Thursday, 28 January 2016

No.14 - Zimbabwe Despatches: Lichen patterns





When faced with scenes or situations that baffle my ability to express them, I often resort to the miniature.  I focus my camera lens, Super-Macro engaged, on tiny, maybe abstract patternings, hoping perhaps that something of the greater truths might somehow be encapsulated there.

I have been trundling around my (almost) natal town of Mutare, inevitably encountering fragments of memory scattered over decades – mostly from childhood.  My junior and senior schools, which I’ve never wanted to re-enter – but I glimpse from the road the porch of the assembly hall where I quite inadvertently sparked my one and only boy-fight.  I drive past the houses of then-friends’ families: the Clacks, the de Zoetens, the Grisposes, the Balls.  I recall stretches of rain-warm streets and avenues of silver oaks from cross-country runs.  I pass the service station where I kept a bike that I rode the last few miles to school; and the dirt road behind the sports club where I skidded in sand, came off and cracked my elbow – thus disqualifying me from entering a national drama competition – I was due to play Marlowe’s Faust.  “O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!”  I pass the Board & Paper Mills, now defunct and decaying, where a kindly manager once gave me a huge pile of white card that kept my various projects going for years.  Just down the road, the SPCA kennels which my mother visited every week; and the glass factory in which my father worked unfailingly every week-day for some 27 years.

There’s the unmarked, unremarkable army base to which I had to report in the crazy days of 1979, and outside which I was more recently detained for a day for taking photos of two ceremonial nineteenth-century cannons, nose down in long grass.  Now I see they’ve resurrected the cannons and mounted them on plinths either side of the gate, so my arrest had some positive result.


All the time I’m suffering that dislocation brought on by subtle and not-so-subtle changes: the slab-sided cathedral looks just the same, but the surrounding streets are a moonscape of potholes and neglect.  Shops still stand but have changed hands: the gift shop in the arcade has been replaced by Western Union Money Transfer; the bookshop which for twenty years provided endless fascination is now a hairdresser; the restaurant at which I worked for a while serves the same fast food but under a different, equally cheesy name.  What used to be the office of the Umtali Post – in which my first published poem appeared – is now the Manica Post, another arm of the government’s propaganda machine. There are old and new petrol stations, but almost all with unfamiliar company names – Comoil, Zuva – ousting the well-known multinationals and selling ethanol ‘blend’ at a high price impervious to global trends.

Walking through the streets and the supermarkets (now mostly South African: Spar, Pick’n’Pay), I see scarcely a white face.  Contrary to paranoid ruling party rhetoric, whites are now all but irrelevant – a fraction of a percent of the population.  One sees gatherings only at the odd club, old-age home, or church – one rural Christian congregation used to have 64 members, now it has 17.  People in public are mild, friendly, and quietly cautious about the future.  I stop to chat to a young man – Tinashe – who makes a living six days a week on a suburban street corner, selling eggs, bread, chewing gum, airtime tokens, crisps and the like from a tiny portable stand and umbrella.  He is voluble and forthcoming, with the sweetest strong-toothed smile, but exudes a frustrated air of entrapment as he explains his business practice and the pittance he makes.  There is no ladder to climb here, almost no way for anyone but a politically-connected elite to flourish.

Superficially the place is peaceful, the suburbs reasonably well-kept (only the road surfaces, or lack of them, attest to the inefficiency and corruption of the city council, which as I write is being exposed by a government audit).  Power supply has been better than at home in Grahamstown (paradoxically because of an injection from Eskom!); water supply seems fine despite the drought; Australian flame trees in flower give the town a kind of flamenco pizzazz.  But most major industries have collapsed; almost all the iconic firms of my childhood, of which we were indirectly proud, are gone, replaced, if at all, by a welter of informal trading, cross-border smuggling, hand-to-mouth ingenuity.  Hence most of the shanty-like informal enterprises that were razed by the government’s vicious Operation Murambatsvina in 2008 have re-established themselves.  That’s what Zimbabweans do: rather than risk more conflict, or gather in large demonstrations (there are regular small ones, instantly smothered), they make do, with a kind of casual fortitude: shrug, laugh, cleverly improvise.


