"Truth is often concealed beneath the surface of an absurdity."
Tendai Mwanaka’s “Keys in the River”; A Note on Obama and the Hope for Political Dialogue
One character from Almanac of the Dead whom I didn’t mention the other day is Clinton, the African American Vietnam veteran and homeless man whose researches into the history of slave revolts in the Americas and the intermingling of African American and Native American peoples prove quite intriguing. While his personal hold on sanity might be precarious, he is a compelling character who brings a lot to the table. He is, in effect, the novel’s principal liaison between the indigenous of the American and African continents. A common motif in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel is the African peoples’ retaking of their lands in the 20th century and their standing, thus, as an inspiration and a model for indigenous America’s eventual reclaiming of its own – as prophesied.But to what end this liberation of African nations from their European overlords? Isn’t Africa today wholly a tale of ecological and human degradation, of continuing and continual bloodletting and mass starvation, of the mere replacement of white rulers for black tyrants? What does liberation mean in this context? Is the future a hopeful place at all or a recipe for despair?
With these questions in mind it was with considerable interest that I picked up Zimbabwean writer Tendai Mwanaka’s Keys in the River: Notes from a Modern Chimurenga, which the Hawaiian publisher Savant Books brought out this year. In these stories Mwanaka does indeed wade through a territory rife with atrocity and yet also humor, love, and resilience. Answers to the questions posed above are not directly given in these stories, but a hope that the African peoples will eventually find their way is at least suggested. These matters are difficult and complicated, to be sure, and unique from nation to nation; and likewise nothing comes easy in the starkly realistic world of these stories, though their harsh realities are leavened now and then by a romantic tone – bringing the work, at last, to a high note of hope and dignity.
For “dignity” the author might say “nobility.” In his prologue, explaining the significance of the word “chimurenga” (which most approximately means “struggle”), he comments in this way on the book’s theme: “Even when a people are faced with a chaotic and turbulent world due to the machinations of despotic leaders, the terror of ongoing pandemics, the chronic poverty stemming from poorly designed economies, the human heart continues to pump with courage, with conviction. A chimurenga, then, is not just a struggle but also a noble stance in the face of the struggle” (p. 1).
One of the most affecting stories to me – and stunning in its effect – is “Limpopo’s Bones.” The Limpopo is a crocodile-infested river and one of the hurdles in illegal crossings between Zimbabwe and South Africa, the latter in a sense being to the United States what Zimbabwe is to Mexico. The bones, as we eventually discover, belong to an infant who is abandoned beside the river when this particular crossing goes bad. The protagonist is a young man who relates the wrenching story of what happened (and of his responsibility in it) during the time he was a sort of Zimbabwean counterpart to the Mexican “coyote” – “a Malaitshas, a border gangtster, helping people cross over to South Africa illegally” (p. 50). The story itself becomes witness to the ordinariness of the perpetrators of crimes against humanity whom we call Monsters – the evil-doing Other – while in fact they are just human beings much like us, only pushed by various combinations of fear and hate, cynicism and circumstance to commit their cruel acts (though the presence among them of sociopathy might not hurt either). At the same time the story puts a face on the so-called “illegal alien” of a portion of our political discourse in the USA.
How does one read such a story and still manage to see the average illegal crossers as merely criminal – for no other act at all than the crossing of the border itself, an act that people have been doing for millenia in response to the moment’s needs? What I am pointing out here is simply an illustration of Kenneth Burke’s notion of literature as persuasion to attitude.
Another story that took my breath away is the short piece “Breaking the Silence,” which deals, within this African context, with the problem of disappearances and death squads that has been so prevalent in Latin America. “In those days,” Mwanaka’s narrator says, “people were disappearing even in broad daylight” (p. 81). The horror of what occurs here to one young couple, the wife who is pregnant with what was to be their first child, is chilling. The horror that the story names is well expressed in this narrator’s phrase: “this terror, this monstrosity of patriotism” (p. 83). How safe are we ever, even in our land, from the violence of our own monstrosities of patriotism?
These stories of barbarities are broken up, thankfully, with stories about other things including love and even containing humor. The two most successful love stories, in my view, are an early story called “And She Said ‘Yes’” and a late one called “Hearts Are Victors”; these are the happiest, in any case, and very sweet. Of the predominantly humorous, the funniest is “Thus Far; No Further” which involves a nighttime raid by haughty boys to rescue their unjustly impounded cattle from the local mission’s enclosure. Against the spiteful nun and her acquiescent priest – those are who stand to profit by the usurious fines on an impoverished people’s straying cattle – the mischievous boys are triumphant. The little tale is itself quite charming.
The collection’s first story, “Sunset,” deals rather dramatically with the AIDS crisis as it affects one young man in particular. This story is directly tied to the last, “Sunrise,” which explores the experience of the girlfriend who might also be infected. These two stories in their unity, starting in tragedy, become a paean to hope that is also implied by the boys’ outwitting of their oppressors. The book ends, then, with this simple declarative sentence: “It was time to let tears run dry” (p. 243). Coming right after the joyous “Hearts Are Victors” the effect of this last story is very strong, and lends to the whole collection a sense of redemption.
This isn’t a perfect book. There is some linguistic awkwardness here and there, perhaps stemming from the author’s writing in a second language – though, on the whole, he writes very well. Some of the stories seem too heavy on the explication, which merges into a sometimes annoying moralizing – which in turn speaks to an occasional confusion, I think, between author and narrator (a confusion helped along by the introducing of a younger Tendai himself into two or three of the tales). But overall these are mere quibbles. The book strongly deserves a wide readership.
***The visual image and text that introduce this last segment come courtesy of my son, Jonathan, who posted it last week to his Facebook page. In this context – and I hope that the association with a book about one corner of Africa won’t encourage another round of birther madness; the forever re-asserting, alongside other baseless and racially-tinged conspiracy theories, of the disproven allegation that President Obama was born not in the state of Hawaii but in another corner of Africa – in this context it seems to me that regardless of whatever else anyone might rationally say against Obama he cannot be accused of an unwillingness to negotiate with the Republicans in Congress.
Perhaps his primary fault was just to keep believing – despite the open declaration of contempt for his authority and of a determination to see him fail – that they would compromise back.
What a sad commentary on the present state of the Republican Party!
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