Celebrated writer pens extra-ordinary novel

Perhaps one of the few illustrations that one can successfully eke out a comfortable living through writing, Chinodya works in Harare as a literary consultant and has published three books in the last two years.

This is a feat that few Zimbabwe writers – perhaps just the late Norbert Mufumhe Mutasa and Mordekai Hamutyinei (both of whom wrote in the vernacular Shona language) – can lay claim on.

With Charles Mungoshi, arguably Zimbabwean’s finest writer, taking years to publish (his last book, a collection of short stories, was published in 1997), Chinodya has become the most consistent writer with a regular output.

After the publication of ‘Chairman of Fools’ in 2005, which a number of literary critics felt was below the standard he has set with his earlier works, Chinodya seems to have rediscovered his magic touch in his latest book, ‘Strife’.

Just like ‘Chairman of Fools’ and its predecessor, a teenage novella titled ‘Tale of Tamari’ (2004), the latest book was published by Weaver Press.

Understandably, it is natural for one to compare every book Chinodya writes to his most celebrated novel and winner of the 1990 Commonwealth (Africa Region) Prize.

But ‘Strife’, which seems to draw a lot of similarities from ‘Harvest of Thorns’, can stand on its own.

The story is told in the first narrative style by Godfrey Gwanangara, who narrates how the avenging spirit of a long-gone ancestor haunts the Gwanangara family through inexplicable tragedies.

With the various extended family members coming from different religious persuasions, Chinodya explores the contradictory ways in which they seek solutions.

Perhaps another plus for Chinodya – who has also developed a highly commendable and prescribed English text for secondary schools, ‘Step Ahead’ (Longman Zimbabwe) – is the thread that runs through his novels.

Godfrey is not a new character; having appeared in ‘Dew in the Morning’ (1982), just like the Farai from ‘Farai’s Girls’ (1984) was to reappear years later in Chairman of Fools. This breeds familiarity and a kind of camaraderie in the reader.

The book is a candid portrayal of a family trapped in a cage, longing for freedom but with the members lacking consensus on how to break free of the vicious cycle.

In many ways, Chinodya here stretches the stylistic boundaries in the English novel, too, and he does it in a way that augurs well with this kind of story and helps in achieving a high effect.

The use of both the present and past tenses, together with a series of flashbacks that help to connect historical events and the current situation in the Gwanangara also enables the story to blend.

Basically, there are two stories about one family, taking place in two different centuries. Through the adept use of that flashback technique, Chinodya is able to move smoothly back and forth in time, and in the process, puts into perspective the current ill-fortunes afflicting the family.

In some instances, there is the adoption of a monologue-like narration, where Godfrey addresses his young brother, Tapera, who has died suddenly in mysterious circumstances at the family plot in Gweru.

There is a belief among the family members that the plot could be haunted. It is here that almost everybody who dies in the story dies, and always in mysterious circumstances.

A litany of strangers, from diviners to prophets, walk into their lives to throw a lifeline to the sinking family, but to no avail.

One healing session is aborted after the father, opts to offer a prayer following a traditional healing session, compelling the eldest son, Rindai, to confront his father: “Hamubatsire imi! You’ve never been ill, that’s why. Some of us are sick of illness. We make an effort to bring someone who can help and you send him away with your goody-goody prayers” (pp.122).

Chinodya even goes a step further through the employ of a whole new literary device, which reads like a conventional play, towards the end of what has started off as a prose narration. In the final pages of the book, an ‘anonymous’ narrator relays a series of encounters between Godfrey and ‘Tradition’, ‘Patriarchy’, ‘Fatalism’, ‘Shame’, ‘Modernity’, ‘Education’ and ‘Medicine’ at various intervals.

This, however, is a reflection of the contradictions and thought processes in Godfrey’s mind during a moment of self-interrogation on how best to seal off the fate of the Gweru plot.

Chinodya is a firm believer in the futility of trying to flee one’s culture and traditions, a prevalent cancer in the black middle class family, whose affinity for Christianity — mainly through Pentecostal churches — cannot help them. This book, just like the last two from Chinodya’s pen, reflects a gradual shift from war literature, which for years has dominated Zimbabwe’s literary tradition, and an attempt to occupy the socio-cultural space.

‘Strife’ is a refreshingly unique offering, with the trademark Chinodya touch, typified by his characteristic large humour, witticism and occasional turn of the phrase. The plot, though dense, is easy to follow and very engaging.

Chinodya is a multi-talented writer. Apart from writing four novels, two teenage novels, a short story anthology and a set of English Language texts, he has taught creative writing at St. Lawrence University in New York between 1995 and 1997. He has also edited films and worked in the Ministry of Education. He currently works as a literary consultant.

December 2006
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