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Harare North

Author: Brian Chikwava
Publishers: Jonathan Cape
Pages: 230
Price: Not Stated
ISBN: 978-0-224-08611-0

Reviewer: Ando Yeva

Harare North    

An Elegy for Easterly

Author: Petina Gappah
Publishers: Faber and Faber
Pages: 276
Price: 12.99
ISBN: 978-0-571246939

Reviewer: Ando Yeva

An Elegy for Easterly    

 Enter, ZimbaBwana

 The year 2009 presents Zimbabwe watchers with the hope of new beginnings. A strange new animal blunders onto the political stage. Ungainly and unnerving, the ZANU-PF/MDC Government of National Unity is a leadership that comes both with tomorrow’s promise and the taint of yesterday’s blood.

On the literary stage Brian Chikwava’s Harare North and Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly also arrive with some promise, while not exactly untouched by the gritty reality of the worlds they chronicle. There are many points of intersection in these two books. For one, they are debuts by a young generation of Zimbabwean writers. For another, they are both firmly grounded in the defining crises in the house of Zimbabwe.

Brian Chikwava announced his literary aspirations with a Caine Prize win in 2004 for his short story, Seventh Street Alchemy. His book has been awaited ever since. In 2009, he makes good with Harare North, a 230-page first person confessional of a flawed narrator-fugitive arriving in London from Zimbabwe. The narrator is nameless (although for the convenience of reviewers and book club discussions, writers really ought to have a heart) and shall be so-called in this review.

Nameless was a member of the paramilitary youth wing of the government’s ZANU-PF party.  His band of Green Bombers gets carried away during a routine chastisement session (euphemistically called ‘forgiveness’) and their victim dies. Mugabe’s government cannot be as Machiavellian as generally painted, because Nameless now has to run for his life. A bribe is supposedly required to ‘kill’ the case, and this is the sole reason why he flees to London. That old city is not so-called in this book, of course. That great coloniser is linguistically appropriated by her enfranchised colony. Harare (which was previously named Salisbury after an old London prime minister) gets into the name game with gusto and London is rechristened  ‘Harare North’, just as Johannesburg becomes ‘Harare South’. In the universe of Nameless’ world, Harare is the unquestionable centre.

And some world it is. Nameless is different from all those other Zimbabwean immigrants who have arrived in Harare North for the better life. All he wants in his pocket is the equivalent of US$5000 to sort out his Police case file and his uncle’s loan of a flight ticket, after which he was determined to return home to complete his mother’s traditional burial rites. The steady advance of Mugabe’s bulldozers on his mother’s grave adds some urgency to his narrative as he tries to quickly get to grips with his immigrant experience.

Yet, he is a ‘principle man’ and will not stoop as low as his ‘BBC’ (British Bottom Cleaner) compatriots who will do any old ‘graft’ to get by. His preference is the cushy hotel porter beat at swank hotels where a few lavish tips from passing Saudi princes could soon set him up for the flight back into Harare. Unfortunately, Chikwava does not do fairy tales. Our man of principle is soon forced to supplement his chips shop wages with a spot or two of blackmail, all too little too late to force a happy ending.

The grammatical English speaker arrives at Harare North with some discomfiture. London’s name is not the only thing Mr. Chikwava has taken liberties with. The book is not rendered in conventional grammar, or in any variant of the lingo that the Zimbabwean immigrant will be familiar with. This is make-work English ala Saro Wiwa’s Sozaboy and Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, although far more accessible.  In Harare North the distressed language of Nameless’ voice flags up his abbreviated education and foreshadows his teetering grasp at reality, while producing regular flashes of two-touch humour:

‘Does anyone have any question?’ the foreman ask, with cigarette in mouth. He don’t sound English. The cigarette in his mouth is in big trouble – on one end he have put it on fire and on the other he is chewing it with them long brown teeth. Me I am not doing no graft for this man, I make up my mind quick. P.51

It is in order to advise aspiring writers of the literary story that not all narratives from Africa need to be served up in its own patented variant of language. It may be an eloquent shorthand for authenticity but we must beware its fetishisation. This is an important question. The English is foreign to Africa and an appropriate, creative, use of it would necessarily subvert it to some extent or other. In the sense of this subversion, Tutuola is still far head of the creative clan — in the transparency of language relative to culture and in the imperative of story relative to language.

In The African Writer and the English Language, Chinua Achebe advises his fellow writers to

aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost...

I feel that the English Language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still  in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.

And yet it is not every story that requires a shape-shifting language. After a half-dozen pages of Chikwava’s broken English, the reader will get into the rhythm of Nameless’ cracking narrative and be pulled along by the story.

