The Changeling of Zimbabwe

I have been interested in twins, doubles, foils, changelings, doppelgängers, and all those doubled aspects for a very long time. Part of this fascination arises from an experience I had where I started taking a fairly common kind of medication and experienced a complete change in personality, which prompted my interest in the two sides of myself I now saw in myself. This book is another great entrant in a long list of similar stories that I find fascinating. Like You-Jeong Jeong’s The Good Son, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, or Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented MrRipley, the main character is an intelligent, manipulative outsider seeking entrance into a social sphere they are naturally excluded from. There is something so enthralling to me about watching someone make all the wrong choices for deeply sad, even understandable, reasons – loneliness, frustration, feelings of inadequacy or abandonment. Novuya Rosa Tshuma’s House of Stone brings these feelings to a creepy fever pitch, emphasised by its historical setting in Zimbabwe’s recent and less-recent past.

houseofstone

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, House of Stone (2018)

I have to start with Zamini, the Changeling of my title. As the narrator of the novel, he is presented to us as a dutiful neighbour to his landlords, with a close relationship that is allegedly that of a surrogate family. Very quickly, doubts are sown about how much this is felt on both sides, growing until reaching sociopathic levels that are often seen in portrayals of mental illness and obsession. (One example can be seen in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, another in the popular new show, You.) Zamani’s interactions with the family are presented as the centrally important notion of the book, which is an interesting subversion of normal stories about missing people, where the main character is feverishly determined to find the truth. Instead, Zamani selfishly and unfeelingly manipulates the grief of a missing boy’s parents, attempting to supplant the son’s place in this family. Alone and without his own relatives, Zamani finds his landlords by returning to his abandoned childhood home and finding an idealised family living there. Convincing them to rent to him, he inveigles his way into their affections, manipulating both the father and mother, as well as the son before his disappearance. Some of his actions are so disturbing to read, as he plays out a sick fantasy of being their son while lying, drugging, and blackmailing to continue the game. I felt revolted reading the following passage, which speaks to the power of the spell Tshuma has woven:

At the mention of the 5 Brigade and Gukurahundi, my surrogate father begins to convulse. He blinks at me wildly, and tries to push me away, squirming at the feel of my hand on his back. I bend over and grab Johnnie from the floor and shove it to his lips, feeding him straight from the bottle. I grip him by the neck, but I can feel him trying to push my away, his body struggling away from the sofa, away from me. My grip on his neck tightens, and I pull him close, until his head is resting against my chest. I’m pouring Johnnie straight into his mouth. He swallows, sputters, begins to cough.
[…]
“It’s your son, Father. It’s me, Zamani.”
He’s comatose, now, I don’t think he can hear me.
“I love you, Father.”
I stare at those closed eyes, imagining their penny hue; stare into those teardrop nostrils, at that moist, peeping thicket. I bring my blueberry lips close to his and kiss them. They are cold, his breath warm. It reeks of Johnnie.
My Father.
I sidle up against him. Take his hand and place it across my tummy, where it rests on my hip, limp. Take my Nokia N76 out of my trouser pocket. Angle it above us. Press my cheek against his. Smile into the camera, and snap our selfie. [91-3]

On top of inducing a recovering, wife-beating alcoholic to return to his vice, he also induces a new addiction to drugs in order to entice the old man to continue telling him “their” family history. This is cleverly retold through Zamani’s narration, with interjections in the prose that colour the stories with obvious, misjudged and misplaced bias. For example:

I shall conclude by saying: my Uncle Zacchaeus, otherwise a very affable fellow, was a lecherous libertine who deserves to fry in the fieriest of furnaces for lusting after my Thandi. [104]

Considering that he has not, nor ever will meet, these individuals that he is not related to, his obsessive passion for his “surrogate-mother” is disturbing, despite the lack of incest. I didn’t think I could find something more taboo than the Oedipal complex, but it turns out that yearning for it is worse to me, somehow. It is with such moments that Tshuma makes an extremely subtle point about the disgust felt by those whose histories were re-written by strangers claiming to be kin: the actions of Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU) party in erasing the massacres that they used to capture control of Zimbabwe. These massacres, known as Gukurahundi, were state-led killings to literally destroy support for a rival political party. There are descriptions of this movement in the novel that gave me the most visceral reactions I have ever had, reading a book. For example – and I warn you to skip this if you are squeamish – in one scene, a pregnant woman has her stomach sliced open, which causes her organs and unborn foetus to spill out and be eaten by flies. In the same scene, a building full of children is set alight:

A screaming thing capered out of the burning hut. It was an apparition. A ball of flames. It skidded across the compound. He’d never heard the boy scream. Not like that. Black Jesus leaned forward. Picked the boy up. Flung him back into the burning hut. [149]

It is chilling violence that is hard to capture and Tshuma has managed to capture the horror of the unnatural cruelty that was later suppressed by the nationalist narratives imposed on the country. Another evidence of her skill in subtle, brilliant details, is that the narration, following Abednego, the “surrogate father” and his recollections relabels this precious firstborn son as “the boy”, as though it is too painful to acknowledge that this monstrous vision is his boy.