What doesn’t change, except at geological pace, is the topography, these astonishingly beautiful hills, even now looking improbably lush.  My host takes me up to Inyanga, granite country, mile after vista of outcrops and streaked batholiths and thrusting kopjes patched with multicoloured lichens.  I can scarcely stop taking photographs of that strange and wonderful life-form, that will without question outlast us stupid humans.  This is my refuge, for the moment.  The critic Jonathan Bate rephrased the French philosopher Bachelard: “The more we miniaturize the place we live in, the better we can dwell in it.”  Dwell: a word with loving and ethical resonance.  I dwell on – dwell among – these hardy splashes and patterns.


We explore the miombo, or brachystegia woodlands between the hills – so rich and unique an environment, my host asserts, that it should be defended with as much fervour as is the rhino.  Special birds: Southern black tits, and White helmet-shrikes, and a favourite of mine – the White-breasted cuckooshrike, unspectacular two-tone, but so dapper and serene, like snow-and-gunmetal. 

And we climb one kopje, bearing the remnants of Iron Age stone-built fortifications around its single access route, the foundations of huts on top, and a single thin iron arrow-head.  We are not far here from hillsides still etched with mile upon mile of ancient agricultural terracing: that too is Zimbabwean ingenuity and stubborn fortitude.

The night is luminous with a full moon, vibrant with crickets and fruit-bats, and an apparently solitary Wood owl calling, You-too, you-too, wouldja hook-up?  I don’t want to leave this place and time, knowing I’ll have to, of course: O lente, lente currite, noctis equi – Slowly, run slowly, horses of night!

***


Wednesday, 20 January 2016

No.13 - Zimbabwe Despatches: Politicians and preachers


Any attempt to gauge the temperature of a country, even for a regular visitor like myself, is bound to be partial and spotty.  I guess there’s much that seems so familiar to me that I scarcely notice.  One striking experience has been a drive out to the mining village of Penhalonga, where we lived for a few years in the early 1960s, in a tin-can of a mining house on the edge of what was probably a pretty toxic mine-dump.  Back then, there were exactly three shops and a service station; half a century later, there are still only those three shops, albeit with different names and client√®le, with a scatter of informal traders occupying rickety wooden platforms along the roadside.  The building in which I first went to school – there were ten of us, six different grades, one teacher – is derelict; so is the public swimming-pool in which I achieved my first true dive.

Nothing could be more symptomatic of Zimbabwe’s general stagnation.  Only the police camp has expanded.

Stagnation is the pervasive feeling now, a strangely peaceable kind of waiting, beneath that a despairing sense of returning to the dark days of 2008.  Almost any Shona person I speak to – the airtime salesman on the street corner, the old-age home security guard, the stationery shop owner – will end a disquisition on the situation with a characteristic gesture, clapping the hands together and then flopping them outwards, palms up, as if dispensing their emptiness to the world, and saying: “We can only pray, that’s all.”

It seems to me that there’s a marked upswing in the presence of the religious in national discourse.  There’s much controversy over the proliferation of “prophets”, upstart cultic figures promising huge riches to congregants but palpably enriching only themselves.  Conelia Mabasa writes in The Standard:

These new ministries are largely driven by miracles and healing, hence we have had a huge dose of ‘prophecies’ and ‘demon-manifestation’ during church services.  We have heard of miracle babies, miracle money, anointed apples, anointed condoms, gravity defying miracles, holy oil, holy water, among other hard-to-believe signs ... [T]he way Christian belief has evolved in southern Africa is sad, if not pathetic. (12 Jan)

The newspapers are full of religious rhetoric, the Christian lying uneasily alongside or interacting with traditional beliefs and magic.  As one commentator puts it, “It is a fact that a diviner becomes a prophet when he becomes a Christian and the reverse is true for a prophet.”  Quite how that works I’m not sure.  One article estimates that 90% of Zimbabweans profess Christianity – including, apparently, members of the ruling party.

One controversy has been extensively aired.  Apparently on Mugabe’s orders (he is away on holiday in the Far East – again, again producing a flurry of false rumours that he has died), Acting President Mphoko called on the entire nation to pray for rain.  This provoked protests both from within ZANU-PF, with at least one minister retorting that they should be concentrating on actual drought-mitigation measures, and from the opposition MDC.  To the latter Tichaona Zindoga, political editor of the government mouthpiece The Herald, responded on 12 January:  “[T]he [MDC] had said that the ‘Satanic’ Government ‘can’t call rain prayers’ – without a sense of irony, of course. ... Because the party has no positive ideas to sell to the Zimbabwean electorate, the opposition hopes to inflict pain on people via hostile interventions from evil countries in the West and the Devil in Hell himself.”  (This uttered without a sense of irony, of course.)

