Review of Absent the English Teacher by Gerald Gaylard


EPPEL, JOHN. Absent: The English Teacher. Johannesburg: Jacana, 2009. 


Two Jam Doughnuts and a Soft Tomato 

Obsolescence and anachronism, perhaps unsurprisingly, have been prominent in Southern

African fiction of late, or perhaps just in Southern African fiction by white males. Most

famously apparent in Coetzee’s Disgrace and Vladislavic’s The Restless Supermarket, this

theme deals with the detritus of empire in the form of white males (David Lurie and Aubrey

Tearle) who find themselves redundant and retired, respectively, in the context of the new South

Africa‚  after 1994, and have to begin to scrape together some sort of new life. Much of the

drama and amusement, again respectively, comes from both characters being not much up to the

challenge. In both cases they are somewhat set in their ways and full of the assumptions and easy judgements that a lifetime cosseted within the safety net of apartheid’s sheltered employment allowed. Both rail against the plenitude of errors and injustices that accompany the inversion of the racial hierarchy that leaves them high and dry, and find themselves unable (and perhaps more importantly, unwilling) to overcome their ingrained prejudices and values. Moreover, both protagonists find their resources limited and both are thrown back on a level of basic skill that they have utterly forgotten about for many decades. However, the fact that both novels have been well-received – the former winning the Booker Prize in 1999 and the latter the Sunday Times Fiction Prize in 2002 – and have become mainstays of post-apartheid literary culture and education, suggests that the more things change the more they stay the same; in other words, decades, even centuries, of preeminence cannot just be swept away.

Now Zimbabwe has produced its own version of this ‘novel of obsolescence’‚ in the form of

John Eppel’s  Absent: The English Teacher which, similarly to Disgrace and The Restless

Supermarket, features a white male protagonist, George J. George, who struggles with his

seeming irrelevance in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. As a member of a minority in this apparently

majority dispensation he is marooned, adrift, a seeming anachronism in a world that has no use

for him.

As in the other novels mentioned, this novel is at least partly autobiographical. Eppel was

born South African but raised in Zimbabwe and remains there as an English teacher at Christian

Brothers College in Bulawayo. However, like the South African texts, this novella is probably

best described as an ‘oblique self portrait’ (the way that the front cover blurb describes

Vladislavic’s  Portrait With Keys). The interesting thing about this novel is that this oblique

autobiography of time and anachronism is explicitly figured through literature, Shakespeare in

particular, and the teaching thereof. The fear  – nay, inevitability – of anachronism is apparent

from the poetic and metaphoric start; the first sentence runs thus: ‘When George J. George

mistook his white Ford Escort for the moon, he knew that his time was up”  (1). This makes it a

little different to Disgrace and The Restless Supermarket, which are not explicitly focused on the literary, although Disgrace references Romanticism in a subtle manner and The Restless

Supermarket has editing as its protagonist’s focus. Part of this literariness‚ is simply because

both Eppel and his protagonist are English teachers and a good deal of the action takes place in

the classroom or involves conversation about literature.

Expelled for allowing a student to erect a copper plaque of Ian Smith on his classroom wall

when the ‘Boys and Girls Come Out to Play Secondary School’ is visited by the ‘Deputy

Secretary for Education and Rural Beauty Pageants’, George is later arrested for crashing into

the ‘Wabenzi’  of the mistress of the ‘Minister of Child Welfare, Sweets and Biscuits’.

Imprisoned  – the chapter is titled ‘A Weekend in Elsinore’ (13) – George is able to secure a

release via the expedient of coaching the Chief Inspector with his Hamlet essay. Their

conversation runs thus:

CHIEF INSPECTOR: ... You see I have this assignment to do for the Open University, and

I have to submit it by Monday. I need your help ... It’s an essay

entitled, ‘The First and Last Words of Hamlet’, and I don’t know how

to begin it let alone end it!


GEORGE: Hamlet, as you know, plays many parts, but his chief role is that of

clown ... He is Shakespeare’s study of the young man; Antony is his study of the middle-aged man; Lear is his study of the old man ...

Hamlet’s first words are an aside, only the audience hears him. A little more than the word ‘kin’‚ is the word ‘kind’‚ – one letter more; a  little less than the word ‘kind’‚ is the word ‘kin’‚ – one letter less.


GEORGE: [With growing excitement] Sorry, but notice how close both words are, visually and aurally, to ‘king’.

CHIEF INSPECTOR: ‘The play’s the thing’.

