Ancestors: Narrator narrating other narrators

In their impatience, readers and scholars tend to erroneously conclude that all publications after “Bones” ‘ the other novels being “Shadows” and “Ancestors” – are either poor versions of “Bones” or that they do not open, for Hove, new content and form. But all those are only subjective readings. “Shadows”, it has been argued, does not incorporate the major struggles of a nation as much as “Bones”. “Shadows” is sometimes considered as “a private story” that is “an offshoot of Bones” only as far as style is concerned. However, a critic called Mxolisi Sibanyoni prefers “Shadows” to “Bones”. He thinks “Bones is too much of a nationalistic text” and that it deliberately sets out to be “a monument to commemorate the martyrs of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle”. He adds: “Shadows subverts many of the nationalist orthodoxies apparent in Bones.” Such notions are amazing as they seek necessarily to attack all ideas associated with venerating the liberation of Africa. The notion that nationalism is a limiting ideology needs re-examination as it ignores the complexities in which nationalism emerged and developed. “Ancestors”, Hove’s latest novel, has been judged by some as “obscure” and even “difficult”. But Advanced Level literature students in Zimbabwe who are studying “Ancestors” will know that their exam is not about liking or disliking a text. It is about coming to terms with how a text says what it sets out to say. That too is clear but can be limiting also, as students at “A” Level do not necessarily have the opportunity to dwell on what they “dislike” about a novel. Hopefully, the students will unearth some special traits in “Ancestors”. Hopefully, they are not reading “Ancestors” for exam purposes only. “Ancestors” marks a turning point in Hove’s prose both in matters of content and form. With “Ancestors”, Hove is working with a more creative narrative technique than before. This technique in “Ancestors” is more common with Latin American Literature, especially as in “The Gringo” by Carlos Fuentes. For these writers, “narrating the narratives of a non-narrating narrator” is a common literary practice. You find here various strands of narratives in one narrative and pretence towards refusing to use a narrator at all. In the first strand narrative in “Ancestors”, Mucha, the immediate narrator, tells us his story and the story of his family as it moves from the tribal trust lands to the purchase areas. He continues up to the time his mother is divorced from her second husband. He proceeds until the family migrates to Fanwell’s place. That first strand ends with Mucha, now a fully-grown man, sitting at his deceased father’s home for a memorial ritual. This first strand of the narrative is the family story as Mucha consciously knows and remembers it. The second strand narrative is the subterranean narrative. In this one, Mucha narrates the family story from the point of view and spiritual instruction of Miriro. Miriro is a female ancestor who was born and lived deaf and dumb. She dies tragically when she hangs herself because she has been forced to marry a local drunkard. Through Miriro, Mucha sees and recalls the past before his own birth. Miriro appears to Mucha in dreams and sometimes in some kind of trance akin to spirit possession. Whilst Mucha’s own reminiscences capture events at the level of realism, Miriro’s reminisces to fill in historical gaps as they give to Mucha first-hand details of what happened in the family before he was born! In addition, Miriro’s voice acts as the all-seeing force that tells Mucha the immediate thoughts of family members, in the present and in the past. Combined, Mucha and Miriro’s family experiences span a period of about 150 years. Such a double strand narrative is the first one of its type in Zimbabwean Literature. This makes “Ancestors” rather challenging to read, as the reader must constantly determine the exact speaker. Sometimes Mucha speaks for himself and yet sometimes he is listening to what Miriro is saying about herself or other people. But this narrative threatens to do more than the double in that Mucha has insight into other family members’ narrative. For example, Mucha becomes privy to the personalised narratives of his mother Tariro and even his father’s. One could call this: Parallel stories within a story, told by one person as he tells his story and the story of one ancestor who lived and died deaf and dumb! The double narrative is “blind”. It goes very haphazardly across the ages and generations from 1850 to 1989 to 1960 to 1920 to 1970 . . . creating a very hypnotic and complex maze. Adding on to this charm is the fact that Miriro, who remained deaf and dumb throughout her short life, is telling us what she “heard” during her lifetime. She remembers the sounds of birds and animals, people’s songs and conversation. She remembers all things that are normally not available to those who are deaf and dumb. However, it is important to stress that she can only “hear” the sounds of the old world NOW, “many years after I have died . . .” and “Many years later, after I have died, I can speak. I can tell my story to all hearers. I can say all the words of the world . . . My joys and sorrows cross all the rivers of time and distance, hearing voices from across generations of families and homes. I hear voices of young women courting before I was born.” James Gibbs thinks that by augmenting Mucha’s experience with those of a woman from the past who was deaf and dumb, Hove creates a problem that he never overcomes. Gibbs is certain that the constant shifts of narratives in “Ancestors” only manages to alienate the reader and denies Hove the opportunity to pursue the multiplicity of themes that he opens up. Indeed, many broad subjects like migration, oppression of women, loss of land, missionaries, love and colonial impact are lumped together and given a cursory glance. One feels that this is a flitting novel that does not allow the reader to settle comfortably on any theme. It is a broad family history that pretends to unfold with reckless abandon. In his anger with “Ancestors”, Gibbs complains: “I am tired of the shifts(in this novel), wearied of the elegiac and apocalyptic. Even the episodes about the grandfather’s grave are allowed to become maudlin!” The frustrations of Gibbs with “Ancestors” are understandable. However, one needs to tolerate that this here is Hove’s biggest experiment. It is a very deliberate thing and more work went into “how to tell the story” than the story itself. Hove experiments with many things ‘ narrative, character, confession, protest, hybridism, feminism, spiritualism, magic realism. He also borrows very heavily from dream, hallucination, memory and the Shona concepts of ancestry , mamhepo (hysteria) and ngozi (the avenging spirit). l To be continued next week

March 2006
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