Review: Chairman of Fools - Elliot Ziwira

Fools, madmen and hypocrites in Chinodya’s Chairman of Fools

The Herald November 4, 2013 Opinion & Analysis

Elliot Ziwira

 

Shimmer Chinodya

THERE is something befuddling about madness in that there is nobility in it as long as it exists in others and we leave them be, in their hallucinatory stupor. But when it creeps into us, we seldom realise it until somebody else points it out to us. However, if others do not realise that discord has fallen upon the music of our souls and are convinced that we can take them to kingdom come, and blindly follow, unaware that they are being led to the mire and the void beyond, then it becomes catastrophic.

In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king because he may be relied on as he has knowledge of sight. What happens then if a whole community of presumably sane people is put on leash by a half wit? This is the question that will ring in one’s ears as one reads Chinodya’s Chairman of Fools (2005).

In the novel, Chinodya catapults the reader into the intriguing world of Farai, a middle-aged professor and writer who is revered, not only by his extended family but by the entire community, because of his sound education and wealth; and his wife Veronica, an egotistic accountant and born-again Christian. Though he may be said to be benevolent, he is somehow eccentrically inspired by his own precepts and axioms of nirvana, which makes him believe that everyone else should swoon to his bidding.

Unable to juggle between his excessive drinking habits as a way of escaping from a prison of his own creation because of his gadabout nature on the one hand, and a father and a family man on the other, he stutters and discord plays hide and seek with his soul as he slips into the world of the insane.

Subsequently, he is taken to the Annexe, an institution at Parirenyatwa Hospital where people of his ilk are rehabilitated. Of interest is the composition of the inmates at the institution as they are drawn from a cross-section of society. In their quest for a fair representation of their interests, they unanimously elect Farai as their chairman.

From then on, events take a ghastly turn with dire consequences which can only be discerned by suspending any semblance of sanity and engrossing into the world of madness, ‘a very fine madness’, as Mashingaidze Gomo glorifies it.

As posited by Muchemwa (2001:103): ‘Sanity is a very strange commodity in the fictional world created by the new generation of story tellers.’ Zimbabwean writers in both Shona and English have been pre- occupied with frustration, hopelessness and loss to an extent that they use madness as a means of escape.

In Echoing Silences, Kanengoni examines the dehumanising effects of war, despondency, betrayal and disillusionment by using the metaphor of madness. To Marechera in House of Hunger (1978), living itself is a lunatic asylum where one is confined for life. Muponde also examines the chaotic state and paralysis of the nation by alluding to the storm in portraying the mental state of the narrator in The Storm (2001).

Sanity or lack of it is the basis upon which Chinodya explores the dreamlike state of the nation and hopelessness in his later works, especially in Chairman of Fools. Chinodya uses realistic and existentialist elements of modernism as a way of exposing the void, paralysis, malaise and individualism at the depth of the family unit and the nation.

His use of events drawn from his own experiences not only as an artiste but an individual makes the reading of Chairman of Fools an authentic experience. He also discards the restrictions of the first person narrator which he uses in Queues (2003) and Tavonga (2005), for the omniscient and omnipresent third person narrator which allows for authorial comment.

He also uses interior monologue to allow the reader to shape the inner feelings of individual characters. Also remarkable in the novel is the author’s use of the present tense as it makes the story cinematic.

By satirising the middle class as a decadent class, the author is able to effectively rap at the follies and vices inherent in humanity. Chinodya does not condone moral blackmail, hypocrisy and social neurosis prevalent in the middle class because ‘the satirist is not an easy man to live with. He is more than conscious of the follies and vices of his fellows and he can not help showing that he is’, (Pollard, 1970:1).

Therefore, through the ‘exposure of folly and the castigation of vice’, in Chairman of Fools as is the case in Queues and Tavonga, Chinodya effectively plays his role as a satirist. He uses the autobiographical mode to merge his individual biography with the national one so as to forge an authentic national discourse.

The protagonist like Chinodya does not only write novels but he is also an educator as he writes educational books which are used by the entire spectrum of the nation. Also, like Chinodya, he is a visiting university professor. Hence, he is not only a thinker or philosopher the nation depends on for connectivity and development, but he teaches other thinkers and leaders.

Such is the tragedy of Africa and its reliance on the middle class which betrays and deceives its own society, which does not only think like them, but should also be seen to be doing what they believe to be right. Ironically, if this class becomes decadent and loses its wits as is the case with the artiste hero in the novel, then the whole nation is affected. Mad thinkers can only rule over mad followers.

Farai’s authenticity as an artiste and teacher becomes questionable as the woman police officer asks, ‘Do you have to get drunk to write your books Mr Chari?’ and Sister Nondo who was reading one of his books which is a set text at O-Level and seem to be Chinodya’s Harvest of Thorns, says: ‘I did it in my literature class at O-Level, so when you were admitted, I already knew who you were so I said to myself, ‘Maybe he thinks too much that’s why he is like this’, and I dug the book out of my trunk, so as to read it again and see what goes on in that sascam head of yours.’

By using the metaphor of madness, Chinodya is able to ridicule middle class tendencies which are destructive to the consolidation of the nation.

He also raps the hypocritical tendencies at the centre of this class and explores the effect of fundamental religious beliefs as enshrined in Christianity, on the national psyche.

He examined the aesthetic of ideology through the use of a non-believer at the centre of the family unit, community and the nation.

As a teacher, Chinodya educates the nation on the need for an authentic national ideology which upholds the values enshrined in the national consciousness. Sekuru Tumai embodies such societal values in his belief in the spiritual world as opposed to Farai’s lack of commitment to any belief.