Such a pull would not have helped Petina Gappah’s book. She has written a collection of stories, not a novel, and  there is no single narrative to ‘pull’ the reader from cover to cover - beyond the enjoyment of one story and the anticipation for the next. From that perspective, the book should probably have started with the Mupandawana Dancing Champion. It is a story that arrives in this collection already accomplished in its own account, having previously won the Zimbabwean Mukuru Nyaya prize for comic writing. It can be summarized by the terminal headline that made its hero famous: Man Dances Self to Death, but on the way to that rather unfortunate end, Ms. Gappah has created a touchstone of unerring humour.

The comic instinct is another point of intersection between these two writers, their uncensored, inherently subversive way of apprehending life:

It was five years since Josephat’s wife had married Josephat. She had tasted the sound of her new identity on her tongue and liked it so much that she called herself nothing else. ‘This is Josephat’s wife,’ she said when she spoke into the telephone on the hillock above the farm. ‘Hello, hello. It’s Josephat’s  wife. Josephat’s wife.’ [An Elegy for Easterly, p.38]

To the right of station entrance one newspaper vendor stand beside pile of copies of Evening Standard. On front page of every one of them papers President Robert Mugabe’s face is folded in two. I can still identify His Excellency. The paper say that Zimbabwe has run out toilet paper. That make me imagine how after many times of bum wiping with the ruthless and patriotic Herald newspaper, everybody’s troubled buttock holes get vex and now turn into likkle red knots. But except for this small complaint from them dark and hairy buttocks, me I don’t see what the whole noise is all about. [ Harare North, p. 1]

On the evidence of these books, these young Zimbabweans have honed a voice to serve fillets of their realities to appreciative compatriots. For all their universality, the nationality of their fiction – and its individual focus – is clear. Harare North is more about Harare than her northern suburb of London. An Elegy for Easterly is more about the Give-me-Twenty-Cents-Marthas of this world than their indifferent mother-Zimbabwe.

For the purpose of this identification, both the language of the fiction and the colour of the characters are  important.  [Tsitsi now start wailing in proper native way, wrapping them arms around she head and throwing sheself about on the hospital floor in disorderly way and frightening English people. Harare North P. 99,]

The medium of the story collection gives Ms. Gappah a greater opportunity than her compatriot to cast a writerly eye over the breadth of inspiration that is their homeland. None of the writers are disconnected politically, but their main engagements are with the private fates of their characters. At the Sound of the Last Post is probably Gappah's most political. The story is angry, the humour more acerbic than most, but the jaded female narrator is just as scheming and cynical as the political leaders who are the foil of her sarcastic narrative.

Gappah's stories plumb rejection, indifference and deprivation. The fear of AIDS flits lithely through these pages. As a snapshot of marriage, The Negotiated Settlement could have been taken anywhere in the world from Brisbane to Cairo. In The Maid from Lalapanzi will probably be found the dog with the longest name in the world (They shot into the air to frighten people, and when her grandmother’s dog Pfungwadzebenzi barked, a guerrilla shot him in the stomach and he limped off to the forest to die). It is not the dog that stays with the reader afterwards though, but the sadness of a war that continues to harvest its human victims years and years after the last shot was fired.

For all the humour, there is a sadness that underlines her best stories. Characters stand indelibly beyond the geography of their locales. Something Nice from London, first aired in Farafina magazine, is anything but. The Annexe Shuffle is too intimate for humour, an intense story accentuated by a cyclical, cloning rejection.  The author indulges the traditional tropes of African literature. The inmate of a psychiatric war is asked what tribe she belongs to,

‘This is what slows progress in this country,’ Emily screams. The notion of tribe is a patronising Western construction,’ … ‘The Goths, Vandals and Visigoths, those were tribes, they talk about Serbian nationalism, but African tribalism. I do not have a tribe, I belong to the nation.’ P.61,  An Elegy for Easterly

This short story (and the psychiatric ward) is not the format to investigate what ‘nation’ Emily does belong to – whether the ethnic nation of her biological ancestry or the political nation of ‘Western construction’.

Nameless has some native intelligence, but it is uneven. He lives his life under a false death sentence, because he thought that a HIV-negative result was the calamity, ‘how can negative be good news?’ [p. 211]. Yet, it is all a pretence. The mind behind the narrative is quick and strains to stay unversed. The mask will slip on occasion:

The past always give you the tools to handle the present. Add small bit of crooked touch to what you do and everyone soon get startled into silence and start paying proper attention and respect to you…. It’s not accident that ‘skill’ and ‘slaughter’ start with a crooked letter. Every jackal boy know that too. Remove the crooked touch from each of them those two words and suddenly you kill laughter. P. 69

But this reviewer is not complaining. Harare North is an important Zimbabwean novel and significant immigration fiction that places significant expectation for the second novel of Mr. Chikwava. We trust he will handle the pressure rather better than his hapless protagonist. In 2010, Petina Gappah will cut her teeth on the novel format as she delivers her first novel, but she is without a doubt, a master of the short story. On the evidence of 2009’s offerings, African writing has two new chroniclers of the Zimbabwean condition. They have now to tear up the dog-eared script of Serial Disappointment that has plagued the political stage and try for a more sanguine ending.

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