Exploring the motif of madness in Chinodya’s works Shimmer Chinodya

Elliot Ziwira-At the Bookstore

Although mental health issues are to be treated with the seriousness they deserve, somehow, mental illness seems to appeal to the psyche, which, in a way, has inspired writers like Shimmer Chinodya, Robert Muponde, Brian Chikwava and Memory Chirere, who follow the modernist trope. 

Modernists use the metaphor of madness to explore the social neurosis, despondency, paralysis and malaise pervading modern society. As Muchemwa (2002) observes, “Sanity is a very strange commodity in the fictional world created by the new generation of storytellers.”

Nonetheless, the use of the sanity motif is not new, for William Shakespeare uses it effectively in his works. In “The Tempest” and “King Lear”, he uses the trope to take a swipe at man’s tendency to sugar-coat the devil to suit his means.

Friedrich Nietzsche also lashes out at the deification of man in the absence of God, and his obsession with sadism and trauma in “The Parable of the Madman” (1882), using the metaphor of madness. 

In its innocence, use of mental illness allows an artist to poke at humanity’s follies and vices through sarcasm, humour and ridicule, and get away with it. 

It is this lack of inhibitions that excites the satirist and challenges him to look at himself from another angle.

Artists who follow this trait usually seek solutions from the past; using death and mental illness as forms of escapism.

Sanity or lack of it is the basis upon which Chinodya explores the dream-like state of the nation in his later works, particularly in “Queues” and “Chairman of Fools”.

In “Chairman of Fools”, Chinodya catapults the reader into the intriguing world of Farai, a middle-aged professor and writer. The protagonist is revered for his sound education and wealth. His wife, Veronica, is an egotistic accountant and born-again Christian.

Though benevolent, Farai is somehow eccentrically inspired by his own principles of nirvana, which makes him believe that everyone else should swoon to his bidding.

Unable to juggle between his excessive drinking habits as a way of escaping from the marital base, and his responsibilities, he stumbles. 

Unable to break out of the prison of his own creation, he slips into the world of insanity as discord falls upon the music of his soul.

Subsequently, Farai is admitted to the Annexe, an institution at Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals, where people of his ilk are rehabilitated.

The composition of the inmates at the institution is somewhat worrisome, for they are drawn from a cross-section of society. In their quest for fair representation of interests, they unanimously elect Farai as their chairman.

From then on, events take a ghastly turn with dire consequences, which can only be discerned by suspending any semblance of sanity, and engrossing into the world of madness, “a very fine madness”, as Mashingaidze Gomo glorifies it.

In the novel, he also discards the restrictions of the first-person narrator used in “Queues” (2003) and “Tavonga” (2005), for the omniscient and omnipresent third-person narrator, which allows for authorial comment.

He also uses interior monologue to allow the reader to shape the inner feelings of individual characters. Remarkably, the author uses the present tense, thus making the story cinematic.

Satirising the middle class as a decadent class, Chinodya effectively raps at the follies and vices inherent in humanity. He does not condone moral blackmail, hypocrisy and social neurosis prevalent in this class.

Therefore, through the “exposure of folly and the castigation of vice” (Pollard, 1970:1) in “Chairman of Fools”, “Queues” and “Tavonga”, Chinodya effectively plays his role as a satirist.

Using the autobiographical mode, he merges his individual biography with the communal one to forge an authentic national discourse.

Like Chinodya, the narrator does not only write novels, but he writes educational books used by the entire spectrum of the nation as well. He is a visiting university professor, too.

Therefore, Farai is not only a thinker or philosopher the nation depends on for connectivity and development; he also teaches other thinkers and leaders.

Farai’s validity as an artist and teacher is put to the test as a female police officer asks him at a roadblock, “Do you have to get drunk to write your books Mr Chari?”

Sister Nondo, who is reading one of his books, which seems to be Chinodya’s “Harvest of Thorns”, says: “I did it in my literature class at O-Level, so when you were admitted, I already knew who you were so I said to myself, “Maybe he thinks too much that’s why he is like this”, and I dug the book out of my trunk, so as to read it again and see what goes on in that sascamhead of yours.”

Chinodya takes a swipe at the culture of consumerism, and escapism through dreams, death, alcohol and religion.