GEORGE: Yes, and Zimbabwe’s a prison. (19-20)

Thus the novella suggests that Shakespeare, and by extension perhaps even George himself, is

not completely redundant and obsolete, primarily because of the education system. If nothing

else, colonial education has passed on English and its historical literature. Rather hilariously, the

Chief Inspector regards Shakespeare as a much better writer than Ngugi when he comes to write

another essay on A Grain of Wheat (101), though George does not agree with this assessment. Of course, Eppel suggests that literature is still relevant in more profound ways than just this

colonial heritage. The suggestion is that literature’s relevance also continues because of its

psychological and archetypal insight. Furthermore, because human kingdoms and regimes come

and go, and because literature as the art of plotting narrative over time is keenly aware of this, it

can provide poignant lessons for the future; Hamlet is relevant to the youth of Zimbabwe

because it speaks to their feelings of disenfranchisement and debates what they might do about

those feelings. Eppel’s thesis about Shakespeare’s work is encapsulated in George’s theory that

Hamlet ‘is Shakespeare’s study of the young man; Antony is his study of the middle-aged man;

Lear is his study of the old man’. This thesis advances an analysis of masculinity during periods

of regime change, suggesting that those who are unable to redefine their gender and sense of self  during periods of flux are likely to perpetrate disasters – a thesis with obvious relevance to

Zimbabwe, which has been ruled with crass machismo.

My sense is that this support for literature is not simply idle Bardolatry. Eppel obviously feels

strongly about literature, Shakespeare in particular, close reading and the importance thereof.

Yet his advancing of his cause is humorous to the point of self-deprecation and beyond. At no

stage do we feel lectured to as readers because the gentleness, the gentility, of this humanist-like

argument is always surrounded by the force of crude historical and contextual forces that run

roughshod over it. In other words, Eppel appears to have little confidence in the humanistic and

humane; perhaps this is a realistic view, particularly in a tyrannical context.

So, for all of his new critical erudition in conducting humanist and forensic deconstructions of

Shakespeare’s language, George is still on the tragic downward trajectory towards disgrace and

uselessness that so characterises David Lurie. Beauticious Nyamayakanuna, mistress of the

minister who gives her ‘expensive new cars in exchange for hanky-panky’  (27), settles out of

court with the smasher of her Mercedes: ‘George got to keep what was left of his Ford,

Beauticious ... got everything else including George‚s labour – for the rest of his life’ (28).

George then begins his piquant experience of being a servant for the new black petit bourgeois in what was formerly his own house. Moved from the house into the servant’s quarters, Beauticious ‘would pay him the minimum wage and supply him with 5 kilograms of mealie meal per month, and five leaves of spinach or rape per day, depending on availability’ (29). Worse, her Minister boyfriend would lecture him on his demeanour: ‘There’s nothing worse than a sullen servant’ (115). If there is any redemption at all in this spiral of demotion it is in the grace and humour with which George accepts his new position, a remarkable equanimity in the face of adversity that may well be Zimbabweans‚ greatest attribute – though it might also be said to have a major downside in a peculiar form of political quietism.

Moreover, more practically, George looks after an abandoned baby girl he names Polly,

literally a Bethlehem-like waif, a victim of the baby dumping all too tragically common in

Zimbabwe. He resolves to take this girl to the mission on what was his grandparents’  farm,

which is also her family’s point of origin, hoping that there she will be looked after and get an

education. He manages to succeed with this mission, escaping his domestic servitude, but dying

in the process. The ending is disconcertingly brusque:

The ruin was surrounded by whispering grass. He managed to climb over the low stone wall into what remained of the enclosure where his grandmother had been born, and there he died. George had done his duty. (145)

This novella may reference Daniel Carney’s Rhodesian ‘skiet en donner’‚  The Whispering Death and is indeed a whispering (in)version of Doris Lessing’s classic The Grass is Singing, in the sense that it involves a white man who is a servant to a black woman. George rejects this

emasculating fate, rejects Zimbabwe. Climbing over the ‘low stone wall’  which is a reference to

Zimbabwe (‘House of Stone’ in Karanga Shona), perhaps also Great Zimbabwe or the

‘Zimbabwe ruins’, George returns to his grandmother’s place of birth to die. Is it too much of a

stretch to argue that the name George is a synecdoche for the British crown, and hence to

associate his return to his ancestral roots with the British empire crumbling and eventually

coming full circle? Perhaps, but if it is too much of a stretch, then it is a reaching out that the

book endorses via all of its close reading. In the wheel of this circular return, George’s duty is

ironically not a national one but the rescuing of an innocent, presumably representing hope for

the future. In other words, Eppel – and this is characteristic of Zimbabwe today – rejects

nationalism because it is too associated with imperialism of all sorts. Rejecting ideologies,

George helps someone he personally knows. Literature, Shakespeare in particular, helps give

him the courage to take this oppositional path against hegemonic nationalist ideology. To put the same point differently, literature has both practical as well as individual (psychological,

affective) utility in Eppel’s estimation.