The Standard published its riposte a few days later (17-23 Jan):

Politicians know that churches represent a large constituency.  They know that what Karl Marx said is true that ‘religion is the opium of the people’.  They are, therefore, eager to use churches to quieten the masses who are getting restless for not being paid their salaries and are sick of being misgoverned ... [T]his week of prayer, is merely going along with a wicked and lawless political leadership in response to drought.

The Herald, for its part, can’t resist trying to turn this into racialised political capital.  In its view, small-minded opposition politicians, think they

can blame the imminent food shortages and lack of water on the land reform programme and that this should win them votes.... South Africa, itself the regional economic powerhouse, whose land is still largely in the hands of MDC-loved whites, is expected to import 5 million tonnes of maize due to drought.  So why can’t our political merchants of evil intentions realise the food shortages go beyond ZANU-PF policies?  ... God will answer in His time, in His own way.

The desperation facing so many in the drought is regularly being tied more broadly to climate change.  I’ve seen no sign in the media so far of the kind of climate-change scepticism that gets disproportionate air-time in the West; it’s taken as given, but there is scepticism that science has the capacity to address it.  In short, only faith can; as one headline puts it: “Zim turns to God as climate change disrupts livelihoods” (The Herald, 18 Jan).

The collaboration between Church and State on climate change, however, seems largely to do with trying to readjust the outcomes of the Paris agreements of COP21, in the interests of global “fairness”. The churches are to “liaise with Government to normalize its political relations with other nations so that people will also benefit from this global climate change compensation”.  It’s the usual anti-West diatribe, laced with the toxin of victimhood, thinly veiled.  Though government is making noises in the direction of solar energy, there is little to be seen of practical Church-State activity to address drivers of climate-related poverty and damage in the country: curbing massive deforestation, for example (100,000 ha of woodland irreversibly lost annually), or pollution from unregulated Chinese and Russian mining operations.  Instead, they talk of upping coal-fired energy at Hwange, even as the prospect looms of shutting down the hydro generators at Kariba for lack of water.

But the religious undercurrent flows everywhere.  Music, which garners a lot of media space, seems especially prone.  Hence performer Winky D has had to deny charges that he is a Satanist; while raunchy dancer Beverley Sibanda is said to have “hopped from one church to another in a quest to find salvation and to revive her career.”  Singer Fungisai shocks everyone by admitting she is not “a church person”, while another paper defends her as definitely still a “preacher girl”; and Tocky Vibes accuses a rival of stunting his progress through the use of juju.  Apparently “Most musicians use juju or consult prophets to improve their fortunes while others perform rituals before they get on stage”.

Finally, one article claims “Christian literature is on the rise” (while actually arguing it has long been sidelined).  A certain puritanical fundamentalism, all too obviously allied to political agendas, emerges in a related article by Morris Mtisi, in the government-owned Manica Post (15-21 Jan.): “Poverty of academic wisdom: Why Shakespeare and not Ellen G White?”  According to Mtisi,

The poverty of academic wisdom lies in its omission of the truth of divine revelation in its pursuit of glory, self-exaltation and supremacy, in hot pursuit of an education full of what God pronounces as foolishness. ... I question... what we mean by high or higher school education in schools where Godliness is not the subject matter ... at the omission of organized character building. ... Why the world celebrates William Shakespeare and other writers of literature and not Ellen G White who wrote 5000 periodical articles and 40 books, the most translated woman writer in the entire history of literature and the most translated American author of either gender, boggles the mind.

