Petina Gappah's native Zimbabwe is not just a country at odds with the world, but at odds with itself. It's problems are legion: tyranny, hyperinflation, superstition, AIDs, corruption, to name but a few; and the causes of these problems are many. Strange then that Gappah's award-winning collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly, should be at times winsome, ironic and downright funny. As I read it I was reminded of the introduction to Doris Lessing's This was the Old Chief's Country (1951; 2nd ed. 1964). In it she wrote something about another African writer who, when asked how he could write comedy about the injustice of his homeland, said there are times when you must remember you are allowed to laugh in spite of everything. Of course, Lessing also grew up in Zimbabwe (or Southern Rhodesia as it was at the time). I wonder if she has read Gappah's stories; they are so very different in tone and flavour to her own but, nevertheless, connected by a shared recognition of a destructive colonial legacy.
The first thing that strikes you about Petina Gappah's writing is its devastating simplicity. How she uses the blandest of words to describe the worst of things. Thus a rape is confined to two deft and powerful sentences:
He had followed the woman to her house in the corner, grappled her to the ground, forced himself on her, let himself go, and in that moment come to himself. 'Forgive me, ' he said, 'forgive me.'
When the rapist finds the woman dead nine months later after she has given birth to his daughter, the writing is equally as concise: Josephat found Martha lying on the floor on her back. He raised her left arm, it fell back. He covered her body with a blanket and left the house. It is a style that lends itself to writing about atrocity, because Gappah knows that pain is more painful and horror is more horrific when we see it as ordinary and plain. A flourish of writerliness dissapates the moment. It reassures us that we are reading fiction, when instread we should recognise potential reality. These particular events occur in the book's title story, which is by far the most complex and difficult (not to mention least funny) of the selection. Set in a Harare shanty-town known as Easterly, it encompasses tragedy both personal - Martha and Josephat, and the increasing desperation of Josephat's wife - and general. As the story opens Easterly is alive with rumours that Mugabe's 'slum clearers' are headed their way, with their bull-dozers, to destroy a community which is barely subsisting as it is. What hope and affection there ever was has been steadily but not-so-stealthily eroded by hunger, unemployment and violence. The house in which Martha Mupengo squats was the home of a man and his 'woman', before he killed her and then himself; the mattress on which Martha sleeps still shows the blood stains. It isn't that Easterlys' residents ignore the murder, or Martha's subsequent rape and pregnancy by Josephat; it is that they live lives that force them to accept such things as events rather than as crimes. They 'live to avoid the police'; and when the police do come they leave again without investigating, 'satisfied it was no more than it was'.
Despite the story's content it is gentle with its characters. Josephat's wife, for example, who has become obsessed with conceiving a child, and who steals Martha's baby as she lays dying, is a sympathetic woman. Josephat is a miner, and away for long stretches of time, which she spends alone brooding over her barrenness, turning one day to witchdoctors and the next to the church for answers. And Josephat, whose life is nothing but labour and squalor and an increasingly distant wife, is not a monster in the face of his actions. They are victims of multiple criminal acts, perpetrated by governments, by neighbours, by themselves. In 'Elegy for Easterly' Gappah is very clear: the residents of Easterly are not cogs in the machine of poverty and tyranny, they are not even part of the machine. They are just grist to the mill, and must survive as they can.
In many ways this story is unrepresentative of the volume as a whole. It doesn't have the spice and fizz of humour that many of the others have; and it is concerned with Zimbabwe's very poorest citizens, when the majority focus on very different socio-economic groups. Stories like 'In the Heart of the Golden Triangle' and 'At the Sound of the Last Post' are about women who live luxurious but confined lives as the wives of the country's power brokers. The grieving widow who narrates the latter from her husband's state funeral stands on the same platform as Robert Mugabe as he delivers a eulogy. For them the daily fight is against their husband's infidelities - the men all keep mistresses in 'small houses' - and the perceived impertinance of their maids; the fear that eats away at them is of disease, of HIV:
You worry because you have not found condoms in his pocket. You find yourself hoping he keeps them in the small house. You watch for the tell-tale signs of illness which crosses over into the golden triangle and touches your gardener Timothy and your security guard whose name you can never remember. They both have the red lips that speak their status. The only red lips you want are from lipstick but you fear you may have them too if your husband continues to establish small houses all over the city.
This is a world in which infidelity does not just mean betrayal and a breakdown of partnership, but destitution and death. Gappah particularly highlights women's vulnerability in this regard: they cannot deny their husbands access to their own bodies, but nor can they deny them access to the bodies of other women. They cannot, because even as they sit and pray for their health, they also depend entirely on their husband's goodwill for protection and subsistence. Talk about rock and a hard place.
Everyone understands the bargain that Gappah's women must make. In 'The Cracked Pink Lips of Rosie's Bridegroom' the guests at Rosie's wedding recognise that her new husband has HIV: Disease flourishes in the slipperiness of his tufted hair; it is alive in the darkening skin, in the whites of the eyes whiter than nature intended, in the violently pink-red lips, the blood beneath fighting to erupt through the broken skin. They are like prophets, seeing her death - She will die first, of course, for that is the pattern, the woman first and then the man - but at the wedding they clap and cheer and celebrate. Are they complicit in her death, in her murder even? Is she? Or is it that there are no choices, and no escape when a woman must marry, illness or not?
Petina Gappah is most comfortable and adept, however, writing about Zimbabwe's 'middle class', the students, professionals and almost-professionals that populate stories like 'The Annexe Shuffle', 'My Cousin-Sister Rambanai'' and, what for me is the best in the book, 'Something Nice from London'. These people are educated and ambitious, but trapped in stagnation by ridiculous levels of inflation and endemic corruption. Escape is often on their mind, and emigration to Europe and particularly to the UK is a dream for many. Even though it means an enormous outlay of cash (literally billions of Zimbabwean dollars), a collusion with the corrupt authorities and a future of poorly paid, degrading labour in the West, it is better than the nothingness, no-hope of their home country.
Reading back over what I have written, I realise that I began by saying Elegy was a funny collection of stories, and have then proceeded to expand on its themes of injustice and pain. Strange how this has unfolded with no plan on my part, but it is representative of the effect of the book generally. On first reading it is, as I said winsome, ironic and downright funny, but this is just a shell or a disguise. It is disarming and charming, offering us a denial of the tender meat it covers. Characteristic is 'The Mupandawana Dancing Champion', which tells the story of an elderly redundant shoe maker, Vitalis, who turns out to be a talented dancer. He wins a competition in his home-town and gains the grudging, amused respect of the younger men, only to die during one particularly energetic routine while his unwitting audience cheers him on:
It was only when the song ended and we gave him a rousing ovation and still he did not get up that we realised he had not been dancing, but dying.
For Vitalis the dancing is two things: it is a joy, but it is also despair. He dances because it is a gift, but he also dances because he can't do anything else. Can't work, can't retire. In a very real way, dancing for him is the same as dying. Which brings us to that old cliche: if I didn't laugh, I'd cry. Petina Gappah has a subtler idea: laughing for her characters is the same as crying.
An Elegy for Easterly has an epigraph - a poem by Jane Hirschfield - that most perfectly expresses what I conceive to be Gappah's intentions:
More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on the one side,
it turns in another.
These stories, funny and sad, are hymns to the determination of a people to survive, and honest explorations of the moral and personal compromises they make in doing so. Petina Gappah is now in the process of finishing her first novel, which I suspect we'll see from Faber next year; it is called The Book of Memory and I have read an interview in which she says it is about 'the triumph of evil over good'. I await it with anticipation.