Ngũgĩ wa Thiong´o´s tenth novel is a web of genres: A serendipitous persiflage of political narratives, a fantasy novel bordering on realism, and a love story about emancipation from patriarchy, capitalism and neocolonialism. It is also a novel about illness.
The story is set in the fictional Free Republic of Aburĩria on the African continent, whose autocratic Ruler came to power by violently building on the anti-Communist agenda of the West. In a post-colonial and post-Cold War environment, he struggles to keep his power among a shifting and weakening legitimacy. The Ruler´s struggle takes hold of his body through an illness, readily identified and patented for monetary gain by American medical professionals as SIE – Self Induced Expansion. His aides – three men proving their loyalty through body enhancements of eyes, ears, and mouth – face the limitation of Western medicine in New York City and call back home for help: the Wizard of the Crow is ordered to heal the Ruler.
The wizard had made a name for himself by curing multiple cases of an illness that causes its victims to lose all contact with the present, and stammer only two words over and over again: if. If only. With the help of mirrors, the wizard helps his patients finish the started sentence, which breaks the loop and allows them to face the object of their longing. The first time we encounter this illness is through the both ambiguous and ambitious character Tajirika. After his spouse finds him staring at the bathroom mirror, scratching his skin and muttering “if, if only,” the wizard exposes this behavior as a severe case of white-ache. Tajirika had been surprised by bags of monetary gifts through a new political position, and was faced with the prospect of being one wealthy black man among many. The wizard confronts Tajirika and his wife with the picture of a poor English white couple and thereby counteracts their narrative of whiteness as a sole source of power. He cures their ache not by denying the power of whiteness, but by highlighting the intersections of power, race, and capital in a postcolonial globalized society. Unforeseen by the Wizard, Tajirika goes on a journey to embody these intersections.
Tajirika´s white-ache is only one case of the if-only-illness that befalls almost all the characters in the novel at some point. The illness ambushes them in moments of seemingly hopeless yearning, and traps them in a circular thought of if something were different. The epiphany of imprisoned agency plays out through an illness of the narrative structure of one´s power.
This power of narratives is the underlying feature of Wa Thiongo´s masterpiece. The illnesses experienced by the characters — ordinary people and the powerful alike — have nothing in them that is beyond narrative truth. These narratives travel from ear to mouth and shift shapes in between. The illness narratives in the Wizard of the Crow are political agents themselves, with the power to weaken the ruling bodies. Through the stories the characters tell about the bodies of the ruling powers and the forces that bind them, they act within the only sphere of agency unreachable by state violence. When these narrative illnesses penetrate the walls of the state house, bringing illness to the ruler and his aides, the impact on minds and bodies is explosive.
Translation note: This is a review of Wizard of the Crow, the English language translation of Mũrogi Wa Kagogo (2004) originally written and published in Gikuyu. The author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong´o, translated his own work for the English-language edition.