If any further proof of this ongoing relevance of the Bard and his work, as suggested by

Eppel, is required, then one need only note that George Charamba, permanent secretary at the

Ministry of Information in Mugabe’s government and writer of many vitriolic denunciations of

those who are apparently unpatriotic to the national cause (the ZANU PF cause), did an MA on

Dickens at the University of Zimbabwe. His party political vituperations for ZANU PF have

tended to be littered with quotes from Shakespeare and Dickens, alongside other writers in the

canon of English literature. Eppel’s ‘novel of obsolescence’ is surely part of a major recent trope in southern African literature; its distinctive contribution, which might be thought of as uniquely Zimbabwean, is to have brought a wild Dionysian courage, humour and humanity to this trope. That this contribution is uniquely Zimbabwean is apparent in the Weimar absurdity that George’s ‘pension payout, after forty years of full-time service, bought him two jam doughnuts and a soft tomato’  (28).

Review of Absent: The English Teacher - Rosetta Codling

Goodbye Mr. Chips …. Absent, the English Teacher (Eppel)

Rosetta Codling

Atlanta Books Examiner

March 9th 2011

Title: Absent. The English Teacher,

Author: John Eppel


*Fascinating note: The author, John Eppel, of Absent: The English Teacher actually teaches English. He was born in South Africa and raised in Zimbabwe. His writing reflects his experience, forbearance, and observations of the politics of a world ‘gone’ awry. ***English and Social Studies professors/teachers in Atlanta, this novel offers a unique method of teaching and viewing historical events in South Africa.

Synopsis: This is a satirical treatise. John Eppel inspires analogies and comparisons between his antihero and Shakespeare’s King Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth. Mr. George J. George is the main character cast in a chain of historical and personal events.

Firstly, as an English teacher, Mr. George is challenged by his apathetic students. Pressed to motivate, he innovatively stresses inferences, symbols, and motifs in order for his pupils to connect with Emily Bronte’s’ characters Healthcliff (depicted as a werewolf) and Cathy (depicted as a nymphomaniac). Still, the poor Mr. George struggles in vain to retain the focus of his students. Secondly, Mr. George is arrested and he suffers the loss of his teaching post at the Girls and Boys Come Out to Play secondary school. He is accused of displaying a picture of the deposed Ian Smith.

This is a politically incorrect act. However, one of the interrogators is more intrigued with the source of the picture than the actual crime. For, the picture is currently a pricy collector’s item. Thirdly, as the result of Mr. George’s ill fortune, he loses his home and all of the trappings of his superior colonial status. In the new postcolonial world, he is shifted from being the owner of his farm… to being a mere worker. Thus, Mr. George’s fate is sealed with this act. Absent. The English Teacher is a political and literary treatise utilizing literary works to foreshadow contemporary events.

Critique: This book is a challenge and a joy. I re-read passages within The Norton Anthology of English Literature as John Eppel made references to classical works and writers. This was my first introduction to contemporary Zimbabwean literature. I was enthralled and I am impressed. Satire is a lost art, but Eppel resurrects it to a new level. He also manages literary fusion with the incorporation of William Shakespeare, Ngugi wa Thiongo, and James Joyce into the threads of his novel. I highly recommend this book. Be prepared to surrender you ‘balanced’ views regarding Africa and the postcolonial world.

*The African community in Atlanta will enjoy the novel’s authentic illustration of postcolonial politics in this novel!!

Review of Absent: The English Teacher - Star Tonight

by John Eppel (Weaverfiacana. Ri 50)

ABSENT: The English Teacher is a tragi-comedy set m Zimbabwe which satirises the economic and
political meltdown there. The story is interwoven with themes ranging from tyranny to gullibility selfishness to altruism and corruption as opposed to being manipulated.

George V George is a high school English teacher who is reduced to a nonentity by a situation over which
he has no control. Other professionals in the country have been reduced to the lowest rungs of the social strata by the economic situation ? to the extent of buying and selling goods on the black market and still barely being able to make ends meet. But George?s case is even worse.

He is bamboozled out of his inherited house in Bulawayo because he had an unfortunate
accident His Ford is not insured but the car he bumps into isa brand new, custom-built Mercedes that
belongs to a Mrs Beauticious Hyanayakanuna (fat meat), the mistress of the Minister of Child Welfare and Biscuits.

George cannot stand up to their unquestionable authority and therefore also loses all the contents of his house. The minister and his mistress, being black, marvel at the reversal of posiUouai George, a white man, jeim a subocdinateai slave in his house. The story becomes interesting as George attempts to acc]imatise to the situation with no feelings of anger or bitternesa Eppel exposes the corruption of
top government officials and discredits the Zimbabwean government with a mixture of irony, humour and wit, and he does this with a tone that is both sad and humorous.

