By Memory Chirere

Ancestors: The plot, language and women Part Three Ancestors: The plot, language and women Continued from last week Last time we discovered that the story in Chenjerai Hove’s novel called Ancestors is told in a very complex way. You cannot tell what happens in this story with mathematical precision because the story is written in such a manner that you must not do that. This novel is a huge and very conscious experiment, which shows that some Latin American writers like Fuentes, Marquez and Allende influence Hove. For these writers, a story must be able to sustain itself at various levels. Dream, memory and reality must not have distinctions. Such experiments are meant to charm and mesmerise the reader. However, despite the various strands of narrative we saw in Ancestors, Mucha largely tells the story. Mucha’s reminiscences can be fine, minutely detailed boyhood experiences. But when Mucha benefits from Miriro’s narrative, the reminiscences are full of the omniscience of an all-seeing God. Sometimes everything transposes into the very individualised narratives of other people in the family, living or dead. It is imminent that Mucha is brother to Tariro and they have younger and older siblings who include Fanwell and Jairos. During her girlhood, Mucha’s mother is offered in marriage to a carver and a drum player who is old enough to be her father. On his death, she is inherited by one of his sons with another woman. Shona custom has it that all children born out of such a union (Mucha and his siblings) automatically become children of the deceased. Tariro is later given in marriage to a distant friend of their mother’s inheritor and it is not very clear from the narrative whether she lives on or dies during the span of the story. Hove’s English language in Ancestors as seen previously in Bones and Shadows, has very close echoes to the Shona language. It is literal translation from Shona to English most of the times. Critics have referred to it as “Africanised English” or simply “Hove’s rural idiom”. Hove’s novels can be read for the sheer lyricism of the Shona language that resonates articulately from beneath the English language. Some of it: “Son of my sister . . . instead of wasting your days in drink and women, come let us work the rich soils of these new lands together. You will be my hand and I will be your keeper, your heart, your everything.” Some more: “May the ancestors give us more people like you so the land can be livable . . . In drink, your ancestors and mine shake hands and say: see, our children know how to share the earth.” Through such language, Hove reaches very high poetic pitches. He is also able, through that, to harness a certain spirit of place and a natural if not nativist feeling. In the prologue to his essays called Shebeen Tales, Hove volunteers that: “In my work there is a constant conversation between the earth, nature and the sky.” In that note Hove is a disciple of Chinua Achebe who does his own version of this literal translation from Ibo to English in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. In an article entitled “The African Writer and the English Language”, Achebe argues for this kind of writing: “I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English still in communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit the African surroundings.” But it is not everyone who praises this project. To start with, if you Africanise English, it is clear that you are enriching English at the expense of African languages! Some critics think that Hove is indulging in “romantic writing”. Flora Wild even thinks that Hove’s characters, as a result, speak like one another regardless of their different age groups and circumstances. The language of his characters fails “to make any distinction between facts and fiction, feelings and intellect”. Ancestors is dominated by women’s stories. The stories of Miriro, Tariro and Mucha’s mother. It is not clear why the stories necessarily come through Mucha, a masculine medium. Of course, Mucha claims that he is “a hearer of endless tales, stories to which I belong but could not assist in making” . The stories of Miriro pour out into Mucha’s mind when he is “sleeping in the depth of the night” or when he is “sitting down there under the cool shade of a tree”. Mucha cannot control Miriro’s narratives because they are not his. He has mixed feelings towards this kind of set-up. Sometimes he thinks that it is right that Miriro speaks to him and through him because she never had the opportunity, like all women, to tell her story. But sometimes he is annoyed and considers Miriro to be a voice that comes and goes as it wills, with no respect for any barrier. Sometimes he is full of praise for Miriro’s voice, saying that it “is a dark voice full of joy and sadness, telling its story, my story, our story”. But once at boarding school, Mucha is unnerved by the voice that he writes to his father back home protesting: “Who is this deaf and dumb woman who keeps haunting my nights? Do you know her? I wish you did so could tell her to leave me alone. Sometimes she comes to me in the middle of the night, claiming me, wanting to take me away her. I talk to her and she begins to cry. She cries until early in the morning, wanting to take me with her.” It is not clear whether Miriro is taking Mucha hostage or is persuasive. She can be obscure and threatening too, saying to Mucha: “You have a story within you, and I am the story. It is this story which has made you live. Not to tell it is death. A story untold is the story of death. One who has a story inside them and does not tell it means they are harbouring death in their hearts, in their souls . . . ” The irony is that Miriro died without telling her story, her say about life. Given away in a marriage that she had not approved, she chose death by suicide. Maybe it suits her to haunt a masculine member of the family as revenge and as a warning that all those who are silenced are bound to seek alternative media. But Kizito Muchemwa thinks each spirit possession in Zimbabwean literature so far could signify the “backward migration of the spirit” that allows for the resurfacing of previously “suppressed discourses and identities. It allows (the spirit) to rediscover that which had been lost and discarded, those aspects that are too horrific to integrate and accept within a modern society.” Beyond that type of “a return”, it is not known what Miriro sets out to achieve. Besides harping about being deaf and dumb and given away in marriage to a drunkard, Miriro does not set an alternative vision. She stays far away from the larger society and there is evidence that as her medium grows older and mature, she recurs less frequently. And in the final visitation, she fades away in a flame cloud with Tariro: “The two walk away from this land of ancestors in which they had lived with tears in their eyes and burdens in their hearts.” But the two are not assured at all that no woman in the family in the future will be given away in forced marriage. Students should debate on whether Ancestors is a convincing feminist text. The female side of the family tree is portrayed as weak and hostage to the male side. The blurb argues that as Miriro and Tariro’s voices merge, the male hearer (Mucha) “realises that he must listen to and take responsibility for their stories in order to repair the damage made by his male ancestors”. So the agency for change remains the responsibility of men. l To be continued next week

March 2006
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