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Wizard of the Crow

I finally got around to Wizard of the Crow. So far? Really good! So, if you’ll excuse me, I have a book to read.

 

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Let me know how it goes, Greg.

This will probably be on my summer reading list. Ever read any Ngugi before?

So far, still good. I’ve not read his work before, no, and I am regretting it. K is planning to read it as soon as she finishes Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but I think I can say without spoilage that the book’s an excoriation of just about everyone who has set foot in Africa the past 300 years. It is funny; also, the character of the Wizard of the Crow is quite unique.

The novel is good, compelling intrigue, great love story—to a point. Then, politics!

I’ll be thinking more on it, but here’s what I’m struggling with: On the one hand, the novel sacrifices its narrative in favor of its political implications. Postcolonial Africa and African identity is at stake. Africa must transcend battered woman syndrome (the metaphor is Ngugi’s); Africans must take pride in Africa and own the continent (through autonomy, not private property) rather than continue to give it away to the ones who raped it. Indeed, all of that is clear through most of the narrative. But when I say it sacrifices the narrative at the end, I mean that Ngugi makes certain that nobody will miss the politics. The last section of the book is not even denouement—it’s letdown, entirely invested in sketching not a utopia, but a pragmatic society.

Here’s what I struggle with: why do I feel like the narrative is ruined because of it? There’s a whole host of aesthetic theories that would privilege the consequences of the art over the politics of it, but what if you’re attempting to use art—in this case narrative—in a way that asserts a different aesthetic—really, an ethic Why do I feel like that the art is less valuable—as if it had been compromised—when faced with that ethic? It is, after all, just as arguable that modernism’s triumph of art for its own sake created something that was socially unethical and untenable.

So, here’s the rub: is my disappointment because I still buy into modernist aesthetics (which certainly affect how I read) or is it because the novel has real problems no matter what kind of aesthetic (or ethic) you bring to it?

Interesting question. I wonder (and I may be completely off on this) if your reaction to the novel’s explicitly political ending may not be merely aesthetic. That is, it’s pretty common, especially among us liberal academic types, to use aesthetics as a way of critiquing certain political programs. We argue for more sophisticated or nuanced understandings of political situations over more simplistic ones. Admittedly, this isn’t pure aesthetics at play in the field of politics, but could it be that Ngugi’s political argument harms the narrative in your view not just because it’s political but because it’s not a sufficiently beautiful (in the modernist sense you cite) kind of politics?

I say all of this having not read the novel, but I’ve read (and taught) some of Ngugi’s earlier stuff. And he is known for being a pretty doctrinaire leftist.

But if it is aesthetic, it isn’t because I find his politics too messy. I think he’s pretty all right in all senses: he argues in favor of the abolishment of patriarchy and the improvement of women (When the novel’s main protagonist is made to face the fact that his lover is a powerful leader, I say “Right on!”); he advocates for sustainability in all senses; he calls for the monetary and political autonomy of Africa—all of which I think are grand ideas.

If I were to sit down and write a full-on defense of my disappointment, it would go along the lines of declaring that there should be a certain line across which a text should not cross if it wishes to maintain its artistic integrity. That line would be of the sort that prevents the writer from making a direct political appeal to the reader. Even an indirect political appeal would be gauche in the sense that, as the appeal is made to the protagonist, he is asked to give up what makes him unique as a protagonist in the service of the politics. The latter occurs at the end in the novel. I would then argue that patently political texts are not bad—I’ve read Invisible Man, after all—but the better ones succeed as novels because they inscribe their politics into world novel’s world. They leave it to the reader to connect the dots and develop that application. My defense, in other words, would be built upon a modernist sensibility that privileges the artistic whole of a text.

The thing is, I know this argument is on its surface false. It limits the possibility of fiction and devalues its rhetorical expression. It forces speechmaking, for example, into the voice of a character rather than the narrator simply to maintain the illusion of illusion.

However, because The Wizard of the Crow does not ascribe to that aesthetic—it does diminish its eponymous protagonist and makes him somewhat less special in favor of the political implications of the novel’s politics—I am left just uncomfortable enough to be frustrated with the novel.