound by it in the same way. I have my independence and with that I can now inter-react with each language without feeling like a beggar".
He hopes that an English which "enables, rather than disables" might bring Wizard of the Crow into other indigenous African languages. "There aren't many people who are fluent in Gikuyu and, say, Yoruba. But there are people fluent in English and Yoruba".
Throughout our conversation, Ngugi is keen to stress that although the novel is 'about' Africa, it's also about Africa's connections to the rest of the world. This is of the utmost importance in the depiction of the Ruler, a 'neocolonial' composite of Amin, Suharto, Pinochet, Bokassa and countless other despots. He sees an irony in the idea that a figure like Amin is "peculiarly African, that there's an absurdity embedded in his African character".
These dictators are "neither neither men", deeply connected to the world's superpowers, neither wholly indigenous nor wholly on a par with the big foreign powers. "Look at Idi - I loved Kampala, when I was a student. Uganda was a very marvellous, beautiful place and a very gentle society before Idi," he says. "What I remember is the way he was received in the West. He went to Israel to see Golda Meir, he met Pompidou in France, and he was given lavish dinners by the Queen of England - and then suddenly he's the African dictator. They cannot accept they created him and accorded him those rights and respects. Idi was a very good soldier for the British, he fought the Mau Mau in Kenya. The British created Idi Amin and then say he was an absurd African figure, and his antics show the inadequacy of the African ruler."
Wizard of the Crow is about an Africa equal and inter-related to the rest of the world. Ngugi imagines a "multi-dialogue" of nations, not just an opposition to the dominant, western, imperial past. "We can only meaningfully talk about an African literary tradition when more Africans write in African languages." Then, he says, "we can talk to the world". Literature then won't be a "linear progression from Homer to Harry Potter".
Will he ever return to Kenya? "Despite more than 20 years of physical removal from my country, I have never left Kenya. We shall continually return in body or spirit or both."
• Book Festival, today, 5.30pm and tomorrow, 11.30am