Parable land

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Wizard of the Crow

by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Harvill Secker, 766pp, 18.99

THIS NOVEL IS RESTLESS, EPIC, ALLUSIVE. Ngugi Wa Thiong'o gives himself scope to tackle big themes, to explore the nature of political oppression and corruption. His book attempts to explode assumptions about the essence of reality. It blurs and frequently juxtaposes visions of everyday consciousness and visionary truth. It brought me back suddenly to Ben Okri's The Famished Road: "the world dissolving in a delirium of stories", its images weaving as though on a slipstream of summoning dreams, of embracing nightmares. For, in its nightmarish, haunting ambience - of politics corrupted into irredeemable evil - this novel finds its true centre of darkly satirical gravity.

Ngugi has stated that his ambition is nothing less than "to sum up the Africa of the 20th century in the context of global forces of world history". He succeeds. He does so succinctly in his hero Kamiti's analysis-cum-treatise on page 681, where, in a bold rhapsodic swoop, Kamiti (the Wizard of the Crow), lectures the peoples of the Republic of Aburiria on the history of the continent, as vouchsafed to him in a vision, while he'd assumed the form of a bird.

The people are spellbound. Kamiti tells them that: "Around the 17th century Europe impregnated ... Africa with its evil ... (giving) birth to the slave driver of the slave plantation, who mutated into the colonial driver of the colonial plantation, who years later mutated into the neocolonial pilots of the postcolonial plantation ... So I said to myself: Just as today is born of the womb of yesterday, today is pregnant with tomorrow. What kind of tomorrow was Aburiria pregnant with? Of unity or murderous divisions? Of cries or laughter? Our tomorrow is determined by what we do today. Our fate is in our hands."

Ngugi's vision of Africa's future is one of popular revolution leading to democratic rule and economic independence. He served a prison sentence in Kenya almost two decades ago after publishing Petals of Blood. The New York Times declared him "a literary lion". He is in truth a lion equipped with the all-round vision of a giraffe, the clever mischievousness of the monkey, the endless appetite of the bear. He oversees everything - paradoxically this is his strength and his greatest weakness. To use omniscience effectively requires a steely self-discipline - to edit, focus and distil the salient substance of a story that might, without effort, have been captured in a paragraph:

"Aburiria's cruel, megalomaniac Ruler and serial rapist (a composite demagogue) is opposed by a popular movement led by women, one of whose chiefs is Nyamira, the beautiful lover of the reclusive, philosophical Kamiti. Their personal happiness is dogged by the awful political situation. Meanwhile the Ruler, who suffers a strange undiagnosed illness, is set on securing funds for his egotistical plans from the American-based Global Bank. Will his illness abate? Will the Global Bank cough up the dollars? Will the Ruler's second-rate lackeys get their comeuppance or will the people strike out for freedom helped by the Wizard of the Crow? This is essentially a tale of good versus evil, a potent parable laying bare all the deadly sins, the hazards of love in a time of strife, and the possibility of transcendence and fulfilment."

At best the prose is limber. At worst it is lax. But there is method in his laxity. He mimics the oral storytelling of his continent. The eye of the story is restless, it darts and backtracks, it brims with wise sayings. Nyawira says: "The food I eat, the clothes I wear, the bed I sleep on are all determined by politics, good or bad. Politics is about power and how it is used. Politics is about choosing sides in the struggle."

This is a book about choosing sides. A book above all about the individual's responses to moral dilemmas.

There is, rather strangely, little sense of the wider community here, of the village or of the collective. Awful things happen and are condoned in the climate of selfishness and suspicion the Ruler concocts. Ngugi dissects the Ruler brilliantly, but over-eggs the farcical jostling for favour among his ministers of state. It's a book of wonderful purple phases (the greatest lyrical description of making love I have ever read, a marvellous evocation of wilderness), but at almost 800 pages it should be serialised for consumption, not swallowed whole.

• Ngugi Wa Thiong'o is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival tomorrow and on Monday.