Born in Violence

Posted on September 10, 2015 in Essays

Review of Chenjeerai Hove, Bones: a Novel Baobab Books (Harare, 1988) & Isheunesu Valentine Mazorodze, Silent Journey From the East (Zimbabwe Publishing House.

These two books, the first an elegiac prose-poem, the second a novel of bald action, continue the enquiry which has preoccupied Zimbabwean literature since the mid-Seventies into the struggle for national liberation. It has been an enquiry into violence analysed morally and psychologically in terms of its rationalisations and its consequences. Ironically, it is the heirs of the former ‘terrorists’ who are conducting the enquiry rather than the heirs of the custodians of ‘civilised’ values for whom Wilbur Smith remains compulsive reading.

Tim McLoughlin has distinguished “two poles” in Zimbabwean writing, “the one that manifests historical, social and political forces in external action, the other an exploration of internal awareness” with violence being seen as a “necessity and inevitable” in both. There is a further distinction worth making, this time at the level of language. Consider the following extract from Silent Journey From the East :

Donald listened carefully as the man continued. “It is very important, therefore, to look back at those times when we suffered, when we lost friends and relatives without emotion so that we can extract the very important lessons delivered to us by such incidents. The ability to look boldly into the past without remorse or emotion is, I think, one of the ingredients of success in life Whether you like it or not, you are part of the war and you should never try to fight against that reality. Bow yourself down to the rules of the revolution in the same way you have to bow down to the rules of life.

The language here derives from the English-language politics of the liberation struggle – a language of speeches and semi-theoretical debate supplemented by the educational and bureaucratic English which has become the medium of Zimbabwe’s official culture. It is obviously capable of analytic insight, particularly in the public arena, but it tends when deployed in literature to depend on regular supplements of ‘feeling’ or analogy which are essentially sentimental glosses on the ideological content. Its inadequacies appear most exposed in poems about the liberation struggle, such as these overloaded lines by Chenjerai Hove:

Limping hearts leapt sky-wards
and sore throats blackened
as thunder boomed roared
to cleanse defiled tribes
Of human desecration
In camouflaged hearts
Licking bare soles of torn souls
seeking to pay in lead
the debt owed by so few to multitudes

It’s not the poet’s impulse that has failed here, the desire to honour the hopes of oppressed people as the war rages on their behalf, but the language — too many adjectives, sensationalised verbs, metaphors which don’t work (the debt is being paid the wrong way round, and why “licking”, why the sudden capitals at the beginnings of lines 5 to 7?)

But there is another Zimbabwean English used in this literature of violence, represented again by Chenjerai Hove in this extract from Bones:

Did people not get sad when Rukato was stabbed to death? They did — but they said too that they hated his way of boasting about having slept with so-and-so’s daughter or so-and-so’s wife the day before Yes, what can you do to me? I am Rukato the tree of many hooked thorns. Who can tackle the tree of many hook thorns without dying? Try to tackle Rukato and only the neighbours will be able to tell their neighbours what a real corpse looks like But when Rukato’s corpse lay there like a bag of mielie-meal dropped from the tractor by Manyepo’s driver, who did not hear their heart beat with sadness? Death is like that. Even if you wish it on someone, you may not be the one to see the corpse before anyone else.

I am no Shona speaker and must be careful about asserting the Shona sources for this English. It is obvious at once, however, that the doctrinaire message of the first passage could not be conveyed by the language of the second.

There was a time, following the publication of Aaron Hodza and George Fortune’s Shona Praise Poetry (Oxford University Press, 1979), when there seemed grounds for scepticism about the sheer lyrical beauty of Shona poetry in translation. The Shona Praises seemed so unlike the contents of companion volumes in the Oxford African Literature series and Hodza,who did most of the collecting and translating was plainly a very fine poet in his own right. Was he using the oral praises as the inspiration for rhapsodies of his own? His death and the disappearance of his papers to Cape Town does not quite resolve some of these doubts. But there has been abundant evidence since of the ability of Shona writers, even in English translation, to express dimensions of Zimbabwean experience which bureaucratic Zimbabwean English cannot match. Colin and O-lan Style’s Mambo Book of Zimbabwean Verse in English (Mambo Press, 1986) contains approximately 240 poems by Zimbabwean Africans. Fully half of these are in fact translations from Shona (or Ndebele) written sources and much of the remainder reads like the translation of poets, like Musaemura Zimunya and Eddison Zvogbo, operating easily between Shona and English. The richness of the volume derives for the most part from the number of these poems rooted in Zimbabwe’s living languages as they in turn are rooted in the landscape and culture.

Bones is a marvellous book, drawing on this Shona lyricism to create an English idiom which persuades, more completely than anything else I have read, that this was how the war was experienced in rural Zimbabwe. It is a difficult book to get through not, as has been suggested, because the narrative is confusing but because the writing is so eloquent, such a sheet delight to read, that the eye keeps pausing to re-read and relish instead of proceeding. Its success in winning the 1989 Noma award restores faith in literary competitions.

On first reading, there appears to be a number of different narrators — Janifa (Jennifer) the girl, Marita the mother of her “boyfriend”, Murume Marita’s husband, Manyepo the white landowner, Chisaga his cook, an Unknown Woman who accompanies Marita to the city, and the Spirits. By the end, however, it is clear that all these voices exist in Janifa’s disturbed mind. She lives in chains in the local asylum, reliving the tragedy of a war which destroyed her and the women she most cared for though neither of them witnessed any fighting.