A stranger to national values, the protagonist is inspired by nothing, stands for nothing and belongs to nothing. His decision to ‘sit on the fence’ is tragic to the national consciousness as expressed in Sekuru Tumai’s interior monologue thus:

‘Such a wonderful, educated young man, but so hopeless. They are all beautifully educated but still naked to evil winds…Books, books, books. That’s all they know… for black people there is no choice but between the Bible and ancestral spirits. And maybe science. No one can idle in neutral gear forever’’.

An authentic ideology therefore, can only be sought through combining all the ideologies that constitute the family unit, community and nation. Compromise is the only way out in the molding of an acceptable ideology through which the national psyche may be mirrored.

Chinodya also lambasts the culture of consumerism and escapism through dreams, death, alcohol and religion. Using the dream motif and the symbol of death and the west inspired by modernist traits of nihilism and surrealism, he examines the destructive nature of escapism. Farai is unable to release himself from the labyrinth in which he entangles himself, as he is unable to unshackle himself from himself as a result he seeks solace in alcohol and dreams. Dreams permeate his life as he strives to locate himself in the national biography. Finding himself dwelling on the fringes of its boundaries, in his quest to escape from the restrictive nature of the family structure, he seeks a psychological vent into the world of reverie as a way of authoring his own epic.

Dreaming is compounded by alcohol and Farai finds himself slipping from reality as insanity beckons him. Living life as a nightmare, he seeks comfort in death. Death becomes not an end to life but a transition into a purposeful beginning as one may be able to manipulate how one should die. However, instead of mitigating his problems he aggravates them as he slips further into the mire; dragging others along. His wife, Veronica on the other hand abandons principles and escapes, like most women burdened with suffering, through the religious vent and the family is left unattended.

Although Farai is redeemed as he realises his folly and helps himself to recover, his condition may not be completely remedied as he is reminded that ‘Nobody who is hospitalised here is ever discharged…You are still a patient forever’.

Review: Chairman of Fools - Edmore Zvinonzwa

Daily News: Zimbabwe

29 August, 2011

Chairman of Fools by Shimmer Chinodya,

Harare, Weaver Press, 2005, (2006 edition)

182 Pages.

ISBN: 1-77922-041-3 (Paperback)

Reviewed by Edmore Zvinonzwa


Once you come across this title and decide to read it, you will not be able to put it down.  It is a masterpiece from a master storyteller, whose style, characterisation and thematic concerns are effective given the author draws from two linguistic cultures.

The major thrusts of the narrative, which may seem individual if given a cursory glance, devolve into universal concerns. And what an odd and unusual title for a work of fiction.

Chinodya appears to be concerned about social life. In a 2010 discussion with Annie Gagiano at the Woordfees (Wordfest) at Stellenbosch, Chinodya says, “ In this part of the world, politics is imposed on you.”

His major concern is ordinary people trying to survive against a political backdrop. In the same discussion, he says about writing in English “Writing in a foreign language is a form of repossession. English imposed itself on me, now all I can do is to impose my thought process, values and beliefs on English.”

True, Shimmer emerges with an unusual but exhilarating story, despite the odd title. Chairman of Fools has the potential to startle even the modest reader with its neat intertwining of reality and hallucinations as they affect the life of the major character, Farai.

This is not the only time that Shimmer Chinodya has come up with the character Farai. The name also appears in Farai’s Girls, that book that invited criticism from feminists.

This time around Farai in Chairman of Fools is a successful academic and writer who has just returned home after a teaching stint at an overseas university.

The setting in terms of time can be told from the music the author refers to in the story. Singers like Brenda Fassie, Ray Phiri, Tina Turner, Thomas Mapfumo, Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel, Sankomota among others, were very popular mostly with Zimbabwe’s urban dwellers around the 1980s.

Bruce Springsten was one of the international stars who performed in the country in the Human Rights Concert at the National Sports Stadium in 1988.

In the story of Chairman of Fools, a film is supposed to be made about Farai as “The great writer has come home.

“Everything is in reverse. It has to be. And that is why the garden is empty, closed for the show. He has to retrace every step. It must start with him at the airport leaving, his family waving for him from the balcony and cheering him off…” (p. 28)

The protagonist begins to fathom the possible contents of the script of the film as he retraces his life from birth. Implicitly, the book sounds autobiographical because the reference to “It must start with the journeys into the past and forgotten beginnings” must be with reference to Strife, one of Chinodya’s novels.

The reader moves with Farai from birth, through reminiscences of his past works. “Of the vast little four-roomed house with innumerable nooks and insistent ghosts shivering in the bananas, and voices crackling in alien languages inside the radio….Of hunger and crowded, stinking classrooms and toilets awash with filth, of dew in the morning in miles of grass and frivolous impossible girls.” (p. 29)

This is clear reference to the writer’s past and his writing career. Here one can see traces of Dew In the Morning (1982) and Farai’s Girls. (1984)

It does not end there. The narrator goes on to talk about “Thorny wars between black and white, black and black, wrangles between fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters and couples who can’t talk”. (p. 29)

The author further refers to strife especially on “wrangles between fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters”. Chinodya’s book on the war written under the pen name Ben Chirasha, Child of War (1985) is the obvious reference on the “wars between black and white”.

These wars are “thorny” and the reader is reminded about Harvest of Thorns (1989) while the “couples who can’t talk can be linked to the short story anthology Can We Talk and Other Stories. (1998)

“This will be a great big film that will include everything; a film to end all films. (p. 29)

All this happens when the narrator has slid into the world of hallucinations but in reality, he is standing before the barman. The narrator has turned to alcohol for solutions after finding his family changed on his return from abroad.

