Now, I’m sorry, I’m going to spell this dude’s name wrong, but I don’t think I’ve got the right characters anywhere. This is by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, only with ~s above the u and i in Ngugi. Sorry if that’s important. Some of the characters have those little tildes too, which meant I couldn’t figure out how to pronounce their names, which is a bit frustrating.
What was more frustrating is that I started reading this somewhere back at the start of April – I found it in Crockatt and Powell on Lower Marsh, which I highly recommend if you need a book while at Waterloo station – but in my hurry to catch the bus home from a ski trip, I left it in France. Fortunately, I have good friends, who rescued it for me and reunited us not too long afterwards. However, by then I was reading something else, then I was collecting the guitar guides in the Guardian, and I have trouble reading all of a paper and a book at the same time. So I’ve only just got around to finishing it. Which means there was a break of about 6 weeks between reading the first two thirds and the final part, and that’s not ideal. (I know I did something very similar with Gatsby, but normally I finish books I start in the same session.)
All of which doesn’t have much to do with the contents of the book (one other thing… this is a beautiful paperback) which I found uplifting and frustrating and upsetting in more or less equal measure. The story concerns a fictional post-colonial African state called Aburiria (more tildes) and the travails of The Ruler, his ministers and advisers, the Wizard of the Crow and a host of others. It’s a satire, as these things tend to be, and it’s probably based on either Zimbabwe or Kenya – or possibly another less famous state. Although given Thiong’o is from Kenya, smart money, etc.
The message of hope, based on the resourcefulness and attitude of the central characters, of their outmanouvering The Ruler (although given that his power is absolute and his word is truth, even when he contradicts what he said the day before, the gains they make are always short-lived) is uplifting and makes me believe that it is possible that there could be a solution to the mess of post-colonial Africa, although it will take a lot of effort. I should say that there is no direct conflict between The Ruler and The Wizard; they both work towards different goals as the state of the nation and their own personal circumstances change (e.g. inflating like a balloon, or temporary alcoholism).
What I found upsetting were the levels of corruption, casual brutality and insanity at work in the workings of the Ruler’s government, especially when contrasted with the poverty of the common people. Although this is a work of fiction, the book is clearly based not far from the truth. Thiong’o has been imprisoned for his fiction before, and has also written several non-fictoin essays on post-colonial politics. Besides, no one who has paid much attention to the news coming out of Zimbabwe or Kenya in the last few months will have to stretch their imagination much.
Overall, though, I found it frustrating in style. There’s too much time dilation. A year passes with very little happening, or several events cram themselves into a couple of days. Some things happen out of order, and sometimes there are tiny little tangential stories curled up inside the main narrative – they don’t go anywhere, don’t add much and just distracted me. Perhaps this is an African method of story-telling, but I didn’t enjoy it. Again, similarly to Gatsby, I struggled to identify key ingredients of the allegory. Probably. What does it mean when The Ruler suffers from self-induced expansion? I never worked it out.
In the end, I got a lot out of reading it, although I didn’t enjoy every page, and I probably didn’t understand it fully. Would I recommend it to anyone? Probably not.
The Great Gatsby. Perhaps ironic that I’ve read both of these in a similar fashion and didn’t get much out of either.
100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. For its magical realism, cyclical story-telling and names that sound too much like each other (this is clearly racist, but I stuggled with them because they’re just so unfamiliar)