A novel may have a coherent plot, passably differentiated characters, fluent dialogue, passages of well-turned prose, and still be worthless if it isn’t also about something that matters. In this respect, the contemporary British novelist has a hard time of it, coming to the form when so much has already been said, when the necessary subjects have already been turned into novels many times over. For the African or South American, Indian or Australian novelist, it is easier to command attention, especially in the European market, where ignorance makes the reading of non-European novels a matter of basic education.
Even supposing that in Britain we had an educational system that took African history seriously and news media that reported contemporary events reliably, the African novelist would still be our most valuable source of understanding, our only real access, through the analogies set up by fiction, to what African history and African life feel like from the inside. Both Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye and Abdulrazak Gurnah, writing about East Africa, succeed in giving us the feel of the inside, and their novels materially increase our knowledge of East African life and history. Moreover, they prove the point that having something to say is more important than being able to say it suavely – indeed, that a degree of naivety, an unreflective commitment to saying what needs to be said, can help to give a novel vitality.
The Present Moment is the more ambitious of the two novels. In it, Macgoye has attempted to explore the life-histories of seven separate characters and through these individual destinies to outline the course of Kenyan history in the modern period. It probably couldn’t have worked at twice the length. At 155 pages, the novel is dense and difficult to follow. But this failure of the book to accommodate its subject-matter is not altogether a bad thing. In the absence of sophisticated craft there is nothing to soften the rawness of the raw material stuffed into its baggy, makeshift and ad hoc structure. The nourishment of the book has not been boiled out in the cooking.
The novel is set in 1983 in an old people’s home, the Old Women’s Refuge, a Christian charity in Nairobi. Conditions in the home are basic, but to the 30 old ladies who have come to rest there, it is a haven, an ultimate resort from far worse conditions – destitution, illness, homelessness and isolation. In private daydreams and in conversations with each other and occasional visitors, seven of the inmates piece together the histories that have led them along separate paths to meet in this present moment.
Macgoye has chosen her characters to represent the breadth and variety of Kenyan society. Kikuyu, Luo, Seychelloise, coastal Moslem – her old ladies all have different cultural backgrounds and different ways of dealing with the world. Macgoye seems to have most affinity with Wairimu, a Kikuyu, the oldest lady in the refuge and the one who has seen most. Of all the characters in the book, Wairimu is granted the most developed self-consciousness, so she emerges as the everywoman figure, the character whose destiny the reader takes to be representative, and around which the destinies of the other characters group themselves.
The novel begins where Wairimu’s story begins: on a beautiful morning in the forest near Nyeri, a small town three days’ walk from Nairobi. Wairimu is on her way to fetch water, when a bend in the path brings her face to face with a young man. The young man is Waitito, son of Njuguna, and his effect on the 17-year-old Wairimu is immediate and deep. The nature of the encounter is not made clear. For Wairimu it has a visionary, fairy-tale quality, and although it leads to nothing further with Waitito, it acts as the decisive incident in Wairimu’s early life, opening her eyes to possibilities beyond the confines of her family and the community to which it belongs. However, access to these possibilities is severely restricted. For a young black girl in Nyeri, in the years just following the First World War, the choice is stark and simple: ‘picking coffee or looking after men’. Since picking coffee is the way of ‘choosing for yourself’, Wairimu picks coffee, an independence that ensures her fifty years bent double on the white man’s plantations.
When Wairimu is not on a coffee plantation she is in Nairobi, the city of her childhood dreams and the reality that brings her childhood to a close. Nairobi belongs to an epoch that has yet to dawn in Nyeri, and experience of the city places a gulf between Wairimu and her family which affection cannot bridge. But worldliness also brings political consciousness and an interest in self-improvement. A rudimentary school which opens on the coffee plantation gives Wairimu the chance to learn to read and write. By 1947 she has become active in the Independence movement, recruiting, passing messages, hiding travellers in the coffee and so on. She remembers the struggle as long and bitter: ‘I lost a lot of good friends in those years – a few in the fighting, others struggling to get their babies born in the camps, some starved out of their homes to trek to distant places.’ Ironically, when Independence finally comes, the new men deprive Wairimu of her job (‘at 70 one does not expect consideration’). She moves once more to Nairobi, where she runs a tea kiosk until bad health makes it impossible to go on and she is taken to the Old Women’s Refuge.
In Wairimu’s long life there is little to be enjoyed, much to be endured. Her resilience is unusual and she is fortunate in her personality. She has the fearlessness and energy to act for herself rather than wait to be acted upon. This ensures that she makes it to the end of her life with her dignity intact and her spirit unbroken. Not all the inmates at the refuge have been so lucky.
