Social decadence as a universal condition

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Social decadence as a universal condition Shimmer Chinodya

The Herald

Shimmer Chinodya

Shimmer Chinodya

Elliot Ziwira @ The Book Store

Chinodya pokes at the nature of contradictions between power and generosity at the core of the middle class.

SHIMMER Chinodya’s short story “Tavonga” in “Writing Now” (2005) edited by Irene Staunton makes an interesting read as it explores the subterfuge and subtle nature of Man if left to his own designs which have a way of reflecting on his family, society and nation.

The social neurosis that may scathe him becomes a universal condition which may take generations to reverse if his whims are pampered.
The story draws attention, through its titling, to minor characters that the reader only knows through the first person narrator, who is the central figure.
This is quite unlike the titling of Yvonne Vera’s “Nehanda” and Solomon Mutsvairo’s “Mapondera: Soldier of Zimbabwe”, which are inspired by the heroes of the First Chimurenga.

However, although Tavonga is a minor character in the story, her portrayal is metonymic as she acts as a buffer, central to the relationships obtaining in the story.
She somehow completes the circle, as the thematic concerns of betrayal and social neurosis burdening the family unit and the nation as reflected through middle class experiences, centre on her, as is illustrated here: “Tavonga was the buffer. Between Bena and Linda. Between you and Linda. Between you and Bena. Between you and me,” (sic).

She is also used to highlight the plight of street urchins and orphans and their integration into the national consciousness. This technique is also used in “Tale of Tamari” (2005) and “Chairman of Fools” (2005). Memory Chirere in “Somewhere in this Country” (2006) uses the same approach, as does Derek Huggins in “The Lost Generation” (2005).

There is a drastic absence of social values, accountability and total negation of values in “Tavonga”, as is suggested by the affair between the narrator and JC. The unnamed narrator epitomises the ghastly travesty of morality at the centre of the family unit, community and nation.

Chinodya pokes at the nature of contradictions between power and generosity at the core of the middle class. He does this by centering on the plight of street urchins so as to expose the political and social nature of their predicament.

In the social sphere the author lays bare the aesthetic of ideology by juxtaposing the middle class discourse with the traditional one to shape an authentic ideology for the nation, as the following may suggest: “She (JC) was… a sensible woman and an educated professional but she knew, like most sensible Africans, that some things simply could not be wished away.”

This rationale is manifest in the view that adopting a child in the African tradition has complications of its own as is illuminated here: “The adoptive parents have to inform the relatives, should something happen in future.

The adoptee has to be welcomed into the family . . . accepted by the family spirits as it were . . . in Western culture a man or woman or couple can adopt a beautiful child without worrying very much about its parentage . . . or ancestors . . . but with the JCs of this world, and there are very few of them, matters are not so straight forward.

Chinodya seems to suggest that Africans, regardless of their level of education, are still shaped by their traditional mores and values. The upholding of these values is crucial because they shape the national consciousness, as postulated by Fanon (1967).

However, although an authentic traditional ideology should always be sought, it impedes on solutions prevailing, in an attempt to address the plight of street urchins and orphans like Linda and her daughter Tavonga, as those with the means to adopt them have to be accepted by the ancestral spirits and family of the adoptee. Derek Huggins also echoes this in “The Lost Generation”.

At the same social level, Chinodya lashes out at the tendency by the middle class to impose their own ideologies on those of a social class inferior to them. They fail to realise that, notwithstanding their poverty, illiteracy or desperation, orphans and urchins still have minds of their own, as they are human too.

JC admittedly say this of her daughter Bena who is an accountant: “To be honest . . . Bena sometimes acted big headedly, treating Linda like a domestic and flaunting her car and everything.”

In this context Bena is like Emma in Jane Austin’s “Emma”, who is so conceited, pompous and spoilt that she thinks she can control or change Harriet’s way of thinking. This may strain relations, as it negatively impacts on both the individual and national psyches.

As is the case in “Queues” (2003) and “Chairman of Fools” (2005), Chinodya raps escapism, either through religion and/or alcohol. Because the characters are worn down by toil and frustration to the extent that they abandon their responsibilities, they fail to find solace in the physical sites of both the family unit and the national one; therefore, they seek the elixir in the psychological sites.

Mostly women escape through the religious vent, and men and some women, find the elixir in alcoholic beverages. Alcohol has been known as an intoxicating substance used by humanity since the discovery of agriculture, for pleasure.

But because of the proliferation of social and economic woes culminating in frustration, disillusionment and despair, alcohol has become a substance used, not only for pleasure but for drowning sorrows.

The culture of consumption pervading Chinodya’s work is a bad precedent in the shaping of an authentic vision for the nation, especially if the middle class who is supposed to shape it is involved.

In “Tavonga” the narrator is known as “Bhiya” “alias Beer” and he lives to that name, and like his lover/friend JC, he imbibes like a sponge, yet he never refers to his family except in passing.

He does not seem to do anything else for his children like a father is wont to do, neither does he seem to do anything else. This culture of consumption shreds the moral fabric of society as moral values and responsibilities are put to the wire.

Using nihilistic aspects of modernism, Chinodya holds up religion as having a negative effect on the national discourse. The narrator’s family in “Tavonga” has broken up at the seam, due to a combination of excessive belief in two “evils”; alcohol and religion, as is captured in the following: “I hadn’t seen my born again spouse for months, and we had fought again about loyalty, money, responsibilities, beliefs, sex and egos, and this time she said she was going for good and now she was holed up in that damned flat, fellowshipping ten times a week…”

The picture captured here is a gloomy one as the children have not only lost their mother to religion, but have also lost their father to beer. As a result of the dearth of parental guidance and lack of anything meaningful to emulate from their ever quarrelling parents, the children are left to their own whims which is detrimental to societal regeneration.

Religion and beer are central to the social neurosis, malaise and paralysis at the heart of the family, community and nation as principles die in the wake of pleasure.
It is interesting to note how Chinodya uses the autobiographical mode to capture the realistic toils of a people burdened by hopelessness, hypocrisy and deceit and yet perseveres with the hope that probably the light beckoning at the end of the tunnel may become a reality.

Marital problems cannot simply be wished away through alcohol and religious intoxication. This reality of events drawn from the author’s experiences makes the story authentic as the reader cannot help but wonder how his/her problems could be mirrored in the narrator and all the characters in “Tavonga”.

The author, therefore, uses realism to capture the deceptive nature of power, moral blackmail and the neurotic tendencies that weigh down on the family and the nation.

However, although the writer skillfully exposes the foibles of his fellow men, he does not seem to offer solutions to the problems that he highlights, as the characters, which he uses, do not seem to be redeemed. They are somehow left clinging to their egos.

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