To my chagrin, I’d never heard of Ellen G White, but felt a bit better on discovering that she was in fact a Seventh Day Adventist subject to regular dubious ‘visions’ and ‘dreams’, and was (at least according to one analysis) a serial plagiarist.  (Several of the sentences quoted above are also plagiarised, by Mtisi, from an Ellen G White website, so I felt even more certain that God would forgive me my ignorance.)  One can agree with Mtisi that our world is riddled with “social debaucheries” and “male chauvinism rooted in worldly patriarchal society”, without entirely acceding to White’s sweet but entirely derivative notion that the best education “is to learn how to add to their faith, virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience Godliness; and to Godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity”.  In Mtisi’s view, “it is critically important to discipline mental tastes and not be perverted by overwrought and exciting tales of fiction or creative writing. ... There is a lot of intellectual rabies in the stuff that we read or study”.

I confess I find such intemperate, uncharitable, doctrinaire denigration of the creative human spirit even more terrifying than climate change.


Sunday, 17 January 2016

No.12 - Zimbabwe Despatches: Cross-country



It’s midsummer in Zimbabwe, and the trees should be fully in leaf, the maize crops in the roadside farmlands at least waist high and beginning to tassle.  But it looks like the middle of the winter dry season: many trees almost bare, the grasses on the verges grazed to stubble by ribby cattle and donkeys, the patchy fields naked and red.  Almost no water in the many river courses I cross as I drive from one side of the country to the other.

Yet what is it about this Zimbabwean countryside, that so affects and invigorates me?  After the almost suffocating dullness of Botswana, its banal flattened architectures matching the low expansiveness of its terrain, this is so different.  Immediately after the border-post at Plumtree, hills heave up; the brachystegia woodlands breathe greenness, even now; there are clusters of rock, many-hued, each individually fascinating.  This, at various scales from miniature balancing conglomerates through the great domelands of Ngundu Halt and Nyika to the long limber ranges of Chimanimani and Bvumba, is what Zimbabwe is for me: tree-covered hill-slopes, from loosely rolling to dramatically steep, overlooking the variegated farmlands and ochre-coloured homesteads, punctuated with bouldery domes of friendly rock.

I’ve always felt rather at a loss as to how to explain the literal lurch of the heart, a flummoxed tightening in the chest, on spotting the contours of a particular kopje.  It’s the way it catches late afternoon sun, or the contrast of textures of mopane bark and rusty granite, or how leaf-shadow falls across a lichen-coated curve, or an irresistible mystery in the dark bend of a transverse crack.  I’ve read a fair bit of landscape aesthetic theory, and nowhere have I found this emotional effect really adequately described.  It’s not just familiarity from childhood, as a prospect wholly new to me can have the impact.  It’s not just the effect of landscape art, though I’ve studied and practiced some of that, too, and know about Burke’s theories of the Romantic sublime – but some of the scenes I thrill to are two metres high.  It’s sometimes, but not always, a matter of pattern or shape, since often the distribution of effects seems entirely random.  It’s partly, perhaps, the way my mother taught me to observe and enthuse, since many people I know don’t respond in quite the same way.

And all of the above.

Stop trying to explain!  I trundle in my pick-up along the spanking new Chinese-built road between Plumtree and Bulawayo, exulting in this or that view, shocked at the dryness of fields between their collapsing fences of mingled thornbush and wire, dodging donkeys and ruminative cows and multiple police road-blocks.  After Bulawayo – passing the Mater Dei Hospital, scene of my birth – I turn southwards briefly, recalling a mantra of my younger journeys: Turn left at Balla Balla.  It’s Mbalambala now, of course: opposite the army training camp languish several acres of stacked metal railway sleepers and rails, whether abandoned to economic downturn or awaiting prospective use, is impossible to say.

I turn left for the east, my ultimate destination.  A policeman in dark blue denims signals for a lift.  Policemen are always interesting to talk to, and this one is no exception.  He has been in the ZRP for 17 years, he tells me, mostly because it’s one of the few jobs available these days, though even then inadequately paid.  Like most working men, he has many family members dependent on him; he didn’t get his bonus last year, and the buying power of his salary has nearly halved since 2008.  “I don’t want to say I blame the government,” he says,  “because I am the government, I work for the government.  But I don’t want to say I work for the government, I work parallel to the government” – and he illustrates his ambivalence with big gestures.  Like everyone else, he hopes for some sort of change – more jobs, more industry, more investment – though quite how that is to come about he can’t specify. “Here I am, getting lifts – but I should be having my own car!” he almost shouts.  We discuss the Chinese presence; he dislikes them intensely, they are exploitative, and “they have no love,” he says. And of course we discuss the drought, and the parlous state of the dam nearby that supplies Bulawayo city; and he insists with some vehemence that one must distinguish clearly between weather and climate, the short-term and the long-term.  “We must just pray,” he concludes.

