Saturday, 28 March 2009

A Layman's Thoughts on Ngugi's Wizard of the Crow

Over on the Wealth of Ideas blog, Emmanuel Sigauke is elated that Ngugi waThiong’o has been nominated for Man Booker Prize. I share Brother Manu's happiness. That happiness is born out of recognition that Ngugi is a colossus and the nomination is a long overdue recognition of what he has done to inspire African writers of younger generations. I hope Ngugi wins it.

Ngugi has an impressive portfolio of literary works but his last work, Wizard of the Crow, is at the bottom of the totem pole. This could be a result of this poor reader expecting something along the same lines as his epic novels like Petals of Blood and Devil on the Cross. I think of Ngugi more as a social commentator who uses novels as a vehicle to articulate his positions on prevailing issues. I bought the novel thinking that it was a tome on the Zimbabwe body politic. Ngugi cleverly used a cover illustration in which the bigger crow has a military-style cap with the Zimbabwe bird on the rim band. Moreover, the truncated Zimbabwean flag on the cover leaves the impression that it is about Zimbabwe.

To add intrigue to it all, the title has allusions to Zimbabwe. You will recall that gunguwo was a derogatory epithet for Bishop Muzorewa - Sekuru Gunguwo – because of his religious vestments. Our gunguwo's was politically killed by the almost magical political and oratory skills of Mugabe. Some dare liken President Mugabe's skills to wizardry. To me, the superficial Zimbabwean metaphor simply stands out but what is inside is something else.

It would be fairly easy to posit that Ngugi tried to pull a sly marketing gimmick by exploiting Mugabe’s unpopularity at the time of the publishing of the book. I have no idea what motivated Ngugi into using the Zimbabwean imagery. I will leave that to gurus of literature. I do not have a degree in writing with a keen eye for literature analysis. I am a simple scientist. Be that as it may, my comments aired herein and elsewhere are not an imputation of Ngugi’s book. I do not regret buying the book.

Anyway, a comparison of the author's works is inevitable. I would call it the unavoidable consequence of unintended relativity. For a layman like me not well-versed in the intricacies and academic intrigues of literature beyond what I did at O-Level, I can say not all of a writer's books are equally good. Some will be exceptionally good and some will be relatively poor while the rest will be somewhere in the middle. In science we call that trend a Gaussian distribution. It is quite common, like a dictate of nature.

This is the case with all the books of famous writers in my library. I have copies of Mark Twain's Joan of Arc, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. In my opinion, the latter two are classics – classics are not just books I display, I read them, too. The former tastes sour by comparison. I say so because I have read all three. I could say the same about John Steinbeck novels, Tony Morrison novels, Achebe novels, Lewis Lapham books and so on and so forth.

Ngugi is proud of his Kikuyu lineage and writes in his mother tongue. What the rest of the world consumes from his plate are translations. It is well and fine to bear this in mind. However, can this be used as a caveat to shirk a comparison of his novels? When we invoke such caveats about his the novels, as we read them in English, originally written in Kikuyu, does it not come across as a circuitous admission that the work under discussion is relatively substandard? As Ngugi himself states in Decolonizing the Mind, his most celebrated novels published after Petals of Blood were originally written in Gikuyu. As far as my rudimentary literature tastes are concerned, the quality of these books was not diminished by translation into English. Why would Wizard of the Crow be an exception unless it was comparatively poor right from the very beginning?

The judgement passed on the quality of a book is a matter of personal taste akin to snake venom; some call it poison that has to be avoided at any cost while others use it as medicine.