The Present Time bears witness to the predicament of a true underclass, a community of human beings whose existential room for manoeuvre is only just more spacious than that of slaves. Macgoye treats this subject-matter with remarkable restraint, resisting the temptation to attribute blame or thump a tub. This is particularly effective when it comes to politics. Rather than rail against the injustices of colonial rule, she allows them to become self-evident, letting them reveal themselves in the stories of subjection and suffering which each old lady tells. And the same goes for the benefits of self-rule. The book makes no suggestion that Independence brings the ordinary people what they have been fighting for. One master is exchanged for another. The men who destroy Nekesa’s market stall and the soldiers who shoot Bessie’s only son are Kenyan.
The narrator of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Memory of Departure is less reticent about the fruits of Uhuru. Like Macgoye’s old ladies, Hassan Omar remembers the Independence struggle as a time of communal fervour and hope: ‘We had then revelled in our oneness, speaking words of tolerance for past wrongs, forgiving ourselves for the horrors of our history and fooling only ourselves. We had stormed the streets in excitement and delight, yelling the pleasure of our approaching freedom.’ Afterwards, his disillusionment is bitter:
Now we are free. Our leader stands next to the Queen of England with no loss of face. He is obese, filled to bursting with the rotten fruit of his power: corrupt, debauched and obscene. He is protected by the riot-police, which has now grown into an army with tanks and machine-guns, and which only has one enemy. Soldiers don’t have to knock any more before they enter a house.
Under this new regime, one sort of racism is replaced by another whereby ‘people are victimised because they don’t have a black skin.’ Hassan’s own ancestors are coastal folk, ‘salt-sellers, sailors and masseurs’, Arabs ‘with a reluctantly acknowledged share of black blood in their veins’. The exact location of Hassan’s childhood home is not given, but he describes it as a squalid and depressed place, where small-town life is conducted in sultry obscurity at the edge of a sluggish ocean, and poverty and religion conspire to keep a dejected population in ignorance and fear. Hassan’s childhood in this unlovely world is a miserable affair. Between the excesses of his violent and debauched father, the punitive teachings of the Mosque and the savagery of a school where ‘it was assumed that if you were quiet and frail then you could be forced into a corner and fucked,’ Hassan comes to view life with ‘terror and loathing’. In Memory of Departure he tells the story of how he struggled for something better.
The novel is dominated by Hassan’s father, the spiritual and psychological opposite of Hassan, and the negative against which Hassan defines his own positive. Omar père is a man of extreme appetites which suffer no denial. He is reputed to have been a troublemaker in his youth, and he has spent time in prison charged with having ‘ruptured a little boy’. His mother, Hassan’s granny (a twisted and malicious old crone), sets up her son’s marriage to Hassan’s mother because she thinks it will ‘cure him of his interest in anuses’. From the start of his marriage, he is unfaithful to his wife, returning from nights of drinking and whoring to rape her and beat her up.
With such a father and from such a background, it is hardly surprising that Hassan should develop into a highly-principled, ascetic young man. When his elder brother Said is burned to death in a fire, Hassan has to take over the full burden of his family’s cares: supporting his mother, tempering the excesses of his father, exhorting his sister to virtue. He fills the role admirably, but at the expense of a certain variety in his personality. By comparison with his sensual dad, he lacks colour and substance, and his moral rectitude is apt to come across as prim and wise before its time.
Hassan Omar’s personality is formed in reaction to a world governed by brutal, exploitative and capricious men. Being himself a man, he can fight back and he is expected to do so. The ones who really suffer are the women, as Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s novel makes eloquently clear. For her seven old ladies, men have been part of the unpromising condition of things from the start, as inescapable as disease or the processes of ageing. Not all the men in their lives are all bad, but even the ones who do not abuse them are unpredictable and volatile, abandoning them suddenly to pursue some private ambition, failing them at the moment when strength is needed, or just getting killed or arrested by other men. It is typical of The Present Moment that none of this should be underlined, and it is this reticence that makes the book such an effective tract on the condition of women. Far more effective, at least in this respect, than Zoë Wicomb’s You can’t get lost in Cape Town, in which the iniquities of men are less credible for being calculated in the arithmetic of a highly personal feminism.