The story is straightforward. Marita married Murume, the son of a chief, but they were unable to have children, and after years of suffering from herbalists they leave home to become labourers on the farm of the white settler nicknamed Manyepo. There, at last, Marita has a son who, in his adolescence, writes Janifa a love letter. He disappears to join the freedom fighters and Marita and Janifa become friends, joined by the letter in a relationship which stops just short of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Because of her son’s action, Marita is beaten and raped by the security forces.

She decides to go to Salisbury for news of her son and pays for the journey by persuading Chisaga, Manyepo’s cook who has long wanted to sleep with her, to steal from his boss in return for sex — and then leaves before completing the bargain. In Salisbury where she is again ill-treated, Marita dies and an Unknown Woman who travelled on the bus with her and who is herself compensating for her husband’s betrayal of a group of freedom fighters tries to claim the body for a proper burial. Chisaga claims Janifa as Marita’s substitute and when she refuses him he rapes her. Her own family disown her as she refuses to marry Chisaga and she becomes insane.

There are events that are recreated in Janifa’s disordered mind, the voices crowding her head asserting their separate claims. The voices blend, overlapping with each other, creating a haunting elegy for the sufferings of rural Zimbabwe and especially of the sufferings of women. They reach backwards in time to a vision like Ezekiel’s of the bones littering the landscape after the first Chimurenga, and they reach forward into the first years of independence. When the Unknown Woman persists in trying to give Marita a proper burial, staging her personal protest outside the morgue, the new Zimbabwean officials complain about the mad people in rags who are allowed to spoil their nice city: ‘this stubbornness couldn’t have been heard in the time of the white man’s rule: the women would be sitting in prison now, waiting for tomorrow’ (p.94). Meanwhile, back on the rural farm, Manyepo declares ‘I rule here If your government wants to run this farm, let them bloody take over. Then we will see if they can run a farm’ (p. 120).

For the poor of this novel, nothing has been changed by the war. For mad Janifa, conjuring with visions of alternative endings, there is none that would bring comfort or happiness, none that would be right.

In an interview with Flora Wild, Chenjerai Hove described teaching near Masvingo in 1977/78:

You always found yourself there with the people, you don’t look at it from a Rhodesian soldier’s point of view or a guerrilla’s point of view, you look at it from a peasant’s point of view. When you are with them you see their problems, you attend a funeral of some who have been massacred and so on. And then you begin to understand what it is to be without a gun between two people who have guns.

This is not neutrality. Later in the same interview, he praises the poet, Wilfred Owen, for recognising “the absurdity of war, how wasteful it is of youth, young people going to war to be butchered”, and this vision is present in Bones in the description of children being massacred in a righteous cause. But the perspective is that of the peasant caught between two sides with guns. “You people of the city”, says Marita at one point, “do not know what war was all about” (p.88). What Hove has done wonderfully is to give a voice to the powerless, creating an idiom which makes available not only their experiences but a strong sense of their values.

The experiences are vivid — the schoolteacher’s bullying over the love letter, conversations behind the ant-hill, the overseer’s obscenities, the feel of sweat and hunger. But what resonates most strongly is the bed-rock of rural charity. Marita, for instance, refuses to testify to the guerrillas against Manyepo insisting ‘his badness is just like any other person’. When challenged in this by Janifa she explains: “Child, what do you think his mother will say when she hears that another woman sent her son to his death.” Like Homer, these villagers know that the death of one’s enemy is tragic too.

No such insight mars the complacencies of Silent Journey From the East. Incompetently plotted and ineptly written, it tells the story of three boys from Waddilove school (‘loud cheering from the jovial crowd as the young men scrambled to earn points for their houses’) who cultivate the habit of visiting the local compounds where they are “touched’ by the villagers’ ‘rural simplicity and straightforwardness.” But they also get drunk and in a scuffle injure a girl friend’s father and then kill the girl herself. Fleeing towards Mozambique, they are implausibly accepted by the freedom fighters as recruits. They take new names, undergo many hardships, go through a period of physical and political training, and then make their silent journey from the east towards the war zones. In the heat of the battle, their different characters are confirmed.

At one level, this book is a Zimbabwean version of the oldest white settler myths. Three callow adolescents go into the bush and emerge as men, initiated by the disciplines of violence. There are curious echoes of Rider Haggard and even, in the laboured humour, of Three Men in a Boat. At another by no means incompatible level, it reflects accurately Zimbabwe’s current political atmosphere, the double-think of socialism and personal advancement, patrician politics with a revolutionary face. The novel’s opening anecdote preaches that the people must be helped but it is dangerous to help them for they are “primitive animals” not to be trusted. The solution lies in submission to the “rules of revolution” and to the “rules of life”, incorporating presumably the rules of one-party rule.

The novel has one interesting passage, describing the moment the guerrillas re-enter Zimbabwe and the rituals of their dealings with the spirit mediums. These appear to be based on experience (the author is an ex-combatant) rather than on a reading of David Lan and the passage (pp. 143-7) deserves attention. Elsewhere, the quality of the writing is best illustrated by this grotesque passage introducing the girl killed in the compound:

The girl was indeed a lovely testimony to the infinite artistic capabilities of nature. One could look at her for hours on end, imagining the skilful hand of nature running carefully through the deep grooves which formed her eye sockets. One could sit and imagine the skill invested in placing the eyes so deep into the skull and still avoid depriving them of the gift of sight and beauty. It was indeed equally amazing how her large jaws (on which her yellow teeth stood) remained attached to her skull, having been delicately hanging for a staggering period of seventeen years.

Are there no editors at Zimbabwe Publishing House? Silent Journey From the East is a sympton of Zimbabwe’s disease. Bones, in complete contrast, is part of the cure.

First Published Southern African Review of Books, Issue 13, February/May 1990