In fact he goes to the bar well before it has opened for the day and the staff let him in.

“He leans back with his hands on the table and confronts his favourite barman. ‘Why Mr Chari? You’ve only just arrived. We let you in because you were outside and we hadn’t opened. We’re not open yet but we served you. That’s only your first beer.”

The drinking hole suddenly becomes a forum where the employees there and the first two patrons, Farai and the old white man engage in honest and revealing conversation about life.

They talk about what they do for a living and the issue of small houses comes up. The old white man admits that his several conflicts with his wife have been over small houses and the last time remains in his mind.

“Don’t know who told her, but when I didn’t show up for a week she drove over in her squeaky Datsun 120Y and beat me up with her walking stick. I don’t know how but she bundled me up onto the back seat and drove off like an ambulance. You ain’t seen an angrier woman than that. I still have bruises to show for it.” (p. 30)

This is when Farai reveals a bit about himself too; that he is a writer and “They are going to make a film of me.” But apparently his drinking habits have invited more questions than answers.

“I don’t know where my wife is with the children and my car is at the garage.” (p. 30) Other issues that have caused the narrator’s restlessness emerge. He has come home late “a couple of times”, the phones at home have been disconnected and the unpaid bills as well as tenants who have been allowed to skip rents and the fridge and pantry that have gone dry.

Farai’s mother, like the author’s, died at fifty-three inviting the reader to think that he is the author who has dressed himself in the robes of the fictional character.

A number of afflictions that have hit Zimbabwean society are touched on at this point.

Farai badly needs his vehicle back from the garage but unfortunately he cannot. He goes to the extent of paying whatever amount as long as he gets his car back that day. “It depends if we can get the parts, and there is a long queue of other cars.

“Monday mornings are always bad, Sir, with everybody bringing in their cars bashed up over the weekend. People are driving like crazy these days, you know, and some of them are drunk or going around with fake licences.” (p. 35)

Farai also lashes out at the manner in which Asians have dominated the economy.

“Damn it, he thinks, in the days of Ian Douglas Smith these Indians used to squeeze us of our pennies in their wholesale shops, supermarkets and take-aways, but now with Esap and this newfangled liberalisation creeping in they are digging up those billions stashed away in ceilings and walls and investing in garages, real estate and even banks.” (p. 36)

The Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) is no new phenomenon in Africa and the Third World, Zimbabwe included and it has had far-reaching implications on the economies of recipient countries as well as the general lives of the people in those communities. Implicit in the comment on the Asians’  grip on the economy is what role those blacks who were milked by “Indians”  are playing in the economy of their motherland.

The narrator also touches on the squalor that has become characteristic of the country’s urban areas. When Farai boards a kombi he comes face to face with the behaviour of touts, an issue that has become perennial even today.

Note that the reference to squalor and filth is compounded in “The combi disgorges its passengers right in front of the public toilets at the western terminus….

A foul stink blows out from the wretched toilets. In the large sinks on the back walls of the latrines women strapped up in zambias rinse fist-sized tomatoes, fat carrots and rich green spinach.

“Tables are loaded with oranges, bananas, apples and pears. Over the open gas fires enterprising vendors serve sadza, chicken, matumbu, guru to jacketed and suited young bureaucrats with bright impatient ties while municipal police look on.” (p. 37)

This sounds like a graphic rendition of the scenes around major termini Harare and other major urban centres in Zimbabwe. Places like Charge Office, Market Square and Fourth Street in Harare, where the public toilets and market stalls are virtual permanent neighbours.

The word disgorge refers to vomiting and the picture of filth and dirt could not have been expressed any better.

Chairman of Fools, in tracing the protagonist’s slide into paranoia, explores the life of Farai, buoyed by professional comfort but cannot be happy finding that he has drifted further away from his wife Veronica, who has become more involved in the church while his children are distant and he has withdrawn himself deeper into alcohol.

All the same, tradition binds him to his wife. Alcohol and prostitution culminate in an accident.

Drinking worsens his mental illness and towards the end his condition, described as bipolar disorder, leads to mood swings, mania and depression and often turns delusional.

This results in Farai being put into a mental institution, where he meets other patients with different manifestations of mental illness. It is here that he is crowned Chairman of Fools.

As the male head of the family he is supposed to wield power, have success and manage to handle his responsibilities. The pressures that come with failure to satisfy these expectations have taken their toll on Farai and it is this despair that has the potential to eat into a person that has put him permanently on drugs.

The mugging that he encounters in Johannesburg is not a plain act but seems to comment on deeper issues of xenophobia that continue to affect foreigners in South Africa, especially Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and Malawians, among other nationalities.

The end of the book sounds positive with the reunion of the family but nothing much has changed. He has just been discharged from hospital, presumably fit to return to his teaching in the US.

However, “They lecture him about the importance of taking his pills everyday, getting enough sleep and having a regular check up... and, of course, on the hazards of alcohol.” (p. 155)

Both Farai and Veronica grown to learn and become aware of each other’s shortcomings now, with Veronica admitting in the concluding letter: “..while you were away in the States and at the annexe, I’ve grown as a woman, a mother and your friend. I hope you can forgive my shortcomings”. (p. 182)

Shimmer Chinodya, a past winner of the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa with Strife, was born in Gweru in 1957 and was educated in Zimbabwe.

After his first degree, he went to the University of Iowa where he did an MA in Creative Writing. Chinodya has published several titles, fiction, educational and children’s books. He is one of the few professional writers that Zimbabwe has produced.