Zamani, a child born of rape, smuggled out of a refugee camp and raised by an uncle is deeply disturbed to find that his father, Black Jesus, is one of these party-sponsored murderers. He seeks to replace this truth with a new truth – that his landlords are his new family, that they love him and can provide him with a new history. Even in his search for this new past, he finds the unmistakable traces of his father’s violence devastating this new family. His conclusion seems to be that it is impossible to resist one’s parentage and that forging your own story is the only way to survive in cruel circumstances. He says:

The state of things in our country, especially after 2000, when our government started controlling every facet of our lives, including what part of our history to remember and what part to forget, is proof that it’s not what’s true that matters, but what you can make true. [292]

Even learning unsavoury truths about his new family – the father, a rapist and abusive husband; the mother, an adulteress – he acts as only the amoral species, cuckoo, can; he pushes out the egg and settles himself in. He writes fake letters, using them to cement his position further, creating his own past, present and future. In response to losing a father figure he found to Bukhosi, the missing son, he takes vengeance by dooming Bukhosi and stealing his family.

I come back to twins, to doppelgängers, to doubles. There are several layers in this book, as not only is the missing son called Bukhosi, but the firstborn, burnt child, was also named Bukhosi. This attempt to replace a deceased beloved child, as though attempting to rewrite the past is another echo of the theme of repressing horrors of the past, of trying to retell even a person’s fate. Zamani and his actions to oust the missing Bukhosi from his familial home is yet another retelling, echoing the constant oppression of stories that the Zimbabwean people have faced, by their own government, by ex-colonial oppressors, and by peers that try to forget. There was an interesting symbolism in the figure of Bukhosi, both the first and second son of Abednego. The name, we are told, means Princehood. The revolutionaries that Abednego are introduced to lament the loss of the African royalty and their deposition by white invaders; it is easy to draw parallels between this initial act of suppression and the idea that royals (supposedly the best of society) being unable to survive such violence, as they are victimised.

Tshuma demonstrates that the miserable situation is not for lack of vision from the Zimbabwean people. In charming scenes where Abednego is learning about city life, he meets these black rebels, the local intelligentsia that disrupt the white power structure and seek a return to great African customs and rulers. They describe the ancient kings in complex plays, inspired by stories of revolutions. Their vision is of a grand, proud African apart from European influences:

“You want to destroy these sturdy buildings? And then what shall replace them, huts?”
“Don’t be silly. We’ll buy materials from the Chinese and the Soviets, state of the art stuff, and build a royal city fashion after Ndebele architecture, worthy of King Lobengula himself.” [53]

I couldn’t help but draw parallels with this vision and the grand nation of Wakanda, an fictional African country recently brought into the public by the Marvel cinematic universe. This concept of a strong, independent country that decides its fate for itself is a beautiful one, one that Tshuma demonstrates is unattainable due to the remaining corruption that was set in place by colonisers. Even those white people that are not portrayed to be entirely evil are shown to be unable to mentally detach themselves from their loyalty to old Rhodesia. One character bemoans his displacement as Zimbabwe declares independence, failing to see the irony in his complaints when his nation has essentially displaced a country from itself. The racism taught by the whites to the ruling black classes was a lesson in subjugation, exemplified in the following scene, where Black Jesus is shown to discriminate on the Ndebele Zimbabweans as though this is justification enough for massacre:

Black Jesus is walking up and down up and down the stage he starts to talk to us he says with man nothing is possible but with me your Jesus everything is possible. He is speaking in Shone and one of the killers is translating for us to Ndebele. […] I’m here because my disciples are not spreading my gospel. I have told them that we need bodies, we need bodies to sow here in this bared land, but what are they doing, they are just slapping you, just beating you, why are they not shedding your blood? Heh? Are they afraid of you? Heh? Are the women too beautiful? Heh? So I am here to help them do what needs to be done. [157]

The dream is crushed by the realities of war, as shown through the character of Thandi, a city-girl member of the rebels who ends up pregnant with Abednego’s child, taken to his village, and eventually is murdered with her unborn, second child. Tshuma describes this hard lesson between truth and ideal succinctly:

It was here that my Thandi learned just how bourgeois her form of idealism really was! No one in the village was exempt from the demands of food and clothing from the guerrillas, not even the Mambo family and the urgent needs of their pregnant new makoti. [82]

No level of well-meaning philosophy and will is able to fight against violence and corruption, no force can wipe the slate clean. Tshuma’s novel, though ostensibly a time-old tale of a usurper antihero infiltrating an unsuspecting unit, shows that this horrible story is just one of many; a microcosm of the greater state of affairs across Zimbabwe.

Similar books: You-Jeong Jeong, The Good Son; Patricia Highsmith, The Talented MrRipleyDonna Tartt, The Secret History; Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children; Han Suyin, …And the Rain My Drink.

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1 Comment

Filed under Fiction, Non-Fiction

One response to “The Changeling of Zimbabwe

  1. Pingback: Life and Death, in Life and in Literature | Keys Review

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