You can’t get lost in Cape Town is half-way between a novel and a collection of short stories. It is made up of ten autobiographical episodes narrated in the first person, and for the most part in the present tense, by Frieda Shenton, a Coloured girl from Namaqualand, which is a region of South Africa near the border of what is now Namibia. In the final episode of the book, where Frieda revisits her old mother in rural Namaqualand, we learn that she is a writer (her mother hates her stories), and this may confirm us in the suspicion that Frieda is a version of Zoë Wicomb. Frieda is obviously proud of the fact that her tyrannical old mother thinks her stories are terrible. It is equally obvious that the reader is not meant to agree. Zoë Wicomb’s stories are far from terrible, so it is slightly exasperating that the subject is ever brought up. In fact, if anything is wrong with this uncommonly talented young writer, it is her consciousness of herself as a writer, her defensive narcissism, which in turn connects with her dislike of men. The first picture that Frieda Shenton gives of herself is of a shy little girl whose chief recourse in ‘moments of confusion’ is to curl up under the kitchen table and lie very still. As she grows older, Frieda learns to carry the kitchen table, metaphorically speaking, around in her head, and from her secret hiding place under it, she watches in safety as the world goes by. The fruits of her observations are these ten sketches.
For Frieda Shenton, consciousness is a means of self-defence, a strategy of the psyche to keep the world at arm’s length. Men, especially, need to be kept at a distance. The reasons for this are not altogether clear. Superficially, Frieda’s antagonism to men seems to start in adolescence when she discovers that she is ‘not the kind of girl whom boys look at’. ‘The boys do not look at me and I know why. I am fat. My breasts are fat and, in spite of my uplift bra, flat as a vetkoek.’ Many years later, when she is a grown woman, Frieda still thinks of herself as unattractive, as ‘dull, ugly and bad-tempered’. But this can’t be the real root of her problem with men. The only affair she writes about is her affair with a man called Michael. She loves Michael for ‘two short years’ while at university, until her eyes are rudely opened to his shortcomings when she gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion. Given the way Frieda describes Michael, it’s understandable that she should think him a dead loss, but then it’s difficult to see why she loved him in the first place. The only other sexual encounter she tells us about doesn’t add up either. It involves a man she picks up at the local doctor’s surgery. The encounter gives her no pleasure: she describes the man’s penis as a ‘terrifying thing’, and after making love she speaks of the ‘mess’ which she has to clean up. Since sex with men is repugnant to her and she feels that there can be ‘no such thing as friendship with men’. Frieda is left with no alternative but to write them off. And write them off is literally what she does, using her power as creator of these stories to keep them out of the action or to portray them as worms.
An important contributing factor in Frieda’s insecurity is her colour. She comes from a family of ‘respectable Coloureds’, middle-class people who are proud of the one Englishman in their ancestry and anxious that the strain should not be muddied by intermingling with kaffirs. Frieda must either accept her family’s suffocating values or become an outsider. Since she is an intelligent and sensitive girl, she opts out, but this leaves her isolated on the periphery of a class which is itself uncertain of its place and function.
Our sense of Frieda’s isolation, of her belonging only to herself, is heightened by the way she uses the present tense to recollect her past, as though she had construed her experiences this way at the time of having them. Here is a random example:
I move past the group to the open door at the end of the wall. With one foot on the raised threshold I crane my neck into the room. The walls are a brooding eggshell. Above a row of empty chairs a Tretchikoff Weeping Rose leans recklessly out of a slender glass to admire her new-born tear, perfect in plastic rotundity. Artfully the blue tint deepens into the parent blue of the plastic frame. My shoe scours the threshold in hesitation and my eyes rest on the smooth primrose crimplene suit of a woman motionless in her chair.
The use of the present tense here takes our attention away from the observed world to the sensibility observing it, and this is a very common effect in Wicomb’s book. Her tendency to overwrite doesn’t help. At best, her ability to fashion striking images can make the sensuous world more real to us, but when she overdoes it the language ceases to see anything other than itself. Wicomb needs a sensitive and firm editor (do such people still exist in British publishing houses?) to help her find her proper register and to help her develop the talent evident in a passage like this:
Father’s eyes flash a red light over the breakfast table: ‘Don’t leave anything on your plate. You must grow up to be big and strong. We are not paupers with nothing to eat. Your mother was thin and sickly, didn’t eat enough. You don’t want cheekbones that jut out like a Hottentot’s. Fill them out until they’re shiny and plump as pumpkins.’ The habit of obedience is fed daily with second helpings of mealie porridge. He does not know that I have long since come to despise my size. I would like to be a pumpkin stored on the flat roof and draw in whole beams of autumn’s sunlight so that, bleached and hardened, I could call upon the secret of my growing orange flesh.