Elliot Ziwira @The Book Store
Through adept characterisation, realism and language, Brian Chikwava’s “Harare North” (2009) purveys, among other concerns, the way society creates victims who invariably become monsters, because of the templates it prescribes to individuals.
Shingirirai, whom the narrator calls “the original native”, is an intriguing character. He has all his papers in order, unlike the anti-hero, but he remains attached to his social upbringing which scuppers his progress. His neurotic behaviour is in conformity with Boeree’s (2002) and Freud’s (1923) assertion of clinical neurosis, although it goes a step further than that to find home in Horney’s (1950) notion.
Horney (1950) posits that neurosis is a compulsive response to a situation which the individual fails to understand. In contrast to the narrator who is vocal, violently inclined and candid, with his “straight and square” motto, Shingi is naturally quiet, peace loving, compassionate and somehow sissy. This is largely to do with his upbringing. He has never known his father, his mother died when he was still a toddler, so he was raised by his mother’s sister, who did not have a child of her own.
Not that she can be said to be cruel, no, but a fatherly voice fails to grace the home; and she has her neurosis to grapple with. Horney (1950) proposes that a child’s interpretation of the world is shaped by her or his environment as illustrated in the following:“When summarised they all boil down to the fact that people in the environment are too wrapped up in their own neuroses to be able to love the child, or even to conceive of him as the particular individual he is; their attitudes towards him are determined by their own neurotic responses,” (Horney, 1950: 18). At a tender age, Shingi is thrown into a society that has its own problems to deal with.
He is called a bastard, or totemless, as if it is his faulty. His aunt whom everyone calls MaiShingi raises him like her own child, but the problem is that she is barren; and barrenness is a thorny issue in African societies. Hence, two problems already confront the young Shingi. Totemless! Barrenness! Twin societal stereotypical issues believed to lead to paralysis and degeneration as the family line will be affected.
Society’s obsession to safeguard itself against paralysis ends up making it neurotic and intolerant, further relegating the individual to the periphery. Mai Shingi compensates for her barrenness through escape to masculinity. The narrator describes her as “Shingi’s bearded mother” who would rather “pick new shaver from the table and disappear into the bathroom” than slice bread for her husband. Her violent disposition functions as an elixir from the cultural restrictions that society drops at her doorstep because of her barrenness.
However, this neurotic inclination does not only affect her husband who is a conductor, but the society itself as well as Shingi. The husband who feels emasculated takes the brunt on commuters. The narrator informs: “. . .all them fare dodgers and poor mothers that rely on begging for conductor’s kindness to have free ride with they children is in for big shock, me I know straight away.” The community suffers for its own folly, and Shingi suffers even more for no foible of his.
As everyone fights his or her own ghosts of neurosis, as Horney reasons, the young boy is thrown at the deep end. His interpretation of the world is that women have control over men, especially if they are barren and that having no known father robs one of a voice to shout in one’s defence. This perception of the world also finds base at school as he is cowed and clobbered by Thoko, his classmate, for something which is not of his own making. Horney posits that the inner conflicts that boil within the child as he or she grows up simmer at adulthood as he or she attempts to find solutions to the predicament. Symptoms of vulnerability will solidify, becoming expansive narcissism.
This is what happens to Shingi as he finds himself in Harare North; the past refuses to leave him, his fear of women intensifies, his eagerness to please scales up, and his reliance on others’ judgments hits the roof, and in the end he is engulfed in a neurotic stupor that no one can extricate him from.
Pressure from home and ill advice from the narrator, Dave and Jenny, push him to the edge. Cognitively, he seeks the elixir out of the mire that he finds himself in, through sex, drugs and alcohol, because of the influence of others. His loss of virginity to a white Polish prostitute the narrator brings him, whom he believes to be British, seals his fate as it jeopardises his chances to win Tsitsi’s heart, redeem himself and exorcise the totemless ghosts that keep on stalking him by possibly having a child of his own. His naivety blinds him to the narrator’s machinations. Skunk and the hard drugs that the tramps, Dave and Jenny introduce him to shatter any hope of redemption. He spends almost all his savings from his BBC job, and eventually stops going to work because of his incessant stupor.
Subsequently, he is stabbed in the “mental streets of death” over expired tinned food from the bins, thus succumbing, like the narrator, to the neuroses that shape his existence, sealing the fate of his family line, his extended family at home that keep on pestering him to bail them out, and his nation, as regeneration is thwarted, and the empire appears to be the winner. Paralysis, malaise and stasis continue unabated, because the family, community and nation continue looking to the West for solutions, while the backyard burns.
Another interesting character is Sekai whose relationship with her husband Paul is indicative of their long stay in the diaspora, which makes it lose the African appeal that the narrator feels it should have.
Married for ten years but still childless; barrenness spells doom in the African context, as it has both literal and metaphorical connotations. Literally, it spells the end of a family line, and metaphorically, it points to paralysis, stasis and degeneration. If societal pressure is exerted on a childless couple, then doom will always lurk in the shadows of their bedroom.
Society always puts the blame on the woman, and compels the husband to try his luck somewhere else.
The narrator feels that Paul should put “Sekai through pain of birth”. Paul’s bed-hopping, probably in search of an heir, distances himself from his wife, who in the end seeks comfort in the arms of the Russian, Yakov. The death of intimacy and love, as well as long hours of work in the host country to make ends meet, for both the nuclear family and the extended one, signal barrenness, in the metaphorical sense, literally leading to barrenness.
The long silences, big TV and prepared supermarket meals take precedence over love, compassion and cultural considerations, culminating in social neurosis.
Fed-up by the narrator’s blackmail because of her debauchery, she lets go of all her bottled pain against societal dictates, in a vulgar tirade that stuns him.
Sekai’s escape behaviour worsens her situation, as she feels that having an extramarital affair with Yakov should soothe her, but because the main source of the problem remains, she ends up losing more than she has bargained for. Barrenness remains part of her neurosis, so no matter whom she sleeps with besides Paul, the hurt will not subside. Yakov, like Paul, are men, so they are two sides of the same coin; just like her brother whom she pushes to suicide, and the narrator who fleeces her.
Her hurt at her husband’s hand ceases to be personal or individual, but it becomes universal. It’s herself fighting against a patriarchal society that does not see it as wrong if a man bonks any woman he feels like, but will climb to the summit of Mt Everest to shout to the world if a woman retaliates, by cuckolding him. Just like Paul, Yakov can still cheat on her or leave her, because of her presumed barrenness. The narrator is not worried about his cousin Paul, or her feelings; all he needs is money to keep his mouth shut, although it is always open; and his pocket is deeper than a silo.
That she gets the courage to shut him up and dare him to tell Paul, though it does not exonerate her from blame as a kind of monster, it gives hope to her sex.
However, because she remains barren, and that her marriage is still on the brink, there is no hope of absolution from the neurotic state she plunges in.
In the end, through societal folly, the monster-victims that ensue remain to haunt the familial, communal and national psyches.