In the spirit of the dead, the living, and the unborn, Empty your ears of all impurities, a listener, That you may hear my story
THERE WERE MANY THEORIES about the strange illness of the second Ruler of the Free Republic of Aburiria, but the most frequent on people's lips were five.
The illness, so claimed the first, was born of anger that once welled up inside him; and he was so conscious of the danger it posed to his well-being that he tried all he could to rid himself of it by belching after every meal, sometimes counting from one to ten, and other times chanting ka ke ki ko ku aloud. Why these particular syllables, nobody could tell. Still, they conceded that the Ruler had a point. Just as offensive gases of the constipated need to be expelled, thus easing the burden on the tummy, anger in a person also needs a way out to ease the burden on the heart. This Ruler's anger, however, would not go away, and it continued simmering inside till it consumed his heart. This is believed to be the source of the Aburirian saying that ire is more corrosive than fire, for it once eroded the soul of a Ruler.
But when did this anger take root? When snakes first appeared on the national scene? When water in the bowels of the earth turned bitter? Or when he visited America and failed to land an interview with Global Network News on its famous program Meet the Global Mighty? It is said that when he was told that he could not be granted even a minute on the air, he could hardly believe his ears or even understand what they were talking about, knowing that in his country he was always on TV; his every moment--eating, shitting, sneezing, or blowing his nose--captured on camera. Even his yawns were news because, whether triggered by boredom, fatigue, hunger, or thirst, they were often followed by some national drama: his enemies were lashed in the public square with a sjambok, whole villages were blown to bits, or people were pierced to death by a bows-and-arrows squad, their carcasses left in the open as food for hyenas and vultures.
It is said that he was especially skillful in creating and nursing conflicts among Aburirian families, for scenes of sorrow were what assuaged him and made him sleep soundly. But nothing, it seemed, would now temper his anger.
Could anger, however deeply felt, cause a mystery illness that defied all logic and medical expertise?
THE SECOND THEORY was that the illness was a curse from the cry of a wronged he-goat. It is said that some elders, deeply troubled by the sight of blood flooding the land, decided to treat this evil as they had epidemics that threatened the survival of the community in the olden days: but instead of burying the evil inside the belly of a beast by inserting flies, standing for the epidemic, into its anus, they would insert the Ruler's hair, standing for the evil, into the belly of a he-goat through its mouth. The evil-carrying goat, standing for the Ruler, would then become an outcast in the land, to be driven out of any region where its cry announced its evil presence.
Led by a medicine man, they mixed the hair, obtained secretly from the Ruler's barber, with grass, salt, and magic potions and gave it to the goat to swallow. Needle and thread in hand, the medicine man started sewing the seven orifices of the body beginning with the anus. The struggling he-goat gave out a bloodcurdling cry and, before the medicine man could seal its mouth, it escaped. It is said that it cried grief across the land, until the Ruler heard the cry and, learning about the curse, which he imagined to be a call for a coup, sent soldiers to hunt down the he-goat and all involved. Rumor has it that the goat, the barber, the medicine man, the elders, and even the soldiers were given over to the crocodiles of the Red River to ensure eternal silence about the curse. And it was to mark this day of his deliverance that the Ruler had the picture of the Red River added to Buri notes, the only picture besides his own to honor the Aburirian currency.
Still, he worried about the fact that the goat had a beard, and he secretly consulted an oracle in a neighboring country, who assured him that only a bearded spirit could seriously threaten his rule. Though he read this as meaning that no human could overthrow him, for, since they had no bodily form, spirits could never grow beards, he became sensitive to beards and then decreed what came to be known as the Law of the Beard, that all goats and humans must have their beards shaved off.
There are some who dispute the story of the bearded he-goat and even argue that the Law of the Beard applied only to soldiers, policemen, civil servants, and politicians, and that the herdsmen shaved their he-goats out of their own volition, shaving goats' beards then being the fashion among Aburirian herdsmen.
These skeptics wondered: what has the cry of a he-goat whose anus, ears, and nose being sealed, have to do with the strange illness that befell the Ruler?