Review: Chairman of Fools - The Herald

Chairman of Fools
by Shimmer Chinodya,
Harare, Weaver Press, 2005, (2006 edition)
182 Pages.
ISBN: 1-77922-041-3 (Pb.)
Review published in The Herald, Monday 4th October, 2010


What an odd and unusual title for a work of fiction. What an unusual but exhilarating
story, despite the odd title. Chairman of Fools is a story that is bound to startle even
the modest reader with its neat intertwining of reality and hallucinations as they affect
the life of the protagonist, Farai.
This is not the only time that Shimmer Chinodya has come up with the character
Farai. The name also appears in Farai’s Girls, that book that invited criticism from
feminists. This time around Farai in Chairman of Fools is a successful academic and
writer who has just returned home after a teaching stint at an overseas university.
A film is supposed to be made about him as “The great writer has come home.
“Everything is in reverse. It has to be. And that is why the garden is empty, closed for
the show. He has to retrace every step. It must start with him at the airport leaving, his
family waving for him from the balcony and cheering him off…” (p.28)
Farai begins to fathom the possible contents of the script of the film as he retraces his
life from birth. Implicitly, the book sounds autobiographical because the reference to
“It must start with the journeys into the past and forgotten beginnings” is a direct
reference to Strife, one of Chinodya’s subsequent novels.
The reader is forced to accompany Farai from birth, through reminiscences of his past
works. “Of the vast little four-roomed house with innumerable nooks and insistent
ghosts shivering in the bananas, and voices crackling in alien languages inside the
radio….Of hunger and crowded, stinking classrooms and toilets awash with filth, of
dew in the morning in miles of grass and frivolous impossible girls.” (p.29) This is
clear reference to the writer’s past and his writing career. Here one can see traces of
Dew in the Morning (1982) and Farai’s Girls. (1984)
It does not end there. The narrator goes on to talk about “Thorny wars between black
and white, black and black, wrangles between fathers and mothers, brothers and
sisters and couples who can’t talk”. (p.29)
Further reference is made here to Strife especially on “wrangles between fathers and
mothers, brothers and sisters”. Chinodya’s book on the war written under the pen
name Ben Chirasha, Child of War (1985) is the obvious reference on the “wars
between black and white”. These wars are “thorny” and the reader is reminded about
Harvest of Thorns (1989) while the “couples who can’t talk can be linked to the short
story anthology Can We Talk and Other Stories. (1998)
“This will be a great big film that will include everything; a film to end all films.
(p.29)
All this happens while the narrator has slid into the world of hallucinations and he is
in reality standing before the barman. The narrator has turned to alcohol for solutions
after finding his family changed on his return from abroad.
“He leans back with his hands on the table and confronts his favourite barman. ‘Why
Mr Chari? You’ve only just arrived. We let you in because you were outside and we
hadn’t opened. We’re not open yet but we served you. That’s only your first beer.”

The drinking hole suddenly becomes a forum where the employees there and the first
two patrons, Farai and the old white man engage in honest and revealing conversation
about life.
They talk about what they do for a living and the issue of small houses comes up. The
old white man admits that his several conflicts with his wife have been over small
houses and the last time remains in his mind.
“Don’t know who told her, but when I didn’t show up for a week she drove over in
her squeaky Datsun 120Y and beat me up with her walking stick. I don’t know how
but she bundled me up onto the back seat and drove off like an ambulance. You ain’t
seen an angrier woman than that. I still have bruises to show for it.” (p.30)
This is when Farai reveals a bit about himself too; that he is a writer and “They are
going to make a film of me.” But apparently his drinking habits have invited more
questions than answers.
“I don’t know where my wife is with the children and my car is at the garage.” (p.30)
Other issues that have caused the narrator’s restlessness emerge. He has come home
late “a couple of times”, the phones at home have been disconnected and the unpaid
bills as well as tenants who have been allowed to skip rents and the fridge and pantry
that have gone dry.
Farai’s mother, like the author’s, died at fifty-three inviting the reader to think that he
is the author who has dressed himself in the robes of the fictional character. A number
of afflictions that have hit Zimbabwean society are touched on at this point. Farai
badly needs his vehicle back from the garage but unfortunately he cannot. He goes to
the extent of paying whatever amount as long as he gets his car back that day. “It
depends if we can get the parts, and there is a long queue of other cars. Monday
mornings are always bad, Sir, with everybody bringing in their cars bashed up over
the weekend. People are driving like crazy these days, you know, and some of them
are drunk or going around with fake licences.” (p.35)
Farai also lashes out at the manner in which Asians have dominated the economy.
“damn it, he thinks, in the days of Ian Douglas Smith these Indians used to squeeze us
of our pennies in their wholesale shops , supermarkets and take-aways, but now with
ESAP and this newfangled liberalization creeping in they are digging up those billions
stashed away in ceilings and walls and investing in garages, real estate and even
banks.” (p.36)
The Structural Adjustment Programme is no new phenomenon in the Third World,
Zimbabwe included and it has had far-reaching implications on the economies of
recipient countries as well as the general lives of the people in those communities.
Implicit in the comment on the Asians’ grip on the economy is what role those blacks
who were milked by “Indians” are playing in the economy of their motherland.
The narrator also touches on the squalor that has become characteristic of the
country’s urban areas. When Farai boards a kombi he comes face to face with the
behaviour of touts, an issue that has become perennial even today.
Note that the reference to squalor and filth is compounded in “The combi disgorges its
passengers right in front of the public toilets at the western terminus….A foul stink
blows out from the wretched toilets. In the large sinks on the back walls of the latrines
women strapped up in zambias rinse fist-sized tomatoes, fat carrots and rich green
spinach.
“Tables are loaded with oranges, bananas, apples and pears. Over the open gas fires
enterprising vendors serve sadza, chicken, matumbu, guru to jacketed and suited
young bureaucrats with bright impatient ties while municipal police look on.” (p37)

