Monday, 3 April 2017

No 42 - Animal victims in Zimbabwean literature

I’m probably always pursuing too many ideas at once, too many interests. Occasionally two independent strains of enthusiasm will intersect and spark something intriguing. I try, for example, to keep something of an eye on the literature coming out of my homeland, Zimbabwe. At the same time, colleagues here at Rhodes University and at the University of Stellenbosch have cooked up a conference, with hopefully a book of edited essays to follow, on dogs in southern African literature. We hope to fill an obvious gap in local animal-studies scholarship; I’ve alluded in previous blogs to how pervasive the presence of dogs is, yet there’s been little sustained study. The conference, taking place at Stellenbosch next fortnight, will begin to address the neglect.

So I decided to address the two interests at once, and present a paper on the presence of dogs in some recent Zimbabwean fiction which deals with the post-2000 ‘land reform’ process. Two novels in particular – Graham Lang’s Place of Birth and Ian Holding’s Unfeeling – incorporate a strong canine presence. Dogs are, in the first instance, guards and companions, especially to the white farmers’ youngsters who are protagonists in these stories. Some dogs accompany these youths as they hunt little game across their farms; other packs of dogs accompany black youths doing much the same. Above all, though, the dogs are victims of political processes and associated violence in which they have no agency. In both novels, the white farmers’ dogs are slaughtered as violent land take-overs unfold: they become ciphers, stand-ins, symbols, for all the land dispossession and racist abuse local peoples feel to be the driving dynamic of their recent history. The animals generally are also soft targets, both in the sense of being unable to defend themselves and as a vector for emotional vulnerability: killing them can strike at the heart of whites’ affection and psychological well-being. In fact, I have entitled my conference paper, “Auntie Marsha, they’ve killed the dogs” – the first post-attack cry from Holding’s traumatised young protagonist.

These novels are far from the first to include a canine element in the Rhodesia-Zimbabwe land story. In the 1970s, Laurens van der Post wrote a somewhat prescient novel of black military take-over and white flight, A Far-Off Place, and then its sequel, A Story like the Wind. The fleeing young farmer-boy protagonist, Francois, is importantly accompanied by a super-supportive dog Hintza (named after the Xhosa chieftain). Hintza is, perhaps inevitably, a Rhodesian Ridgeback.

Someone mentioned that an even earlier writer, Doris Lessing, had written a dog-related story. I’m not sure I’ve discovered the story in question, but I’ve been struck, in re-reading Lessing’s 1951 collection, This was the Old Chief’s Country, of the frequency of animal victims in them.  Several are related in some detail: animal presences were seen as important to a fluid and fragmentary white community searching for an ethical centre. The examples I find illustrate perhaps three fundamental, and intricately interlocking, facets of white belonging on the land: the defended homestead; agriculture; and the wilderness.

In the first aspect, dogs feature regularly as guardians of the rural farmhouse – and suffer for it. Lessing’s story “Little Tembi” foreshadows much later white Rhodesian fiction, including the fate of the dogs in Lang and Holding. Tembi is a Shona orphan partly supported by a farming family; but the subtle abuses he suffers he avenges by stooping to theft. So the family buys two large fierce dogs. The wife, Jane, resents being

greeted on her way from house to storerooms  by the growling of hostile dogs who treated everyone, black and white, as an enemy .... They bit everyone who came near the house, and Jane was afraid for her children. However, it was not more than three weeks after they were bought that they were found lying stretched in the sun, quite dead, foam at their mouths and their eyes glazing. They had been poisoned ...

Such are the hazards, Jane’s husband Willie grumbles, of living in “this damned country”. Of course, many whites continued to live there, sometimes bound by an undeniable love.

Part of that love seemed to be for the activity of agriculture itself – the second aspect. Here too Lessing was both unsparing in her depictions of grimy and fractious white domestic lives, and generously adventurous in her portrayals of black characters. Some of her Rhodesian contemporaries vilified her for it.  Her portrait of a cattle driver, ‘The Long One’, in her story “The Nuisance”, is a subtle concoction of admiration and ethical doubts:

In his own line he was an artist – his line being cattle. He handled oxen with a delicate brutality that was fascinating and horrifying to watch. ...It was like watching a circus act; there was the same suspense in it: it was a matter of pride to him that he did not need to use the whip. This did not by any means imply that he wished to spare the beasts pain, not at all; he liked to feed his pride on his own skill. Alongside the double line of ponderous cattle that strained across acres of heavy clods, danced, raved and screamed the Long One, with his twelve-foot-long lash circling in black patterns over their backs; and though his threatening yells were the yells of an inspired madman, and the heavy whip could be heard clear across the farm, so that on a moonlight night when they were ploughing late it sounded like the crack and whine of a rifle, never did the dangerous metal-tipped lash so much as touch a hair of their hides. If you examined the oxen as they were outspanned, they might be exhausted, driven to staggering-point, so that my father had to remonstrate, but there was never a mark on them.

In this situation, the lines between cultural norms and compassion, between cruelty and mere utilisation, are blurry.

And thirdly, the wilderness, as threat or refuge, always looms on the edge of the domesticated fields and gardens.  It can be full of its own, independent violence: in “A Sunrise on the Veld” the boy-focaliser comes upon a buck being consumed alive by ants. He doesn’t bring himself to shoot the dying animal, since “this is how life goes on, by living things dying in anguish”, and he is overwhelmed by a “swelling feeling of rage and misery and protest”. So some characters seem to express that protest by exercising a countervailing compassion upon wild animal life; others respond by being indifferent to it. This is the difference between Major Carruthers, ethical English landowner, and Van Heerden, rough Afrikaner potential employee, in the story “The Second Hut”. The shabby quarters Carruthers offers Van Heerden have been colonised by a spider, “vast and glittering, shaking gently, glaring at them with small red eyes, from the centre of the web. Van Heerden did what Major Carruthers would have died rather than do: he tore the web across with his bare hands, crushed the spider between his fingers ... ‘It will do fine’ he announced.”

The ethical split starkly represented here, symbolic of a certain racism, is captured within a single character in the story “Leopard George”. The young farmer George finds himself having to hunt down a man-eating leopard.  The build-up is related with incremental delicacy, the outcome with wrenching ambivalence:

Image by Cindy Dardagan Britz
The low, ground-creeping thing showed a green glitter of eyes, and a sheen of moonlight shifted with the moving muscles in the flank. When the shape stilled and flattened itself for a spring, George lifted his rifle and fired. There was a coughing noise, and the shape stayed still. George lowered the rifle and looked at it, almost puzzled, and stood still. There lay the enemy, dead, not a couple of paces from him. Sprawled almost at his feet was the leopard, its body still tensing and convulsing in death. Anger sprang up again in George: it had all been so easy, so easy! Again he looked in wonder at his rifle; then he kicked the unresisting flesh of the leopard, first with a kind of curiosity, then brutally. Finally he smashed the butt of the rifle, again and again, in hard, thudding blows, against the head. There was no resistance, no sound, nothing.

Such killing is, in the end, utterly empty. Inflicting death on the animal, in the end, reveals nothing but the emptiness within ourselves.