OTHERS NOW CAME UP WITH A THIRD THEORY, which said that since nothing lasts forever, the illness had something to do with the aging of his rule: he had sat on the throne so long that even he could not remember when his reign began. His rule had no beginning and no end; and judging from the facts one may well believe the claim. Children had been born and had given birth to others and those others to others and so on, and his rule had survived all the generations. So that when some people heard that before him there had been a first Ruler, preceded by a succession of governors and sultans all the way from the eras of the Arabs, the Turks, the Italians, to that of the British, they would simply shake their heads in disbelief saying, no, no, those are just the tales of a daydreamer: Aburiria had never had and could never have another ruler, because had not this man's reign begun before the world began and would end only after the world has ended? Although even that surmise was shot through with doubts, for how can the world come to an end?
Exiled Kenyan novelist, playwright, poet, and critic Ngugi wa Thiong'o has become one of the most widely read African writers of our time, and the power and scope of his work has garnered him international attention and praise. In Wizard of the Crow, the crowning achievement of the author's career thus far, Ngugi attempts, in his own words, "to sum up the Africa of the twentieth century in the context of two thousand years of world history." In the novel, translated by the author from his native Gikuyu, multiple themes of globalization, greed, power, love, corruption, and resurrection of the spirit are explored. Ngugi deploys a collage of characters and narrative mosaic that begins in Aburiria, a fictional African country, and sweeps the reader over vast space and time, bringing African and diasporic cultures into dialogue with Eastern and Western philosophies, religions, and cultures. The excerpt that follows opens the novel.
THE FOURTH THEORY asserted that his illness had its origins in all the tears, unshed, that Rachael, his legal wife, had locked up inside her soul after her fall from his grace.
The Ruler and his wife had fallen out one day when Rachael asked questions about the schoolgirls who, rumors claimed, were often invited to the State House to make his bed, where he, like the aging white man of the popular saying, fed on spring chicken. Of course, the Ruler would never admit to aging, but he had no problems with the "white man" comparison, and so he amended the proverb to say that a white man renews his youth with spring chicken. Imagine how he must have felt about Rachael's attempt to deny him his fountains of youth! How indiscreet and indecorous of her to ask the unaskable! Since when could a male, let alone a Ruler, be denied the right to feel his way around women's thighs, whether other men's wives or schoolgirls? What figure of a Ruler would he cut were he to renounce his right to husband all women in the land in the manner of the lords of Old Europe, whose droits de seigneur gave them the right to every bride-to-be?
Rachael thought she was being reasonable. I know you take the title Father of the Nation seriously, she told him. You know that I have not complained about all those women who make beds for you, no matter how many children you sire with them. But why schoolgirls? Are they not as young as the children you have fathered? Are they not really our children? You father them today and tomorrow you turn them into wives? Have you no tears of concern for our tomorrow?
They were dining in the State House, and to Rachael the evening was very special because it was the first time in a long while that they were alone together: the burdens of presiding over the nation hardly ever gave them time to share meals and engage in husband-and-wife talk. Rachael believed in the saying that clothes maketh a woman, and that night she had taken particular care with her appearance: a white cotton dress with a V-shaped collar, short sleeves pleated at the edges, a necklace highlighting her slender neck, rings on her fingers, and dangling from her elegant ears, diamonds sparkling all about her.
We can very well imagine the scene. Guiding his fork unerringly toward his lips, the Ruler was about to place a morsel of chicken into his mouth, when suddenly, at Rachael's words, the fork froze in midair; slowly, he lowered the fork to the plate, the piece of chicken still on it, took the napkin and wiped his lips with deliberation. Before replacing the napkin on the table, he turned to his wife and asked: Rachael, did I really hear you say that I have been forcing myself on schoolchildren? That I don't cry over our tomorrow? Have you ever heard of a Ruler who cries, except maybe, well, never mind him, and where did those daily tears of a grown man lead him? He lost his throne. Do you want me to end up as he did?
There is always a difference between a thought and its description: what the Ruler had been dwelling on when lowering the fork to the table and wiping his lips with a corner of the napkin was not the fate of a Ruler who wept and so lost his throne but rather what he would have to do to make Rachael understand that he, the Ruler, had power, real power over everything including ... yes ... Time. He shuddered at the thought. Even before the shuddering completed its course, he had made up his mind.
