Petina Gappah: Unreliable witnesses and the burden of memory
by Ikhide R. Ikheloa
The biggest surprise about prison is the laughter.
– Petina Gappah, The Book of Memory
Interesting and ambitious: Those two words best describe The Book of Memory, Petina Gappah’s new work of fiction, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It is an interesting book, burdened with many ambitious experiments. This fascinating novel follows many long years after Gappah’s highly successful collection of short stories, Elegy for Easterly. Years from now, scholars will debate whether Gappah’s transition from short story writing to this full-length fiction novel was successful. At the very least, this was a listless production for the most part, lacking the passion and joy of Elegy for Easterly. There are many brilliant parts, which make the book recommended reading, but the parts do not jell, largely thanks to an improbable plot with even more improbable twists and turns that gleefully compromised and undermined the book.
The story is narrated in the first person by Mnemosyne or Memory, the main protagonist, an albino born some years before Zimbabwe’s independence (in what was then Rhodesia) to loving parents (well, the mother, not so loving). Memory is inexplicably sold, at age nine, to a white man, Lloyd Hendricks and moves from the poor Mufakose Township to live with him in the wealthy and spacious upper class estates of Umwinsidale. This dislocation from childhood to adulthood sets up class clashes on several levels and she finally ends up on death row accused of murder. It is an improbable plot made even more farcical by twists and turns many of them seemingly designed to keep the story going. The story goes on and on and fills a book, broken up into three parts. The book should have stopped at the first part. One gets the sense that Gappah spent many harried hours with her editor, haggling and fighting over how to get all of this into a book, as if by hook or by crook, a book contract had to be fulfilled. Well, they did get their book.
Do not get me wrong: There is plenty to like about the book and there are many excellent reasons why you should read this book despite its flaws. Gappah writes some of the most beautiful prose that any reader will ever come across, turns of phrases sneaking up on you and delighting the senses. A disciplined writer, she spends time with every sentence, it is difficult to fault anything she writes (there were a few editorial issues but my copy was an advance review copy). Many aspects of the book benefited from exquisite research; when the book was good, it was like watching history come alive in black and white (Rhodesia) and in full color (Zimbabwe). Reading many sections of the book felt like flipping through the pages of a photo album lovingly put together by a gifted artist who truly cares about her subjects:
My mother wears a white dress with big red poppies all over it. Around her waist is a cloth belt in the same material, and on her head a red hat with a white plastic flower on it. Her shoes and bag are white. My father is in a safari suit whose colour I can no longer remember. Or perhaps it wasn’t a safari suit at all that he wore, and I have only put him in one because it is what all the men wore in those days. His hair shines with Brylcreem. (p 1)
The Book of Memory is a treatise about exile; prison, and the sale of a child and the resulting dislocation as metaphors for exile and longing. It is about the pain of stigma seen through prison and albinism. There is homophobia, mental illness, and marital violence – by a woman directed at the man and the children. Zimbabwe comes alive, Gappah knows her ancestral land. The book fills the soul with tender memories of the strong and sometimes dysfunctional bonds of the clan and community, of a dad, a gentle soul who upends the chic stereotype about African men as bumbling, drunken misogynists, a dad who dotes on his wife and kids, a dad who works from home, to take care of his kids and wife and who endures marital abuse with grace and calm. This is the work of a well-read, well-traveled and eclectic mind. Intimidating is the breadth and depth of her imagination. You can taste the townships in song and dance and want to eat at a certain restaurant called Zupco:
You will discover as you walk around the city that it was planned to keep the direct heat of the sun away from the faces of white people. In the mornings, they left the northern suburbs to go into town to work, and the sun was behind them, and in the evenings, when they went back home, the sun was behind them still. The streets of the northern suburbs are lined with avenues of jacarandas and flamboyant that give cooling shade. But in the townships, the sun is always in the faces of the people. And there are no tree-lined avenues, no cool grass beneath the feet, only the hard heat of the dusty streets. (p 38)
In many instances in the book, Gappah displays an amazing dexterity with words; she can arrange simple words in sentences that make you really think about the way things are. She offers the best analysis of the African condition that I have ever read and puts to shame those who hurl the word “poverty” at Africans:
We were poor without knowing it. There was nothing ennobling or romantic or life-affirming about our poverty. It just was. And you could say that we did not know just how poor we were because everyone else around us was the same. We accepted the simple order of our lives in the ignorance that other, richer lives were possible. (P 39-40)
I can see this book in the hands of a gifted scriptwriter and superb editor becoming a stirring movie about Zimbabwe’s numerous triumphs and challenges. Sadly, that would require a lot of work pruning the filler weeds from this inchoate production but it can be done.
