Monday, 27 July 2020

No 106 - The Animal in Dambudzo Marechera

My original 1988 cartoon
I confess: I don’t much like Dambudzo Marechera’s work. Or I should say: I still don’t like it.

Back in 1988, a year after Marechera’s untimely death aged only 35,  I wrote a brief assessment for the Zimbabwean magazine Prize. I acknowledged that the wild child of Zimbabwean literature was enormously “talented, imaginative and sensitive”, capable of “brilliant moments  and often great delicacy”. Up to a point, I admired his honesty and his assault on conventional English. In retrospect, I would have stressed more the astonishing breadth of reading and sharp if spotty philosophising, unmatched by any other Zimbabwean writer then, and perhaps even now. But his anarchistic thoughts, striking out in every direction with a blend of raw self-exposure and lancing political critique, were too solipsistic, too uneven, too wallowing in self-disgust and misanthropy, never marshalled into sustained craftsmanship, to provide a really fruitful model. So I argued.

I think I largely stand by that, pompous as it was, though Marechera’s fans and acolytes would doubtless retort that time has proved me wrong: he is still inspirational, 33 years later.  Innumerable academic articles and theses have argued in his favour, albeit with, in my view, a certain amount of special pleading. Australian scholar Jennifer Armstrong even wrote a PhD suggesting he is a kind of shaman, ultimately healing – a suggestion I think Marechera would have found mystifying, if not offensive.  But people will get what they get from literature, and good luck to them. For this pampered and over-sensitive white boy, at least, it makes for some tediously ugly fare. Black Sunlight, his second short novel, I now find unreadably vile.

Anyway, I found myself returning to his best-known work, The House of Hunger (1978), while looking for instances of dagga-use in southern African literature. It appears the collection’s phantasmagoric effects are stimulated more by alcohol than mbanje – but in the course of that earth-shattering discovery I became intrigued by another aspect altogether: the frequent appearance of animals. What are they doing there?

As far as I’ve found, no one has looked in detail at this aspect. One Chinese scholar has suggested, I think a bit tendentiously, that Marechera modelled much on Chinese tales of the Monkey King trickster figure of Eastern folklore. I am not persuaded that the parallels go as deep as he claims. Other articles mention the animal appearances only in passing. One of the best articles I’ve read, by Christopher Wayne and Bridget Grogan, explains Marechera’s fragmented and tortuous obsessions as projections of what Julia Kristeva has famously termed the “abject”. Abjection – literally ‘throwing-away’ – involves taboo subjects and materials, primarily excreta, viscera, waste and the corpse. Exposing these repressed aspects of life can be used to express other ‘unspeakable’ subjects, including violence, political marginalisation and rebellious or dislocated personal identity. Wayne and Grogan focus on the latter, but I suspect that a reading of animal presences can also usefully be viewed through the lens of abjection. After all, Marechera seemed to view all of life as comprised of multiple layers of abjection: our “chicken-run existence”, he called it in Black Sunlight: trapped, inferior, and doomed to slaughter.

A vicious example occurs early on in the titular story in The House of Hunger. A girl, Immaculate, is being beaten up by one Peter, “raw courage” still showing in her “animal-like eyes”. At the same instant as she is knocked “sideways”, a cat somewhere screams in “utter agony”. The unnamed narrator also gets pummelled: it is as if everyone’s agonies are shared, of a piece. The neighbour’s children shout “break its neck”, then in the darkness “a furry and wet thing” , bloody and half burnt, hits him in the face: “It was my cat. It was dead.” Tension between the narrator and Immaculate he takes out on the cat’s body, giving it a hefty kick, sending it flying right out of the yard. So embittered, “mixed-up”, enmeshed in his “labyrinthine personal world”, hating humanity just “for being utterly and crudely there”, that he has no room for compassion or loss for the actual cat. Indeed, the animal seems to serve as mere cipher for the violence that pervades his township world, his “disturbed universe”, his political oppression, his turbulent “soul-sickness”.

