Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Ngugi's Wizard of the Crow and the Edifice Complex

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Ngugi's Wizard of the Crow and the Edifice Complex

Article excerpt

AMONG THE NEWEST TOURIST SPOTS IN MOSCOW SINCE THE FALL of communism is the Graveyard of the Fallen Monuments, where statues of Felix Dzerzhinsky (which once stood outside the KGB building in Lubyanka Square) and a three-metre-high Stalin (with nose lopped off) have been moved. Among the most memorable images of the fall of Saddam Hussein are the videos of the removal of his imposing statue, accompanied by those of his retrieval from the underground cubby-hole. Such concrete representations of the fall of the mighty makes one consider the travel posters of Neuschwanstein, the French chateaux and palaces, the Forbidden City, the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, the ruins of Ayutthaya and Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal and Akbar's sixteenth-century abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, and against that backdrop one thinks, too, of the twin towers in New York, the before and after. Inevitably, for the literary, Shelley's "Ozymandias" springs to mind: the impermanence of power, the deceptive sense of control that the powerful hope to wield over their fate - to shape it, in fact, in steel and stone. Deyan Sudjic, architecture critic for the Observer, notes that

Every kind of political culture uses architecture for what can, at heart, be understood as rational, pragmatic purposes, even when it is used to make a symbolic point But when the Une between political calculation and psychopafhology breaks down, architecture becomes not just a matter of practical politics, but a fantasy, or a sickness that consumes its victims. [...] The appeal of architecture to those who aspire to political power lies in the way that it is an expression of will. To design a building, or to have a building designed, is to suggest that this is the world as we want it. This is the perfect room from which to run a state, a business empire, a city, a family. It is the way to create a physical version of an idea or an emotioa It is the way to construct reality as we wish it to be, rather than as it is.1

Even Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, understood that time takes its toll on monuments to the dictator's glory, and thus he developed his theory of 'ruin value', which specifically intended a return to the building materials of classical Rome so that, even hundreds of years into the future, they would not crumble into dust but would instead attain the grandeur of the coliseum: a reminder that lingers in the memory long after the present ruler has gone to his eternal reward.

But this question of structures immediately points out the difference between a monument and a story about that monument. As Ngugi wa Thiong'o mentions in response to a question of how he wrote his latest novel, Murogi waKagogo (Wizard of the Crow),

the writing of Wizard of the Crow was more of a possession than conscious plotting. The structure developed with the story. As they dawned on me, many incidents were a surprise to me too, often eliciting laughter.2

The question of an obsessive fantasy that takes shape in the minds of those with an edifice complex, to which Sudjic refers, also echoes imaginatively and with a quite opposite import in this same conversation with Ngugi. When asked what he found to be the attractions of myth and fantasy in storytelling, and particularly with regard to any distinctions he would wish to make between orature and literature, Ngugi remarks that he is

fascinated by how myths are made and how they grow. A person witnesses an event, say a car accident. In order to convey the essence and reality of the horror to another who was not present, he exaggerates. The recipient of the slightly exaggerated adds his own suggestion when telling the story to somebody else. And soon the story becomes almost larger than the actual event but it retains the essential truth.3

Thus it is no surprise that the role of art, and specifically storytelling, is central to Ngugi's book, whose premise is explicitly Biblical in its proportions: the rule of Aburiria, an imagined country much like present-day Kenya, and the whole country through him,

had decided unanimously to erect a building such as had never been attempted in history except once by the children of Israel, and even they had failed miserably to complete the House of Babel. …

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