Hope abounds ‘Somewhere in this country’
Elliot Ziwira The Book Store
MEMORY Chirere, in his collection of short stories “Somewhere in this Country” (2006), exposes the void that exists in a society that loses faith in itself, alienates itself and seeks solutions in my myopia.
Using nihilistic and surrealistic traits of modernism, the writer reveals the malaise, paralysis and stasis of the family unit which reflects on the community platform and burdens the national psyche. As individuals struggle to locate themselves in the national biography, they find themselves at wit’s end, perceiving life to be a dream. Weighed down by poverty and suffering, the individual seeks hope in the violent sites of his existence, sex, alcoholism and reverie.
Although some of the stories are not new, having already appeared in “No More Plastic Balls and Other Stories” (2000), “A Roof to Repair” and “Writing Still” (2003), it is the way they are integrated in “Somewhere in this Country” (2006), to capture the ever shifting trend of societal woes, that consolidates Chirere as one of the dominant voices in the short story tradition. The writer’s mastery of the art of story-telling articulates itself in his adept sacrifice of length for intrigue, suspense and thrill.
It is the way that the artist is able to evoke a plethora of feelings, as he compellingly combines the macabre, bizarre, mesmerising, touching and gleeful that leaves the reader aghast. Suspense is his forte and ambiguity, his shield, which makes him cut a niche in the emerging crop of Zimbabwean writers who draw inspiration from the post-colonial society; in a world where races are not only won by ability alone but through sheer ingenuity.
In this compelling fictional voyage Chirere combines the didactic and entertainment elements of the short story without camouflaging meaning in rhetoric and language. His language is conversational and simple, sustaining a seemingly simple plot; yet loaded with meaning as the visual and aural images created through setting and characterisation heighten the thematic concerns intended. His protagonists are mainly drawn from children and the old, probably because of the convergence that exists between their discourses. The writer’s use of the journey motif which borrows heavily from folkloric drama does not only create spectacle but it also sows seeds of hope as it is symbolic of flight. As the voice of the voiceless, Chirere tells the story of children whose hopes fade in the wake of violent dispossessions and neglect as their parents or guardians grapple with the burden of existence. This is especially so in the stories “Keresenzia”, “Beautiful Children”, “An Old Man”, “Watching” and “Jazz”.
In “The Presidential Goggles” as is the case in “Suburb” and “Somewhere”, he uses characters who command respect because of old age which is perceived to be synonymous with wisdom. The nameless old men in the three stories, embody wisdom and hope in a society that sees no solution in regeneration. However, there seem to be no clear vision in both worlds as hope is premised on insanity leading to universal neurosis, malaise and paralysis.
In “Beautiful Children” and “An Old Man”, Chirere highlights the plight of children displaced by war from their countries of origin and are thrown into the jungle called the city to eke out a living in the shadow of predatory instincts of their fellow peers and adults. Andrusha, the hero in “Beautiful Children”, sells eggs for Ma’Ruzvidzo at a busy bus terminus, because his family has been displaced by the war in Mozambique. The scorn that he suffers because of his Mozambican accent does not eat into his resolve. When word breaks out that the war in his country is over, Andrusha fails to grasp the essence of it all when Ma’Ruzvidzo tells him that his mother awaits him at home, so that they could return to their homeland. His fragile mind refuses to be cowed as his idea of home is a devastated landscape devoid of hope. Jeered and called names, the boy realises the extent of his predicament, so he decides, though begrudgingly, to join the quartet of his two sisters, Zhuwana and Laura as well as Eduardo and Dickson who are jubilantly singing the song “Beautiful Children of Mozambique” on their trail home.
This rationale of the futility of war and the darkness of man’s heart also obtains in “An Old Man”.
The story focuses on the plight of street urchins who are always in a cat and mouse chase, not only with the authorities, but against themselves as they strive to keep body and soul together.
Zhuwawo , who comes from a “far away country…where wars were endless and young boys owned guns”, is hit by a car as he races from Raji and his gang in one of the ugly chases in the streets and he dies on the spot. Sami, his friend is left at the mercy of the brutal Raji and his cronies. However, the enmity thaws as the infallible street “king” seeks Sami’s hand in an attempt to dispose of a baby he has taken from a couple that took him as a gardener and kicked him out without pay. The story exposes societal folly in the plight of street urchins as they are taken advantage of. Though Raji solicits awe as he controls “half the city and (its) parking lanes”, he is described as feminine, which makes him vulnerable. The fact that he knows many businessmen who may be up to no good, and is used for sex by women who “weren’t serious with anyone”, lays bare societal hypocrisy.
The writer lambastes the disintegration of the family unit and its bearing on the child in “Jazz”. The story resonates around a five-year-old girl, Jazz, who lives in a plush flat with her single mother, Emily. As she has no fatherly voice to soothe her, she is subdued.
She takes a liking to her mother’s boyfriend, Noel who reads to her and cooks proper food to substitute her daily diet of bread and butter, much to the chagrin of her mother who sulks on end; probably because of jealousy.
Much to her amusement though, she calls him “daddy”. The girl decides to be a catalyst in the consolidation of the couple’s relationship as she locks the entrance door, takes the keys into her bedroom and locks herself up, so that Noel would not go as he always does. It is then that he sleeps over and they tell each other about their failed marriages.
The children that litter Chirere’s fiction however, are not only vulnerable, but they also have violent dispossessions as they prey on their benefactors.
This victim-monster portrayal of children is explored in “Keresenzia”, “Missy” and “Watching”. It is this portrayal that reflects the dimensional nature of vulnerability which should be checked for the benefit of a viable societal regeneration.
Keresenzia is portrayed as an implacable girl who lives with her grandmother whom she calls Matambudziko. She is always asking for something that is not there and finds fault in everything so as to find a reason to cry. When she asks for pumpkin porridge just before sunset fully aware that there are no pumpkins at home, her grandmother disappears into the village to look for them. Chirere writes: “At sunset, Ambuya did not appear. The girl cried, tearing her clothes, rolling on the mat and crashing the clay pots. But Ambuya did not appear.”
Terrified the girl takes a hoe and hides behind the door. When her grandmother finally returns, she is so angry that she crushes the hoe handle onto her dead screaming: “Where were you? Where were you? You should have rushed”. The old woman dies and the girl panics and runs into the moonlight.
Like, Tambu in “Missy” and Batsirai in “Watching”, Keresenzia’s violent inclinations are not only linked to her up-bringing as she seems to be responding to the metronomic oppression embodied in her grandmother, but she epitomises the pessimistic and insatiable nature of a society that seeks solutions from outside its own parameters. It is such a society that Chirere takes a swipe at through his portrayal of children in “Somewhere in this Country” (2006).