In numerous places the narrator sees human life being reduced to, or at least on a level with, the animal. Humans exist in “the crocodile’s jaws”. A character Philip expostulates: “There is nothing to make one particularly glad one is a human being and not a horse, or a lion, or a jackal, or come to think of it a snake ... There’s dust and fleas and bloody whites and roaches and dogs trained to bite black people in the arse” (58). A little later he figures himself as victimised animal: “You tuck your tail between your legs and some enterprising vandal sets fire to your fur, as you streak through the dry grass of your fears” (59) – echoing the earlier cat casualty.

The question of our commonality with animals is treated at greater length in the hallucinatory, alcohol-fuelled outpouring – it is hardly a ‘story’ – entitled “The Writer’s Grain”. Apparently being attacked by his own false teeth at a party, the narrator suddenly goes down on all fours and starts braying like a donkey, “like a pack-ass lost in the desert” (108). He flees into the streets, is robbed and knocked out.  He comes to:

A mongrel was licking my face and sniffing me with its wet black nose. Its eyes were large and clear and black and hesitant like a child who knows that the world can hurt. Up to this point in my life  I had always hated dogs. And all animals, really. Not so much hated them – because that may imply a ‘reason’ –but because I was afraid of them. There is something in every animal which is also in us... (109)

He attributes this partly to a childhood diet of horror films, and a consequent fear of turning into a werewolf or a vampire, gorging on his sister’s neck or even, tellingly, his own neck. Weirdly, animals still seem to like him.

One day I went up to my room late and drunk. There was a strange cat on my bed. It had fixed its eyes on my own. It was only half-grown; with white fur gilded here and there and long thin white whiskers. Its eyes were green, and the transparent green was brilliantly shot through by a terrible apprehension of its position. (110)

Its position is being trapped with an hysterical human bent on its destruction. A full page is devoted to a graphic description of the “kitten” being smashed to a pulp. It quickly transpires that the cat is an avatar of white privilege: “These feline shits are so used to being treated better than we blacks are treated it probably thought ... Why should I care what it thought?”  With vicious irony, the narrator uses a series of iconic ‘white’ books – Shakespeare, Hardy, the Concise Oxford Dictionary and, for the coup de grace, the Encyclopaedia Britannica – to despatch the kitten before ejecting – abjecting – the corpse across the street.  In this visceral fashion, the writer-narrator symbolically attempts to rid himself of a dependency on cultural influences he sees as creating a false or self-destructive identity – and turning the very language he has learned to use against itself. The disgust the cat-lover will feel at this unashamedly heartless passage is, of course, precisely the effect Marechera desires.

The scene segues immediately into a wider thought:

Animals. Animals were a steak on a plate, a lamb chop, a gammon, roast chicken... And one was supposed to eat them correctly with a knife and fork and with correct manners and correct conversation. ... And the only ones that could afford them were the bloody whites. And the bloody animals looked and sounded and behaved as though they liked to be eaten only by whites. Not niggers, bleated the sheep.  (111)

Typically, what might sound at first like a critique of the appalling industry of mass animal slaughter resolves into a personalised howl of protest. One can both agree and disagree that the “thing that happened to the Jews has never been unleashed against animals. And the things which bloody whites – among them Jews – are doing to my family, to my countrymen, to black people everywhere, have never been done to animals. What is done to the animals is nothing compared to the grisly history of man’s appetite for inflicting misery on other men.” There is both perspicacity and incoherence in all this – as might be expected from someone self-admittedly “cracking up”.

Insects also recur, both physical and symbolic. Humans are depicted as delicate skeletons caught in a spider’s web. In “House of Hunger” Philip says: “There’s clouds of flies everywhere you go, flies eating our dead. There’s armies of worms slithering in our history. And there’s squadrons of mosquitoes homing down onto the cradle of our future” (59). Existence is “God’s wound and we were the maggots slithering in it” (70). In another passage of extreme existential abjection:

Does the corpse protect the thick black flies that are laying their horrid eggs in his eyes? Flies fascinate me.  Their six legs. Their silver scissors of wings. Their huge compound eyes. Vomiting upon the food we eat. And calmly washing their forelegs. The way they fall into your soup and calmly pierce you with an upward stare as you debate what to do. They prize the unguarded cracks of our soul. (105)