There is the trademark superciliousness of the African writer, exaggerated by the fact that the narration is in the first person, lending the protagonist a superior all-knowing haughty air. The superciliousness is aimed squarely and gleefully at the white settlers whose ways are caricatured mercilessly as leading soulless lives but it is also turned inwards at the narcissism and self-serving agenda of African intellectuals and artists:
His career has risen with our country’s collapse. His paintings are different from the realist paintings that he said he wanted to paint. It is all tortured faces and screaming mouths now, slashed genitals and dismembered breasts, ‘Evocative images of his tortured homeland,’ as the reviewers have you believe.
His painting speaks truths that the government wants to hide, it is said. He is the artist exiled from his homeland because his work shows a reality before which the government flinches.
None of it is true, but who cares for truth when there is a troubled homeland and tortured artists to flee from it? The more prosaic truth is that he did not flee, but rather left on the arm of his German girlfriend, on a ticket bought with Deutschmarks, and that, having gone to Germany, he got himself a nice new passport before he traded her in for someone richer. (p 178)
The Book of Memory features a brief but brilliant take-down of the shakedown that passes for many NGOs in much of Africa and Haiti. There is also an incursion into Zimbabwe spirituality juxtaposed with Western spirituality. The subject of albinism got a good treatment here, it is not overblown, over-the-top, but respectful. In treating Memory as a human being dealing with biological issues due to her albinism as well as societal prejudices, Gappah humanizes albinism and effectively educates the reader about the subject. This book houses robust discourses on race, misogyny, and class (in this regard, juxtaposing Memory’s life with her parents with life with her white owner was masterful). As a delightful side benefit, many readers will be surprised by Africa’s love affair with the radio and country music:
My mother… liked the more mournful music of Jim Reeves and Dolly Parton and Porter Wagner and Kenny Rogers, particularly the songs that were also stories.” (p 93)
It bears repeating: The Book of Memory is not a perfect book. The book’s chapters sometimes seemed like passive-aggressive members of a dysfunctional family; as if Gappah wrote the chapters independently of each other, like failed short stories. A character or two appear out of the blue as it they’d been previously introduced in the book, the forensics research was poorly done and the construction of the death scene stretched credulity. Readers who remember the playfulness and unrestrained defiant abandon of Gappah’s Elegy for Easterly will be quite disappointed by the tentativeness of The Book of Memory. The humor is there no doubt:
She is in prison for biting the penis off a man who refused to pay her after sex at a nightclub. ‘Prostitute Bites Man’s Privates’ is a frequent enough headline in the papers to make it a common-place occurrence, but Jimmy’s attack was so ferocious that her victim fainted from blood loss. When he recovered, it was to find that Jimmy had fled to the women’s toilets, where she spat out an essential part of him into Harare’s sewers. (p 22)
Sadly, the humor is shy, unsure of itself, never letting go of the hem of self-doubt. At its best, the reader’s face cracks into a smile, and stops. There is little room for mirth, this is a restrained book, too restrained. It is as if the Petina Gappah we know was held hostage by an army of humorless editors:
The bulk of this book happens inside a prison, thankfully, it almost liberates the book. Gappah knows the prison culture and it shows. This is an exquisitely researched book about life inside a female prison. The scenes are convincing, the characters well developed and the riotous sorority of prisoners and jailers, soul stirring. Whenever the book strayed out of prison I would pine for the cells where brave but flawed women spoke defiantly of the injustices that landed them in the unjust arms of a semi-blind and prejudiced judicial system.
The Book of Memory continues a conversation about (the English) language and the stories of Africa, what gets lost and what gets mangled in the translation. It is a book written with immense pride, there is little attempt to explain indigenous Shona terms. Gappah takes the conversation one step further by simply writing entire songs and sentences in Shona with absolutely no explanation. This would not be a problem if one could easily google them and get translations. Google does explain terms like Voetkek to the world, and Zimbabwe’s history becomes accessible. One learns from instance that there was a cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe’s prisons in 2008 thanks to Gappah’s delightful penchant for weaving history into the folds of fiction. The reader however soon tires and curiosity grows into frustration as Shona songs and terms are too obscure for Google to translate or explain. In the confrontation between Shona and the English language, Shona loses.
The Book of Memory is like an airplane, roused, it rumbles, grumbles and growls, then starts a slow ride that rises into a flight – and then comes down crashing in a slow burn. Out of the smoldering rubble, the reader sees islands of spectacular brilliance connected by long stretches of drudgery and monotony. Memory, the protagonist reminds the reader of Ikemefuna, that tragic figure in Chinua Achebe’s epic Things Fall Apart: “That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death,” the elder Ezeudu warned Okonkwo. This reader felt like advising Gappah, “That girl loves her family. Do not sell her off, it makes no sense, it will kill your novel.”