Speaking with studied calm, a faint smile on his face, he told Rachael that the unfinished meal would be their last supper together, that he would go away to give her time to think about the implications of her allegations, and since she would need space to think, he would bring to pass what had been written in the scriptures: In My Father's House Are Many Mansions. Even for sinners.
He built her a house on a seven-acre plot that he surrounded with a stone wall and an electric fence, and it was while contemplating the unbreachable walls that the idea of a building that reached ... but we shall talk about that later, because the idea was given expression by one of his most faithful and adoring ministers. What was undisputedly the product of his own genius, in its conception and execution, was the construction of Rachael's mansion.
All the clocks in the house were frozen at the second, the minute, and the hour that she had raised the question of schoolgirls; the calendars pointed to the day and the year. The clocks tick-tocked but their hands did not move. The mechanical calendar always flipped to the same date. The food provided was the same as at the last supper, the clothes the same as she had worn that night. The bedding and curtains were identical to those where she had once lived. The television and radio kept repeating programs that were on during the last supper. Everything in the new mansion reproduced the exact same moment.
A record player was programmed to play only one hymn:
Our Lord will come back one day He will take us to his home above I will then know how much he loves me Whenever he comes back And when he comes back You the wicked will be left behind Moaning your wicked deeds Whenever our Lord comes back
The idea of the endless repetition of this hymn pleased him so much that he had amplifiers placed at the four corners of the seven-acre plantation so that passersby and even others would benefit from the tune and the words.
Rachael would remain thus, awaiting his second coming, and on that day when he found that she had shed all the tears for all the tomorrows of all the children she had accused him of abusing, he would take her back to restart life exactly from where it had stopped, or rather Rachael would resume her life, which had been marking time, like a cinematic frame on pause. I am your beginning and your end.
What were you before I made you my wife? he asked, and answered himself, A primary school teacher. I am the past and the present you have been and I am your tomorrow take it or leave it, he added in English as he turned his back on her.
There was only one entrance to the seven-acre prison. An armed guard was stationed at the stone gate to make sure that she neither left or received visitors except officials who replenished supplies and doubled as spies, or else her children.
Her children? Apart from the numberless others he begot upon his bed-makers, the Ruler had four boys with Rachael. They were not the brightest in their class, and he had taken them out of school before they had obtained their high school diplomas. He enlisted them in the army--to learn on the job--where they quickly rose to the highest ranks. At the beginning of their mother's frozen present, the firstborn, Rueben Kucera, was a three-star general in the army; the second, Samwel Moya, a two-star general in the air force; the third, Dickens Soi, a one-star general in the navy; and the fourth, Richard Runyenje, an army captain. But apart from their military duties they were all on the board of directors of several parastatals closely linked to foreign companies, particularly those involved in the exploration of oil and the mining of precious metals. They were also on several licensing boards. Their main task was to sniff out any anti-government plots in the three branches of the armed forces, as well as to receive bribes. The only problem was that the four were so partial to alcohol and drugs that it was difficult for them to keep up with whatever was happening in the armed forces or on the boards over which they sat. The Ruler was rather disappointed, for he had hoped that at least one of his sons with Rachael might inherit the throne, establishing a mighty family dynasty, and so he often scolded them for their lack of ambition and appetite for power. Yet on the days when they brought him their collections, there was the celebratory atmosphere of a family reunion.
They did not view their mother's life in a sevenacre cage as a dangerous confinement, and when they were not too drunk they would call her--Rachael could receive calls but she could not call out--to say how are you, and when they heard her say that she was fine, they took it that all was well with her and they would quickly return to what they knew best: alcohol, drugs, and bribes.
In calling her, albeit only now and then, the sons actually showed more humanity toward her than did their father, who never once visited the cage to say another word, good or bad. Despite this, Rachael was always in the Ruler's mind, for he received daily reports of her moods and activities; how she spent her day, how she slept, the words she muttered to herself, everything.
What he yearned to hear was any news of her tears, the one sign that would unerringly point to her breakdown and desire for redemption. But he didn't. It is said by those who hold the fourth theory that Rachael, aware of this insatiable desire for humiliating the already fallen, had sworn that she would never let him see her tears or hear about them, not even from her children or the numerous spies. And the more she held out, the more he needed her self-abnegation. Her tears had become the battlefield of their wills.