The motif of being scrutinised by the animal also crops up often. In the story “Burning in the Rain”, the narrator confronts himself in the mirror, his body mocking him with “a certain ridiculousness”. An ape, in short, which gets “the better of him ... Those hairy hands and the backs of his hands where the scars ... Monster!”  A kind of Frankensteinian patchwork; he will retaliate by dressing like a human, or rush out into the rain of “self-pity” (83). He meets a lover named Margaret, but he seems incapable of accepting the lyrical beauty and love she represents; rather she is “the punishment for the ape in the mirror” – “his kinsman, the ape, lumbering awkwardly into his intimacy”. It is a kind of doppelgänger – a term Marechera used of himself – “laughing sarcastically”, with a “power over him” to make romantic encounters “more sordid, more unbearable” (86).  It “seemed to be treasuring a huge but secret joke at his expense”. The ape seems to be a figure of all the narrator’s self-doubts, taintedness, victimisation within a “national catastrophe”.

The idea that only clothes distinguish a man from the ape or animal  within reappears in the story “Black Skin What Mask”, in obvious allusion to Frantz Fanon’s book Black Skin White Mask. “If clothes make the man, then certainly he was a man. And his shoes were the kind that make even an elephant lightfooted and elegant. The animals that were murdered to make those shoes must have turned in their graves”. That’s a nice irony: to cover the inner beast one wears covers fashioned from other dead beasts. But this character is obsessed with the impossibility of belonging (one assumes the story is set in England – Marechera went to Oxford). He tries to make every other African about mimic him: “After all, if one chimpanzee learns not only to drink tea but also to promote that tea on TV, what does it profit if all the other god-created chimpanzees out there continue to scratch their fleas and swing around on their tails chittering about Rhodes and bananas?” (94). Doubtless this is also in ironic counterpoint to white colonists’ habit of equating Africans to simians. A little further on, the character tells the dishevelled writer-narrator: “You ought to take more care of your appearance, you know. We’re not monkeys”.  But, the narrator thinks nastily, his friend’s dancing made him look like a monkey. All this owes more to Kafka’s ape than to the Monkey King, perhaps.

The second part of “The Writer’s Grain”  is a bafflingly fantastic piece involving a small boy (another Marechera doppelgänger) being lectured by a sardonic Mr Warthog, with two dinosaurs as sidekicks. I’m not sure quite what this nightmarishly illogical sequence is all about, apart from a lot of neo-cannibalistic eating and literary name-dropping. It does seem to boil down to Mr Warthog’s one extended instructive speech exalting

Your right to put the spanner in the works. Your right to refuse to be labelled and to insist on your right to behave anything other than anyone expects. Your right to simply say no for the pleasure of it. To insist on your right to confound all who insist on regimenting human impulses according to theories psychological, religious, historical, philosophical, political, etc. ... Insist upon your right to insist on the importance, the great importance, of whim. There is no greater pleasure than that derived from throwing or not throwing the spanner into the works simply on the basis of one’s whims... (122)

This, a little simplified, is Marechera’s manifesto, reiterated many times, and enacted in the very tumult of his delivery. Animal presences are part of his disorientating techniques, though ultimately they are mere psychic instruments, not ethically considerable in themselves.

While Marechera remains unique in the Zimbabwean context, and his work is particularly challenging in the scope of its self-referential disgust, it’s worth recalling that his stance is echoed by others. The scholar George Steiner has written of the French modernist poets whom Marechera admired, Mallarmé and Rimbaud:

The poet no longer has or aspires to native tenure in the house of words. The languages waiting for him as an individual born into history, into society, into the expressive conventions of his particular culture and milieu, are no longer a natural skin. Established language is the enemy. The poet finds it sordid with lies. Daily currency has made it stale. The ancient metaphors are inert and the numinous energies bone-dry. ... He will seek to resuscitate the magic of the word by dislocating the traditional bonds of grammar and of ordered space ... He will rescind or at least weaken the classic continuities of reason and syntax, of conscious direction and verbal form ... the public crust of language must be riven. Only then shall the subconscious and anarchic core of private man find voice. (After Babel, 178)

Marechera applied such a programme to his colonial and post-independence milieux, with a particularly visceral, animal-populated twist.

By the way, if you know of any southern African literary works in which dagga plays a prominent role, do let me know.


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