I drop him off at the Filabusi turnoff – he commutes some 80 km almost daily – and immediately pick up a lanky Rastafarian-looking man, his dreads tucked away in a yellow woollen turban, his ivory fingernails grown long, his skin tawny as an Ethiopian’s.  He commutes a similar distance between Filabusi and Zvishavane – he calls it by its colonial version, Shabani; perhaps he thinks my whiteness won’t accommodate the buzzing Shona sibilants.  He is eloquent and affable and curious; he turns out to be a driving instructor, and we discuss the odd fact that in these straitened times two minor industries seem to flourish: hairdressing and driving schools.  We discuss fuel consumption rates and his desire to move to Namibia, since it is becoming intolerable here.  The political future is deeply uncertain, to say the least.  He notes a truck turning out ahead of us, loaded with rough pale ore from a mining claim, going to a Chinese-owned mill to be crushed for its gold.  We discuss the depressed state of Zvishavane due to the closing of the asbestos mine.  We discuss the drought, of course, and he informs me that in nearby Chivu people are already slaughtering livestock and selling it off at rip-off prices to the abbatoirs, since they will soon be too thin to sell at all; but what prospect then of restoring the herds?  “We can only pray to the Most High One,” he concludes.  “He is punishing the nation.”

I decide to refrain from engaging this sweet man in discussion of why God’s punishment seems to descend disproportionately on the meek, the weak, and the impoverished.

East of Masvingo that impoverishment is stark.  There are simply no crops: stubble, here and there ploughed in again, as if hoping for another season to begin.  The farms taken over by war vets look abandoned; even the Zionist Church lands, fronting their massive green-roofed temple, which are usually the best-advanced and organised on this stretch of road, are bare.  Livestock is thin, both in body and distribution: where South Africa’s road-kill often includes wild animals, and Botswana’s is almost exclusively donkeys and dogs, here there is none at all.  Traffic is sparse, and generally comfortingly (sometimes infuriatingly) sedate in pace.  There thunder past, however, quite a few burnished new buses – ZUPCO and other new companies – alongside the rattletraps, little better than modified flour-tins, that I once used when I was a rural teacher.

At a favourite baobab near Birchenough Bridge I stop for coffee.  Spaces between the lovely rocks are crammed with discarded drink-cans.  I’ve noticed – especially with the bush and grasses so thinned by drought – not a single kilometre of this journey is unmarred by a greater or lesser density of litter: long streams of broken glass glittering in the sun, plastic bags and cans and KFC packaging and bog-roll.  This despite the President’s call a while ago to clean the country up, and recently some litter-bugs being prosecuted, named and shamed.  Yet just thirty metres from the verge, again and again you’ll see a neat cluster of huts and byres, all ochre mud and uneven wood fences, the surrounds swept down to the raw dust, but clean as dust can be, not a scrap of trash to be seen there.  If only that ethic extended to modern motorists and their careless civilised junk.

Turning north from Birchenough Bridge and the worst stretch of broken-up road surface on all the journey, I am on the home run – 123 km to Mutare.  Here you pass, as elsewhere, the Zim equivalent of the American strips: rows of shop-fronts set back from the road, most of similar architecture, with verandas tacked on to the flat shopfronts, leaving enough space above their roofs for the business name: Big Pees Enterprises and Muchadza General Dealer and TV and Butchery Investments Ltd.  Some are derelict, others flash with garish new lime-green or deep purple paintwork; rather like traditional huts, perhaps, buildings are established, deteriorate, and are abandoned, rather than being continuously maintained, and new ones spring up alongside.  So there is this kind of continuous archaeology of enterprise, an air of decay simultaneous with hope and vigour.