Using the dream motif, the symbol of death, and the west, inspired by modernist traits of nihilism and surrealism, he examines the destructive nature of escapism. 

Farai is unable to release himself from the labyrinth in which he entangles himself. He is unable to unshackle himself from himself. As a result, he seeks solace in alcohol and dreams.

Through dreams and alcohol, he finds himself slipping from reality. Living life as a nightmare, he seeks comfort in death. Death becomes not an end to life, but a transition into a purposeful beginning as one may be able to manipulate how one should die.

However, instead of mitigating his problems, he aggravates them, for he slips further into the mire; dragging others along. His wife, Veronica, on the other hand, abandons principles and escapes, like most women burdened by sorrow, through the religious vent.

Thus, the family is left unattended.

The analogy between the annexe and the ship at sea in “Chairman of Fools” symbolises flight from the physical boundaries, which are both restrictive and oppressive, to psychological freedom. 

Chinodya writes: “The ship is as big as a football field so that he cannot see the sea. They are going to Jamaica to eat coconuts, bread, fruit, pork and goat meat, and lie on white benches; already he can hear the wild, welcoming sounds of reggae, calypso and samba.”

He uses modernist aspects of nihilism and surrealism to examine the general psychosis, disenchantment and frustration at both the personal and national levels. Dreams permeate the protagonist, Farai’s life. 

Like the artist-narrator in “Queues” and the artist-hero in Marechera’s “The House of Hunger”, he struggles to locate himself in the national biography. He finds himself dwelling on the fringes of its boundaries.

As physical escape is impossible, because of the restrictive nature of the realistic limitations of the family structure, the narrator seeks psychological escape into the world of reverie as a way of authoring his own epic—an epic in which he will star unrestricted.

As a gifted individual, he is able to escape from reality to fashion his identity. It is only in hallucination that he strives to locate his own biography. 

The dream discourse is manifested in his quest to escape from the restrictions of the family home, and all that he distastes.

This is symbolised by Veronica’s Corolla, which has been the “elusive harbinger of his fears”, the logos in his bedroom, and the silver Cronos. These symbols are destructive to social strata, since they epitomise ambition, obsession, avarice and deception.

 It is in the surreal world that Farai finds solace as he is able to conquer his fears. Moreover, the motif extends to his obsession with the film project, which seems to be a figment of his imagination.

 To him, reality has lost purpose. So, the film offers him a vent for psychological escape to locate his personal psyche, and determine who stars in the project. 

He says: “They are shooting a film of my life, and there is a part for a secretary if you can act and find my children. My children have to be there.”

The film, therefore, would offer him an opportunity to redefine himself, reunite him with the family, which he has lost in real life, and allow him to reflect on what could have been.

Using the motif of madness, Chinodya ridicules middle class tendencies, which are destructive to the consolidation of the nation. 

He lambasts the hypocritical inclinations at the core of this class; and explores the effect of fundamental religious beliefs, as enshrined in Christianity, on the national psyche.

The author examines the aesthetic of ideology through a non-believer situated at the centre of the family unit, community and nation.

He highlights the need for an authentic national ideology that upholds the values enshrined in national consciousness.

Sekuru Tumai embodies such societal values in his belief in spirituality as opposed to Farai’s lack of commitment to any. A stranger to national values, the artist-hero is inspired by nothing, stands for nothing, and belongs to nothing.

His decision to “sit on the fence” is tragic to the nation as expressed in Sekuru Tumai’s interior monologue, thus:

“Such a wonderful, educated young man, but so hopeless. They are all beautifully educated but still naked to evil winds…Books, books, books.

“That’s all they know… for black people there is no choice but between the Bible and ancestral spirits. And maybe science. No one can idle in neutral gear forever’’.

An authentic ideology, therefore, can only be sought through combining all the ideologies that constitute the family unit, community and nation. Compromise is the only way out in the moulding of an acceptable philosophy through which the national soul may be mirrored.

Although Farai is redeemed, since he realises his folly and helps himself to recover, his condition may not be completely remedied.

“Nobody who is hospitalised here is ever discharged. . . You are still a patient forever,” he is reminded.

Such is the tragedy that has befallen the family unit and the national soul, which Chinodya condemns using modernism and the metaphor of madness.

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