The novel Harare North (1) by the Zimbabwean author Brian Chikwava, was published last April by Jonathan Cape (2) in London. Before becoming a full-fledged novel writer, Chikwava won the Caine Prize 2004 for his short story Seventh Street Alchemy, published in 2003 in Zimbabwe by Weaver Press. Weaver Press continues to publish, against all odds, the country’s authors from the nation’s capital city, ravaged by the never ending reign of Robert Mugabe. A sign of this perseverance cum obstination is the very name of the collection which features this sort story: Writing Still (3). The short stories in the collection were chosen by the manager of the publishing house herself, Irene Staunton. It was followed two years later by another entitled Writing Now (4).
The Caine Prize for African Writing was created in 2000 and soon rose to recognition thanks partly to the quality of its patrons (including four Nobel Prize Winners of African origin (5)) and of its panel of juries which is reviewed every year but which has included JM Coetzee, Abdrazak Girnah and – closer to the French-speaking public – Véronique Tadjo. This prize is now sometimes nicknamed the Booker Prize of African literature. Its originality resides in the fact that is awarded to a short story. Rather than recompense an already accomplished author or one who has already published a first novel (6), the Caine Prize roots out young talents in particular and more especially in African countries themselves; and in sometimes unusual contexts. The 2002 prize was for instance awarded to a short story by the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina published on the Internet.
Brian Chikwava had settled in London shortly before being awarded the Caine Prize in 2004. He had left Zimbabwe where he had devoted himself to writing, but also to music as a jazz musician. He was also connected to the world of visual art. By emigrating to Britain – or by returning to Britain as he had in fact studied in Bristol – Brian Chikwava had changed universes. Even if both the North and the South remain mirrors of each other. His short story Seventh Street Alchemy captures in a fascinating way the amalgamation of several destinies: that of an ageing prostitute and her daughter, a musician, a civil servant and her flighty husband. The narrative has a cinematographic quality to it, as if seen from above, from a bird’s eye view. All situations seem to take place almost at the same time or at least in a very short space of time. And a seemingly fortuitous networking of individual destinies combines the threads of the narrative. This process, common in films, was brilliantly exemplified in Magnolia (1999) by Paul Thomas Anderson but was also applied in literature by Alessandro Baricco in his vertiginous novel City (7). It’s hardly surprising that this type of narrative often relates to a city. They describe labyrinths where individuals lose their way and where any migration is actually made impossible by the difficulty of extracting oneself from the maze. Chikwava’s Seventh Street Alchemy is exactly thus: the prostitute and her daughter try to obtain a visa but fail to do so simply because they don’t even have a birth certificate. Their identity is denied to them and they’ll remain confined to a city where the only horizon will be the corruption of the police and administration, inertia and the totalitarian – therefore untrue – discourse of political power.
Harare North‘s « hero » has managed to extract himself from Zimbabwe’s labyrinth only to fall into another labyrinth in the North, that of the British metropolis. His only ambition on arriving in London is to make enough money to go back home. But he’ll get stuck in London. He’ll be trapped like a rat. Or like a fly in a spider’s web. Which may explain what strikes the reader in both publications: the relative weakness of the narrative thread, particularly in the novel Harare North: the narrative’s progression is minimal, the story which is in effect the chronicle of a squat and its occupants, includes few surprising events. The characters sink into a quagmire of immobility, they are quite incapable of piercing through the strait jacket which confines them within the city and prevents them from reaching the social level of the majority of citizens. They remain on the margins of society even within the city centre. They get nothing but the leftovers, literally or metaphorically: the anonymous narrator angles for the tips of rich holiday makers, two of his fellow immigrants clean up the excretions of old people in a home, the Europeans they mix with are either dossers or aimless junkies who teach them how to feed on the garbage turned out by an up-market grocery store. The rare jobs which they lay claim to are either non existent, make believe or usurped. The head of the squat who extorts the rent from the squat’s occupants pretends that he’s renting the house; it’s he again who is a BBC (British Buttock Cleaner) but claims that he works in a shop; the single mother from the squat rents her baby to women who con social services into renting them a flat reserved for single mothers. And all are of course clandestine or semi-clandestine, always at the mercy of arrest or expulsion by the police.
In the short story Seventh Street Alchemy, the prostitute and her daughter try to get to Johannesburg, nicknamed Harare South by the narrator in the novel. He himself will emigrate to Harare North i.e. London. Which he’ll later try to leave. But in vain. He’ll end up on his own in a squat attacked by rats. From North to South, no salvation. The corruption of the authorities in the African capital is replaced by the decay brought about by the search for money in the European metropolis. The victims betray each other mutually. The head of the squat, through his despotism, replaces the arbitrary governing of President Mugabe. Mirror societies indeed, where positions are reversed: the underdogs rule each other, the destitute integrate destitution and are faced not with power with a name but with a system which witholds its name.
So why move North or South? Why not stay in the original Harare? Because the characters are involved in the latent (or declared) civil war which is polluting community life. To escape the life of a shoe shiner, the hero-narrator of Harare North – who has already experienced life in prison – cannot resist the offer of the ZANU-PF, President Mugabe’s party, to join the militia, named Green Bombers after their green uniforms. On one of their raids in town, the militia captures a « traitor' », an opponent to the regime. The narrator’s task is to punish the traitor to « give him […] forgiveness » (8). The incident goes horribly wrong and the police then blackmail him. The head of the militia lends the narrator the money. The narrator moves to London to earn enough money to pay off the debt and to avoid going to prison where he was raped the first time round. He firmly intends earning enough money to return home with the sum which will save him. At the end of the novel, we realize that the head of the militia has also arrived in London, his only objective being to blackmail the narrator. Rotten through and through, whatever side they’re on. Only the narrator’s mother possibly escapes general dereliction. She is dead and her lost soul still awaits a proper funeral; but her sepulture could well disappear under the bulldozers of prospecting mining developers.
The great merit of Chickwava’s novel, besides its bitter irony, is to avoid personifying its victims. And to avoid looking for culprits. There is no finger pointing. Everyone is to blame. And all are victims of their own guilty deeds. Including the narrator. He was not chased away from what is less and less an Eden. He left of his own accord. And his intention is to go back when he’s found the hush money.The African Eden is now no more than a garden soiled by war and corruption. And what seems to most immigrants as being a new Eden in the North is no more than a purgatory from which its occupants can never leave.
Harare and Harare North are but mirrors of each other. One haunts the other. And there’s nothing to be gained from migration from one to the other – only a loss of identity. And the transition from one world to another destroys language. The crack in the mirror is the language: a language called Broken English.
1. Brian Chikwava, Harare North, London, Jonathan Cape, 232 p.
2. Jonathan Cape is part of the international group Random House which is itself part of the Bertelsmann group.
3. Writing Still, New stories from Zimbabwe, edited by Irene Staunton, Harare, 2003, 254p. ISBN: 0 77922 018 9
4. Writing Now, More stories from Zimbabwe, edited by Irene Staunton, Harare, 2005, 304 p. ISBN: 1 77922 043 X
5. Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, Naguib Mahfouz and J.M. Coetzee.
6. Even if Leila Abulela, the first laureat to be recompensed, in 2000, had just published her first novel The Translator, Polygon, 1999.
7. City, Milan, Rizzoli; 1999, Hamish Hamilton Ltd, 2001.
8. Harare North, p. 20.To be followed…///Article N° : 9387