Rutted communal forecourts are gently busy with battered cars and loose goats and donkey-carts and minibus taxis colourfully emblazoned: King Shaddy or The Hardworkers or Roasted Wire or Psalms 23.  In the shade of great mango or acacia trees, knots of seated people: small-time vendors of tomatoes and mangoes and baobab pods – unusually, no roasted maize-on-the-cob, a staple the drought has rendered unavailable – their fruit arranged in little heaps of such symmetry, perhaps inadvertent artistry, that is touching.  It’s midday and clusters of tiny school-kids are prancing home, irrepressible as the goat-kids alongside them, all gangly and cute in crisp uniforms too big for them and wholly unsupervised – a freedom and insouciance that has been largely leached from Western societies.

Nyanyadzi is one such ‘strip’ I recall convoying through during the war in the late 1970s; and I can safely say that, whatever the hardships of the present moment, it’s a hundred times better than it was then, when there was virtually no life here at all, when the derelict buildings were not just abandoned, but blackened by fires and pock-marked with terror.  And here is Wengezi Junction, where I used to turn off to the school I taught at for a time.  Ugly memories; fond memories.

At last, north of the beautiful blue granite dome of Rowa, not far from the notorious Chiadza diamond fields, truly familiar batholiths and ridges are coming into view beyond the curving road, and I both settle and buzz in my nerve-ends with my impending arrival at what was once home.  Despite whole decades of absence, in some sense it remains so.



Monday, 4 January 2016

No.11 – Jane Smiley’s "Moo": Pigs, pedagogy, politics


A friend recently asked me for examples of the “campus novel”, especially local ones – and I couldn’t think of many.  Internet sources list dozens from elsewhere – David Lodge’s satirical novels pre-eminent among them – but for South Africa I could only recall J M Coetzee’s grim novel Disgrace, which features its disgraced professor but is only partly campus-set; and there’s Graham Lang’s Clouds Like Black Dogs, set in the art department of my own university.  I’m told there are one or two others, but none that I’ve read.

I don’t know that we have anything on the scale or density of Jane Smiley’s new novel, Moo.  Some years ago I was hugely impressed by her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres, a Midwest-America “rewriting” of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  The fictional Moo University is also located somewhere on the flat Midwestern plains, and is an institution with a strong agricultural-research element.  Hence there’s a lot about pigs (or “hogs”, as they prefer), chickens and cattle, and the eating thereof.  But also so much more about the inner workings (I’m tempted to say “bowel movements”) of a large university: its pedagogies and its politics, its committees and conferences, its internal squabbles and eccentric characters.

Indeed, there is no really central character, rather a slew of personalities, from pompous Associate Vice-presidents to minority-group students, an influential secretary and a deluded economist, a nutter nursing a secret revolutionary agricultural machine, a cafeteria serving-lady, and many more – their lives all intersecting in weird and ironic ways.  The whole is so intricately plotted that, having finished the novel, I enjoyed going right back to the beginning again to understand just how Jane Smiley manages to draw the multiple strings together.  Many of the characters comment on each other, as does the authorial voice, so your opinion of them never quite settles; it’s impossible either to sympathise wholly with one character, and almost impossible not to empathise with even the most obnoxious personages.  It’s all very sly, at times laugh-out-loud funny, highly intelligent, with disturbing elements of truth in even the most outrageous views presented.

We might feel rather isolated, if not unique, down here on the southern tip of Africa, but there’s much in Moo that university types will easily recognise; there is a kind of global “university culture”.  Take this passage:


It was well known among the citizens of the state that the university had pots of money and that there were highly paid faculty members in every department who had once taught Marxism and now taught something called deconstructionism which was only Marxism gone underground in preparation for emergence at a time of national weakness.
            It was well known among the legislators that the faculty as a whole was determined to undermine the moral and commercial well-being of the state, and that supporting a large and nationally-famous university with state monies was exactly analogous to raising a nest of vipers in your own bed.
            It was well known among the faculty that the governor and the state legislature had lost interest in education some twenty years before and that it was only a matter of time before all classes would be taught as lectures, all exams given as computer-graded multiple choice, all subscriptions to professional journals at the library stopped, and all research time given up to committee work and administrative red tape.

This is only slightly tongue-in-cheek: anyone who has listened to recent pronouncements issuing from our own ministries would be forgiven for deducing that universities and academics are regarded by government with grave suspicion, if not antipathy.  Insecure and totalitarian elements in the ruling party (present √† la past) evidently cleave to the old mantra that a poorly-educated population is a malleable one. 