This sounds like a graphic rendition of the scenes around major termini in the capital
city like Charge Office, Market Square and Fourth Street where the public toilets and
market stalls are virtual permanent neighbours.
The word disgorge refers to vomiting and the picture of filth and dirt could not have
been expressed any better.
Chairman of Fools, in tracing the protagonist’s slide into paranoia, explores the life of
Farai, buoyed by professional comfort but cannot be happy finding that he has drifted
further away from his wife Veronica, who has become more involved in the church
while his children are distant and he has withdrawn himself deeper into alcohol. All
the same tradition binds him to his wife. Alcohol and prostitution culminate in an
accident.
Drinking worsens his mental illness and towards the end his condition, described as
bipolar disorder, leads to mood swings, mania and depression and often turns
delusional. This results in Farai being put into a mental institution, where he meets
other patients with different manifestations of mental illness. It is here that he is
crowned ‘Chairman of Fools’.
As the male head of the family he is supposed to wield power, have success and
managing to handle his responsibilities. The pressures that come with failure to satisfy
these expectations have taken their toll on Farai and it is this despair that has the
potential to eat into a person that has put him permanently on drugs.
The mugging that he encounters in Johannesburg is not a plain cat but seems to
comment on deeper issues of xenophobia that affected foreigners in South Africa,
especially Zimbabweans.
The book ends with a reunion of the family but nothing much has changed. He has
just been discharged from hospital, presumably fit to return to his teaching in the US.
However, “They lecture him about the importance of taking his pills everyday, getting
enough sleep and having a regular check up --- and, of course, on the hazards of
alcohol.” (p.155)
Both Farai and Veronica are aware of each other’s shortcomings now, with Veronica
admitting in the concluding letter: “…while you were away in the States and at the
annexe, I’ve grown as a woman, a mother and your friend. I hope you can forgive my
shortcomings”.(p.182)
Chairman of Fools is a book which readers cannot stop reading once they start. It is a
masterpiece both in terms of the style, characterization and thematic concerns which
may seem individual if given a cursory glance but devolve into universal concerns.
Shimmer Chinodya was born in Gweru in 1957 and was educated in Zimbabwe. After
his first degree, he went to the University of Iowa where he did an MA in Creative
Writing. Chinodya has published several titles --- fiction, educational and children’s
books. Strife won him the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa.

Review of Chairman of Fools - Weekend Gazette

Weekend Gazette
9.11.05
New Chinodya book launched
Stanley Kwenda

AUTHOR Shimmer Chinodya recently celebrated the launch of his latest novel, Chairman of Fools, at Delta Gallery where a host of fellow writers, book publishers and friends crowded into the courtyard, eager to lay their hands on the book. The novel is Chinodya’s eighth in as many years. His other books are Dew in the Morning, Child of War, Harvest of Thorns, Can We Talk and other stories, Farai’s Girls and Tale of Tamari. Chairman of Fools examines the plight of a successful writer and professor of literature, Farai Chari, whose confidence is under threat. He feels the pull of tradition and culture and the hollowness of
middleclass aspirations in a cruel country. He yearns for a society free of gender bias.

This book mirrors a society at war with itself characterised by political bigotry and societal division. Let us hail Chinodya, who has managed to rise out of the quagmire and persevere to come up with such a beautiful book at a time when others are failing,” said writer Musaemura Zimunya. A short story anthology, Writing Now, which features works by both established and new writers, was launched at the same occasion, which was hosted by Weaver press. The book is a sequel to the award-winning Writing Still, a collection of stories depicting contemporary Zimbabwean life and concerns. Among some of the writers who contributed works in the anthology are journalists Stanley Mupfudza and Bill Saidi who wrote Forever Haunted by Rita’s Eyes and A Fine Day for a Funeral respectively.

It is a brave collection of short stories that squares up to the challenges of Africa’s current political climate,” said Sarah Kiguwa of the Mail and Guardian. Meanwhile Chairman of Fools received rave reviews at the world’s biggest book showcase, the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany. Publishers in Europe have expressed their desire to translate the book into German and French.

Review of Chairman of Fools - Wasafiri

Ranka Primorac
Chairman of Fools
Shimmer Chinodya
Weaver Press, Harare, viagra 2005, pb
182pp ISBN 1 7792 2041 3 £11.95
www.weaverpresszimbabwe.com

http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals DOI: 10.1080/02690050701337269


This group of recent Africa-related novels tells stories of families in flux, in which generations and individuals strive to reconnect after various kinds of partitions and trauma. All of them deal with the emergence of new kinds of gendered identities against a backdrop of ‘grand’ narratives of the nation. In doing so, they raise intriguing questions
about the makeup of postcolonial subjectivities, moral debt and regeneration. Chairman of Fools is the fourth novel by Zimbabwean writer Shimmer Chinodya, whose previous book-length
narrative (the 1989 war novel Harvest of Thorns) brought him international acclaim. Chairman of Fools resembles Harvest of Thorns in that it narrates a rite-of-passage experience which shapes the emergent adult masculinity of its hero. In other respects, however, the two
novels could not be more different. For one thing, the notion of ‘adulthood’ inscribed in Chairman of Fools has little to do with the forging of an independent individual subjectivity that is the normal provenance of a Bildungsroman. Instead, it focuses on the difficulty of maintaining a sense
of (patriarchal) manhood under conditions of rapid and violent social change. For another, Chairman of Fools takes place entirely within the milieu of a postcolonial African city.

