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From an epic imagination

Special to The Times

NGUGI wa Thiong’o inhabits a world of subtle yet ever-present incongruity. In the mellow light of an early September afternoon, seated in the comfortable living room of his house on the campus of the University of California, Irvine, Kenya’s most widely lauded writer and his wife, Njeeri wa Ngugi, calmly discussed what it was like to be held at gunpoint by thugs, awaiting death. “We narrowly escaped,” Njeeri said.

Outside in the driveway, there was a pile of bikes belonging to their kids. Inside, before Ngugi began to discuss his new epic novel of the African postcolonial experience, “Wizard of the Crow,” his first in 10 years, the couple recounted their ordeal. It happened when they returned to Kenya in 2004, after more than two decades of self-imposed exile -- an absence prompted by a personal grudge harbored against the writer by longtime President Daniel Arap Moi.

Ngugi and Njeeri were staying in a high-security apartment complex in Nairobi. Around midnight, four armed gunmen broke in (the children, luckily, were away for the night). “Humiliation was their goal,” said Ngugi, a 68-year-old giant of African literature who has been mentioned as a Nobel Prize contender. “Robbery is a capital offense in Kenya, but these robbers did not wear masks. That suggested that we were not meant to be around later to bear witness against their crimes.”

“We believe we were meant to be eliminated,” Njeeri added. Then she showed the scar in her forearm from the knife wound she received in the attack, during which she was also sexually assaulted and Nugugi was burned with cigarettes. It sounds horrific, but it was motivated by vicious boredom. “They needed something to do while they waited for something else,” Ngugi said. That something else, according to the couple, was murder. The robbers were merely detaining Ngugi and Njeeri until the death squad arrived.

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The couple evaded a premature end that night after a scuffle and desperate negotiations with the assailants. And now they find themselves in Southern California, living peaceful, academic lives: Ngugi is a distinguished professor of English and comparative literature and director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at UC Irvine. Njeeri is director of the faculty and staff counseling center. They are the conscience of a troubled African nation, transplanted to the O.C. He hasn’t ruled out a return to his native country. “They’re not going to hound us out of Kenya,” Ngugi said. “But we don’t want to be martyrs.”

Shoeless and relaxed, he talked about how much he enjoyed watching tennis and golf on television. Njeeri offered refreshments. Their two children drifted in and out of the scene, mixing perfect English with dashes of Gikuyu. This is everyday life in the African Diaspora, a blissfully settled counterpoint to brutality and anguish that has gripped much of Africa since the early, optimistic flush of the independence movements that swept the continent in the 1950s.

“Wizard of the Crow” is Ngugi’s monumental effort to summarize this era. At just under 800 pages, translated from Gikuyu by the author, it is not a modest undertaking. But refreshingly for a novel of its ambition and scope, it verges on being a page turner. “I can say, without exaggeration, that the book possessed me,” Ngugi said. Reviews have been reverent, although John Updike, writing in the New Yorker, was put off by some of the book’s more surreal passages. Ngugi is accustomed to this. “The only thing that bothers me about the reviews is that they try to see it as an African novel, no matter what.”

He described the book -- whose action takes place in the imaginary “Free Republic of Aburiria,” a corrupt nation governed by a dictatorial “Ruler” who plans to commemorate his reign by constructing a tower to heaven, using money borrowed from the Global Bank -- as both a “global epic from Africa” and a “love story.” He emphasizes the former because, during the course of his career, he has been strongly identified with Kenya’s drive to break itself free of its former colonial masters, the British. It is the love story, however, between a feminist political activist and a beggar who transforms himself into the reluctantly heroic “Wizard of the Crow” that imbues the novel with its pervasive sense of humanity.

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That Ngugi can achieve this balance is remarkable and a testament to his personal resilience, given his own traumatic history. As a child, his family was ensnared by the Mau Mau rebellion; his stepbrother was killed and his mother tortured. During the 1960s, when known by his Christian name, James Ngugi, he published three novels in English. His 1977 play “I Will Marry When I Want” enraged Kenya’s then-vice president Moi to such a degree that he ordered Ngugi’s arrest and imprisonment. During his year of incarceration, Ngugi, who had changed his name to Ngugi wa Thiong’o and started to write in Gikuyu, composed his novel “Devil on the Cross” on sheets of toilet paper. “It was intended as a punishment,” he said of the sandpapery, prison-issue paper, “but what was bad for the body was good for literature.”

Literary celebrities in the West, including James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, agitated for his release, and with the aid of Amnesty International, he was set free in 1978. But unable to return to his professorship at Nairobi University and fearful that Moi planned to have him killed, he went into voluntary exile in 1982 and wisely decided not to come home after a trip to London. He later moved on to Yale, then New York University, finally landing in Irvine in 1997.

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A global outlook

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UNDERSTANDABLY, Ngugi has special insight into what makes African dictators tick. “A dictatorship is a tragedy that manifests itself as comedy,” he said. “A hatred of their people is part of their psychology. They need more repression to feel secure.” Ngugi explained the particular pathology of Moi’s dictatorship in terms of postcolonial struggle. “In many cases, before independence, the dictator was working closely with the colonial powers. Moi was a product of the colonial system.” However, when asked why Moi developed such an obsession with him, Ngugi is baffled. “I don’t know. But when I see American comedians criticize the president on television, I fear for them. If they lived in Kenya, they’d be in jail.”

“Wizard of the Crow” has been placed by some reviewers in the tradition of magical realism, a form pioneered by Latin American novelists, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There are certainly magical moments in the book, but the story, propelled by memorable characters, derives more clearly from the English novel, as practiced by Dickens, Elliot and Conrad. This isn’t surprising, given Ngugi’s colonial education, which stressed British traditions, often at the expense of Kenya’s own folklore.

“I wanted to write about Africa in the context of global forces,” Ngugi said. “That’s why the landscape of the novel goes beyond Africa. It includes India, Asia, Europe and the United States.”


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