Jane Smiley (Photo: Elana Seibert)
We literary lot can be regarded with particular suspicion – the best antidote to which is to class us as irrelevant.  (Many of our current “development”-driven funding models simply leave literature out of their categories.)  We are not all post-Marxist deconstructionists, mind: at least some of us would concur with one Moo U character:

Margaret was not fond of recent fashions in literary theory, fashions that delighted in finding formal or(and) stylistic contradictions in a piece of writing(text), and used them to prove that the text has no meaning.

Margaret is proud to be able to deliver a dissenting paper on the subject to the Modern Language Association (MLA), America’s premier literature-studies talk-shop, but she’s thoroughly deflated upon realising that MLA conferences comprise “too many papers on too many topics at too many conflicting times by too many self-absorbed professors.”  Having been to a couple of MLAs myself, I can confirm the experience!

And at least some of us must be troubled by the imputation that we belong to a “a professorial population that was, in general, insulated from the consequences of most of its own actions by tenure, mandated salary rises, and other perks of university life.”  In this novel, those perks are being threatened by major budget cuts (as we are in South Africa at the moment), with the result that universities are shoved for funding in the direction of commercial corporations.  Minister Blade Nzimande has uttered similar sentiments in the wake of the #FeesMustFall campaign, ignoring the lessons of the rest of the world that privatising funding is almost always disastrous for academic freedom and innovation.  As Marina Warner has (sorry) warned of British universities, “the new managers want to pack ’em [students] in and pile ’em high – and then neglect their interests by maltreating their teachers”.  This is Smiley’s take:

Associations of mutual interest between the university and the corporations were natural, inevitable and widely accepted.  According to the state legislature, they were to be actively pursued. ... Actually paying for the university out of state funds was irresponsible, or even immoral, or even criminal (robbing widows and children, etc., to fatten sleek professors who couldn’t find real employment, etc.)

One result of corporate interest is that a certain Dr Lionel Gift –  a particularly self-satisfied economist whose solitary virtue is what he calls “consumer insatiability” supported by rigorous rationality –  compiles a report supporting the digging of a gold mine under (or rather, through) South America’s last remaining virgin cloud forest.  The leaking of this report proves one of the novel’s central events, sparking conspiracy, farcical exchanges, a riot, and a corporate implosion.  Dr Gift would come across as quite insane (or a “piece of shit”, as another character views him), were it not so true to reality. (Just a fortnight ago television news showed footage of authorities blowing up illegal goldmine workings in Peruvian rain forest; and South Africa is replete with instances of mining interests, often supported by university-based “consultants”, trumping environmental-damage concerns.)

Apart from this ecological thread, Moo also encompasses a strong animal presence.  Indeed, it opens with a description of a building named “Old Meats”, now destined for demolition but once

bustling with activity, with white-coated, bloody-aproned meat science instructors who formed a tangible link between the animal on the hoof and the meat on the table.  They were men of great strength and specific physical skills, who could fell an animal and bleed it and gut it and skin it, then show you the layers of fat and meat, the marbling that distinguished Grade A from prime.  All the time the blood was flowing, they’d be talking. ... They had no illusions, those men, about the cost of human life – it was high, and the fate of domesticated animals and plants was to pay it.

Now, Old Meats contains just one large hog, named Earl Butz, subject of a renegade academic’s semi-secret feeding experiment.  Earl, who periodically gets quite of bit of interiority from Smiley, is just about the only character we can unreservedly sympathise with:

Earl Butz was getting monstrous big.
            Earl himself felt it in the effort it took him to heave himself to his trotters in the morning, in his increasing desire to lie around and have things, like cooling baths, brought to him, rather than going to receive them.  There was a suspicious bulge toward the center of the pen in the shape of Earl’s toileting area – his characteristic fastidiousness was beginning to disappear.  He still worked hard at his main occupation of eating.  He couldn’t help that; it was bred into him, but like any variety of genius, appetite was beginning overshadow other, more individual traits of his personality.  He no longer played with his toys, for example...


It’s impossible to do full justice to the complexity of this novel in a short review; Smiley seems astonishingly well-versed in so many disciplines and areas of university life, all of which are treated with both understanding and barbed humour, and she brings it all to a spectacular close. 

We could do with another novel like it here – goodness knows we have rich enough material!