Review of Chairman of Fools - Tonight

Tonight
Saturday 12th August



Chairman of Fools
- Shimmer Chinodya
June 15, 2006
By Mpho Lukoto
Place: Double Storey
Place: R120


Farai Chari is not a likeable person. He drinks too much, cheats on his wife, and is obnoxious when dealing with people he disagrees with. A writer and lecturer based in the US, Chari is back home in Zimbabwe on a break from the US.

And even when his wife leaves him, he doesn't quite grasp the extent of his selfishness. Typical fool of a man. But at least he gets the chance to mend his ways.


Clouded by my own prejudice, the best I could do after reading this book was to shrug with indifference. I liked the Shona glossary at the end, though.

Review of Chairman of Fool - The Complete Review

The complete review's Review:

Chairman of Fools
is a novel of crisis and resolution. It focusses on the successful author, Farai Chari, describing the time he spends in his native Zimbabwe between stays in the United States, where he teaches at an American university. He has come home, but there is a strong sense of displacement, manifesting itself most obviously in Farai's incredible restlessness.
Farai seems closely based on author Chinodya, down to that fourth book that made him famous (Harvest of Thorns, one presumes). Farai -- or at least his name -- is widely recognised, and he keeps running into people familiar with his work, many having had to study it at school.
Farai has returned to his wife and children, but from the first he's restless and uneasy, and apt to go on drinking binges. He hasn't returned to a safe, stable nest of domesticity either, finding at home: "disconnected phones, unpaid bills and tenants who are allowed to skip rents, fridges and pantries suddenly emptied". He sends his wife enough from abroad, but she also has a career of her own, and it is especially this independence that seems to trouble him.
Early on he is described as:

He is a man waiting to be found; a confused being waiting to be rediscovered and restored to himself.

There's supposed to be a film being made about him -- one way of capturing his being, he perhaps hopes -- but even that doesn't go right. And everything else goes disastrously: his aimless drinking binges lead to him wrecking his car, his wife disappears on him. He gets himself into a frenzy trying to get the car fixed, and then searching for his wife and children. In desperation he even looks for salvation in religion -- though in his state he's hardly able to turn to religion, desperately seeking only absolution and answers from the only source he thinks might be able to offer it:

'Can you pray for me ?'
'Before we can pray for you, we need to know what your problem is.'
'My life.'
'Your whole life ?'
'My whole life ! I do not know where to go or what to do, or what is happening to me.'

He finally reaches the breaking point, and finds himself institutionalized. It's the best thing for him -- and it's also presented as a fairly easy and painless solution. Yes, he's mentally ill, but a few days in hospital, a diagnosis of bipolar order, a few pills, and he's all set to go again.
Chinodya's descriptions of Farai's frenzy, and then the off-beat relative calm of the psychiatric wing -- which is where Farai has his brief reign as 'chairman of fools' -- are quite compelling, and the brief descriptions of Farai's trips abroad and some of what he has encountered begin to give some insight into the character. The constant background music -- especially the singing of Thomas Mapfumo -- is particularly well-used. Much of the feel of the novel is, however, confessional -- and tentatively confessional at that. Chinodya doesn't present a particularly sympathetic character, his Farai not treating people very well and with a very short fuse, but what is presented of him is very focussed on the present, the richer background material only tantalizingly briefly displayed. And, for example, there's far too little about Farai's relationship with his wife (especially before these events) -- which seems to be central to many of his issues (so, at least, she thinks -- and she makes a fairly good case) --, as if that were something Chondya just couldn't bring himself to probe more deeply.
Chairman of Fools is like a wary admission of mental illness and alcoholism, which the subject is very aware of and admits too, but doesn't want to think about too hard. So, for example, Farai's wife reads up on everything about his condition, while: "He picks up the books and flips through them", but can't really focus on them. Still, the story allows almost incidentally for an interesting glimpse of Zimbabwe (in the time before Mugabe completely ruined it), as well as into the mind and life of author Chinodya.
Chairman of Fools is a book in which the author seems to be tough on himself, but while he's honest and revealing he's also too relentlessly focussed on himself. Still, a solid, occasionally uncomfortable

Review of Chairman of Fools - T.L. Chinyanganya

Chairman of Fools
Shimmer Chinodya
By T.L.Chinyanganya


The novel, which is set in one of the leafy suburbs of Harare, Zimbabwe, tells the story of Farai Chari, a very successful writer and lecturer in literature at a university in the USA. Farai comes back home to Zimbabwe from the states for the holidays. He comes face to face with a fragmented existence where he fails to mesh with his society and all the people who matter in his life like his wife, Veronica, sisters, (and all the other women of his world) brothers and associates. His is a very sad tale about a man’s lone and determined struggle to deal with the bipolar disorder in a society that does not seem to take kindly to mental illness.

The novel’s plot is complex and progresses backwards and forwards using a series of flashbacks to tell a harrowing story about this tormented intellectual. This complexity is also enhanced by the structure of the text, which is chopped into fragments of events and experiences (covering the brief period between his arrival in the country and his departure for the states) and mirrors the hero’s fragmented psyche.