This obsession with her tears, claimed the creators of the fourth theory, led to the Ruler's strange illness.
The trouble with this theory was that it relied either on rumors or whatever could be deduced from the behavior of the Ruler's children.
It was also the least known of the five theories because it was whispered only among people who trusted one another: for who would be so foolish as to talk about this openly unless he courted death?
THERE WERE OTHERS WHO, to this day, are ready to swear that the illness had nothing to do with burning anger, the anguished cry of a wronged he-goat, the aging reign, or Rachael's tears, and theirs was the fifth theory: that the illness was the sole work of the daemons that the Ruler had housed in a special chamber in the State House, who had now turned their backs on him and withdrew their protective services.
It is said that the walls and ceiling of the chamber were made from the skeletons of the students, teachers, workers, and small farmers he had killed in all the regions of the country, for it was well known that he came into power with flaming swords, the bodies of his victims falling down to his left and right like banana trunks. The skulls of his most hated enemies hung on the walls and others from the ceiling, bone sculptures, white memories of victory and defeat.
The chamber was a cross between a museum and a temple, and every morning the Ruler, after first bathing in the preserved blood of his enemies, would enter, carrying a staff and a fly whisk, and then walk about quietly, looking at the various exhibits one by one; then, about to leave, he would suddenly stop at the door and glance one more time at the chamber and, with mocking gestures of triumphant contempt, at the dark holes and grinning teeth where once eyes and mouths had been.
What were you after? he would ask the skulls as if they could hear him. This fly whisk, this scepter, this crown? He would pause as if expecting an answer, and when the skulls failed to respond he would burst out in guffaws as if daring them to contradict what he was about to say: I plucked out your tongues and tore your lips to show you that a politician without a mouth is no politician at all. But there were times when it looked as if the skulls were grinning back in countermockery, and the laughter would stop abruptly. You fucking bastards, it is your own greed and boundless ambitions that led you here. Did you seriously think that you had a chance to overthrow me? Let me tell you. The person who would even dare has not been born, and if he has, he still will have to change himself into a spirit and grow a beard and human hair on his feet. You did not know that, did you? he would add, pointing at them with his staff menacingly, his mouth foaming with fury.
Let me say as the narrator that I cannot confirm the truth or falsity of the existence of the chamber; it may turn into a mere rumor or tale from the mouth of Askari Arigaigai Gathere: but if it exists, simple logic proves that it was the Ruler's morning rites in this chamber of skulls that long ago, before the Ruler's fatal visit to America and any talk of his illness, had given rise to a rumor that quickly spread throughout the country. Whenever two or three gathered together, the very first question was about the rumor: Can you believe it? Did you know that the Ruler is a devil worshipper, and that he worships his lord and master, Satan, in the name of a serpent?
The rumor about devil and snake worship took root in all Aburiria following one of the most ambitious programs for birthday celebrations in honor of a Ruler ever undertaken in the country.
Translation from the Gikuyu
By the author
Editorial note: For more on Kenya's history in the twentieth century, read Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya, by Caroline Elkins, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.
NGUGI WA THIONG'O (b. 1938, Limuru, Kenya) is one of Africa's leading contemporary writers. His novels have been translated into more than thirty languages and have garnered numerous prizes, including the Fonlon-Nichols Award in 1996, given annually to honor excellence in African creative writing and contributions to the struggle for human rights and freedom of expression. In 2003 he was elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A former member of the Books Abroad editorial board, he was the encomiast for the 1994 laureate of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, Kamau Brathwaite, and, as a member of the 1998 Neustadt jury, successfully championed the candidacy of that year's laureate, Somalian writer Nuruddin Farah. Currently, Ngugi is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Director of the International Center for Writing & Translation at the University of California, Irvine. His books have been reviewed in the pages of Books Abroad and World Literature Today since 1965. To read "Recovering the Original," his recent essay on language and politics, see the September-December 2004 issue of WLT (pp. 12-15).
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|Author:||Thiong'o, Ngugi Wa|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Fictional work|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2006|
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