Farai’s world is crumbling around him. He characterises his life as a count to eternity, ever backwards and forwards. His obsession with money and material comforts is a desperate attempt to try and prop up his collapsing world. The nice big house (with a swimming pool), remote controlled electric gate, HI FIs that switch themselves on in the house and in the car, DSTV, visa cards etc become a substitute for his broken and trapped world. He establishes some status for himself by helping to set up almost all of his brothers and sisters e.g. he supported Tindo through university and helped her and her husband raise money for a loan to build their own house. He also helped Maidei and her husband to raise deposit for their house, and Mai Winnie, the elder sister, to buy theirs. This massages his damaged ego. It gives him a sense of worthiness and he feels like a real man, especially with the fact that he earns three times what the wife earns. Ironically his generosity becomes a contributory factor to his breakdown because people borrow from him but do not pay back; instead of being grateful some actually resent him for his generosity. He is skeptical about finding solace either in Sekuru Tumai’s tradition or in Veronica’s Christian religion, but puts his faith in scientific healing processes. This is why at first he voluntarily makes the abortive drive to the annexe and quickly makes himself comfortable the second time around. His acceptance that all is not well is the beginning of the healing process and he is determined to recover, “I will be Me and I’ll live, I’ll love, I’ll laugh.” 

The story is an expose of the onset of madness or insanity and society’s response to it. Farai looks at his life as if it were a gigantic jigsaw puzzle whose pieces, abeit all there, he fails to put together.  His insanity becomes a metaphor for a broken down existence where man is not in control. He is plagued by hallucinations; a lot of what he sees are the mental projections of his schizophrenic psyche. Inanimate objects begin to assume a life of their own; two streetlights twist their iron necks, giggle and gossip while two dwarf trees hold hands and waltz down the middle of the road! He is also haunted by delusions of the blue corolla and the silver cronos and his ‘crusade’ against all the corrupt chefs.  There is also the hallucination that ‘they’ are making his movie.  The ‘movie’ becomes an externalization of inner turmoil. It, like literature and art, is a substitute for an empty reality.  In Farai’s madness the reader sees the line dividing what is real and the imagined becoming thin and blurred and a number of questions remain suspended. Is what he sees imagined or real? What is reality? Is it the same for all? Is Farai mad or is he just different? Isn’t everyone mad? Isn’t madness relative?

Money and material possessions fail to ameliorate his condition. Marriage is brought under scrutiny as an institution and exposed to be inadequate to tackle his problem. His relationship with Veronica does not help but exacerbates the situation. There is no solace to be found either within the Christian religion or traditional practices epitomized in the novel by Veronica and sekuru Tumai respectively.

This novel is well written and shows Chinodya’s maturity as a one of Zimbabwe’s foremost writers. It tells a funny story that has a very profound depth to it. Shimmer’s ability to enter the complicated psyche of a schizophrenic patient is nothing short of incredible! It is almost as if the novelist is presenting a real life experience. Reading the novel was a very enjoyable and enriching experience for me.

Review of Chairman of Fools - Wonder Guchu

Chairman of Fools
Shimmer Chinodya
2005: (pp: 182) 210 x 134 mm
ISBN: 1779220413

Saturday Herald
5 November 2005
Reviewer: Wonder Guchu


Chinodya on dysfunctional middle class

There is a vast difference today between Shimmer Chinodya’s earliest works and his latest books, especially Can We Talk and Other Stories as well as Chairman of Fools. Chinodya’s earliest books – Dew in the Morning (1982), Farai’s Girls (1985) and Harvest of Thorns (1989) – deal to a large extent with childhood experiences. In Dew in the Morning, Godi’s parents leave the city for their rural area, where the boy finds it difficult to adapt to the new way of life. As a result, Godi undergoes a stressful period as changes takes place in the village. For the first time, Godi 'discovers' ghosts and witches.

Farai in Farai’s Girls is a teenage boy who, like any other teenager, falls in love with a number of girls. The story basically is about growing up and the confusion relationships cause.

In Harvest of Thorns, Benjamin Tichafa goes to join the war of liberation after expulsion from school for taking part in a demonstration. His actions were his own way of rebelling against his parents’ strict Christian beliefs. With Can We Talk and Other Stories, a different Chinodya emerges – this time it is not the child but an educated African man who is struggling to reclaim his identity, to reassert his authority over his wife and children and a man who thinks he can drink his problems away.

It is this theme that Chinodya expands in Chairman of Fools, where an educated middle-class prominent author and professor slides into madness when he fails to manage his success, marriage and life. Incidentally, in Chairman of Fools there is Farai Chari, just like the naïve Farai in Farai’s Girls. Here is a very successful writer who has won many awards and travelled greatly lecturing in universities abroad.

He has been in the media and is a revered man who should be a role model for the youths. Married to Veronica, the couple has two children, owns a house in one of the middle-class suburbs and is doing well – well, except that Farai and Veronica have drifted apart. Veronica converts to one of the many Pentecostal churches that are strict and, to wile away time, she embarks on studies and belongs to a group of well to do widows who discuss money and sell each other peanut butter.

Theses activities widen the rift between husband and wife. They do no talk to each other. They keep their businesses a secret from each other. When they sleep, each takes to their own side and makes sure there is no physical contact. When they talk, it is superficial and circumstantial. But with time, the emotional neglect triggers psychological imbalances in both husband and wife. Veronica leaves home when Farai returns from the US, where he was lecturing. She takes the children with her. Farai tries to drink this away, but in the end both emotional neglect and alcohol take their toll on him. He ends up in psychiatric ward where he is elected chairman of fools.

His condition is known as bipolar disorder, which causes unpredictable mood swings and extreme mood shifts. This condition develops during adolescence and childhood and is characterised by episodes of depression, mania or mixed depression, which quickly recurs, causing unnecessary disruption to school, work and social life.

Written almost like the way Farai left his life in the story, Chairman of Fools is about you and those who think they have arrived, by earning generous salaries, drive posh cars and live in quiet neighbourhoods where grey pre-cast walls conceal marital problems.

It is a true story of the many husbands who first visit the bars before going home and of wives who have turned themselves into ardent, born-again Christians. This is the story of madness that pervades today’s marriages that are bound by sound financial standing and not by the heart. It is about pretence as the accepted way of life, where two people brought together by fate put up with each other because as a born-again, the wife cannot leave and because of tradition, the husband cannot walk out. This then becomes a recipe for madness.

The vividness and the intensity with which Chinodya wrote Chairman of Fools is close to the way Charles Mungoshi approached Ndiko Kupindana Kwamazuva and Kunyarara Hakusi Kutaura? Farai could be Rex in Ndiko Kupindana Kwamazuva while Veronica could be Rindai. While it took the death of their daughter for Rex and Rindai to realise the folly of pretending to be husband and wife, it takes a mental breakdown for Veronica and Farai to realise the damage their relationship is causing to each other.

This is one book Shimmer Chinodya has written from the heart.

© The author/publisher

Review of Chairman of Fools - Southern Times

Chairman of Fools
Shimmer Chinodya
2005: (pp: 182) 210 x 134 mm
ISBN: 1779220413

Southern Times
5 November 2005
Reviewer: Memory Chirere


Leading writer falters

Shimmer Chinodya’s latest novel, Chairman of Fools, is the latest curiosity in Zimbabwean literature in English. For some time to come, there is bound to be debate on what kind of success Chinodya’s offering is. This is Chinodya’s sixth novel.

One is therefore bound to consider it in the shadow of Harvest of Thorns (1989), arguably Chinodya’s most successful piece of art to date. It won him the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region, 1990). Harvest of Thorns is phenomenal in the way it locates the black Rhodesian community in the various struggles against forces of colonialism. The level of craftsmanship and vision demonstrated in that novel was bound to put Chinodya himself under pressure to beat his own record in whatever piece he would write afterwards.

In addition to that, Chinodya had began to establish even a new tradition in short story writing. His Can We Talk and other stories (1998) had seen him threaten to run away with the Zimbabwean short story crown, which, arguably, is held by Charles Mungoshi. Chinodya’s book of short stories is very experimental. It extends the boundaries of stylistics in short story writing.

In that light, Chairman of Fools is a controversial success. Of course it is at least an absorbing book. However, so much about it is a far cry from what we know of Chinodya’s capabilities. Granted, there is the characteristic twist and turn of phrase, especially in the sections where Farai Chari is gradually sinking into depression. But on the whole, one feels that Chinodya is trying too hard to reach the level of Farai’s Girls (1984.)

Maybe the plot is rather thin here: the pursuit of Farai and Farai alone up to the end. Then the laidback reminiscences of Farai as he relaxes in the lunatic asylum. The comic way in which the fellow inmates at the asylum elect him their chairman! From the moment you meet Farai the plot just goes downhill, more or less as fast as Farai loses his mental centre. A sub-plot or its semblance to accompany the major story could have been adopted. Without a subplot Chinodya loses opportunity to explore Veronic, Farai’s wife. One wanted to know what exactly about Veronica’s ‘evolvement’ unnerves Farai.

Veronica remains so much behind the scenes that you wonder whether she is indeed the villain in this story or not. One also wanted to know the content and form of Veronica and Farai’s disagreements before Farai went abroad for the twenty months. One feels that the reader has not been equipped enough to appreciate the major conflict in this story. Was Chinodya working in unfamiliar territory? Maybe Chinodya wanted to work with the theory ‘the less you know, the more you want to hang around’ But even so, he overdoes it.

The other daunting thing is the absence of ‘space’ in this novel. Farai’s world is largely the ‘car-world’. He is always driving. Drinking, brooding and driving. The insistence on driving up and down takes away opportunity to explore character and place. Chinodya himself must have sensed it. At some point, too late even, he portrays the car as an entity, a character that goes where it wants inspite of Farai the driver.

But then, as a novel that explores the decadence of Zimbabwe’s petty bourgeoisie, Chairman of Fools is successful. There is here a thin class of people that think that roving in cars and having an occasional braai is a measure of success. The little house in the medium-density suburb, a big television set, a car that breaks down regularly and a swimming pool, are considered, seriously, to be PROPERTY: Farai and the people around him are trapped into ‘eating’ and ‘good living’. It is on the strength of that ‘wealth’ that Veronica ‘rises’ and realises her ‘individuality’. It is from such ‘high towers’ that Farai and his class looks at society.

Sadly, at that point, one begins to wonder what exact force to bring back Veronica to Farai will not misbehave? Is Veronica now an independent woman? On what basis does she acquire her new consciousness? Is it the church? Her husband’s long absences? His drinking escapades? Indeed this is going to be a special novel for even the feminist readers of the Zimbabwean novel. There are many in Southern Africa.

What really causes Farai’s breakdown is another question that this novel raises. But because that kind of background is not given, one assumes it is Farai’s realisation that he cannot ‘control’ his wife anymore. He cannot have her in the house when he wishes. She has developed new attachments outside Farai's gaze. She has discovered church. She has acquired a car… But then, even in the so-called traditional society, was there any man or husband who had ‘total’ control over his wife’s day-to-day thoughts and movements? So what exactly troubles Farai? Is it important that Farai’s uncle is convinced that Farai’s problem could be traditional? That the medical doctors tests reveal that Farai suffers from bipolar disorder complicates matters.

This novel gives Chinodya an opportunity to decide whether, from now onwards, it is going to be short stories or novels. With Can We Talk he had struck a very high pitch.

There is no doubt that Chinodya is a leading Zimbabwean writer; whatever he publishes reflects on the health of Zimbabwean literature.

© The author/publisher