The story explores the many emotions experienced by teachers In the classroom, and the school
environment is vividly portrayed. I would love to read a sequel to this book, as the political and social
events in the country of Zimbabwe

STAR, Tonight
Thursday, 02 September 2010, p. 11

Review of Absent: The English teacher - Vivien Horler

CAPE ARGUS (City Late)
Monday, 25 May 2009, p. 11

Across My Desk.

Absent the English Teacher, by John Eppel (Weaver Press/Jacana):

Mr George isa Rhodie, a brand of Zimbabwean not much vilified any more
on account of being almost extinct. When he loses his post as an English
teacher in Bulawayo, his payout after 40 years buys him two jam doughnuts
and a soft tomato. Then he crashes his skadonk into a Merc belonging to
Beauticious Nyamayakanuna, and ends up as her domestic worker. Life in
today?s Zimbabwe is wiyly represented in this novel: "Do you have a
lawyer?" "I did have, but he diasporised a few days ago. Bastard."

Review of Absent: The English Teacher - Malcom Hacksley

Van skrik tot medelye - Zimbabwe 2009

John Eppel


'n Blanke Engels-onderwyser van in die sestig word wederregtelik uit sy pos by ?n hoºrskool in Bu ontslaan. Daarna stamp hy met sy (onversekerde) ou Ford Cortina per ongeluk die voorlamp van ?n splinternuwe Mercedes stukkend. Die spogmotor behoort aan een van die vele bywywe van ?n ZANU-PF-kabinetslid, die minister van ?Kinderwelsyn, Lekkergoed en Koekies?. Hulle skik buite die hof: me. Beauticious Nyamayakanuna (?Lekkervleis? ...) kry Mister George se huis, meubels, boekery, huisraad.
Voortaan bly hy in die kaia agterop die werf en word hy haar kombuisjong. Sy spreek hom in Chilapalapa
(die Zimbabwiese variant van Fanagab) aan. Hy moet uniform dra: kort kakiebroek en hemp, tekkies en ?n
rooi fes met ?n tossel aan. In die kombuis maak hy smulkos vir sy miesies; self kry hy ?n weeklikse rantsoen
mieliemeel om buite op ?n vuurtjie stywepap mee te kook. Na hy met sy kombuiswerk klaar is, gee
hy vir die Madam se kinders (gratis) les oor Macbeth en Othello.

Soms 'leen' sy hom aan van haar vriendinne as chauffeur uit. Wanneer die hoof van die tronk 'n taak
oor die letterkunde moet inlewer, laat hy George summier in hegtenis neem sodat laasgenoemde die opstel vir horn kan dikteer. En so meer. Was dit alles nie so na aan die werklikheid nie, sou 'n mens geneig
wees om te se dis 'n kiug. Ailesbehalwe. Dit is, inteendeel, letterlik skrikwekkend.

John Eppel is 'n bekroonde digter (wenner van die Ingrid Jonkerprys) en ?n satirikus van naam,
maar waar sy vorige romans op meesal goedige wyse met die belaglikhede van (veral) Homo Zimbabwiensis die spot dryf, pak hy met hierdiejongste kort boek indringender temas aan en onfleed hy as ?tware van binne afdie paradoksale fenomeen van 'n blanke landsburger hi die hedendaagse Zimbabwe.

Hoewel daar skerp gespot word met die nouveaux riches se na-apery van hul vorige koloniale meesters,
is Eppel se bedoeling hier veel dieper per en strek sy verwysingsveld oor feitlik die hele Engelse letterkunde heen. Veral die groot tragedies van Shakespeare tree sterk na yore: die ooreenkomste tussen die hooflarakter en konmg Lear is nie toevalhg nie. Maar selfs die smspeling op die groot raap wat niemand uit die grond kan uitpluk nie, het baie wyer betrekkmg as die kmderverhaaltjie waaraan dit ontleen word.

Waar 'n satirikus normaalweg geneig is om sy aandag sonder veel meer op blote beskrywing van ?n bepaalde sosiale bestel toe te spits, en dit uiteraard oppervlakkig te doen ten emde sy eie spesifieke uitgangspunt te staaL kry die leser hier egter heel fyn karakterisermg, verrassende intrige-ontwikkeling,o nverwagte uitbeelding van opregte medemenslikheid en ?n deurgronde realisme wat die verhaal stewig brnne ?n herkenbare werklikheidsfeer veranker. Daardeur word die onafwendbare uiteinde eg tragies: die skrik gaan oor in hartverskeurende medelye. Die kringloop word volbring.

Daar is soveel meer wat ?n mens oor hierdie boek wil sØ ? oor die digte maar nooit verwarrende verstrengeling van temas, by voorbeeld, of die besonder akkurate dialoog, die afwisseling van skryfstyle ? maar ruimtebeperkings laat dit net nie toe nie. Slegs ?n meesterverteller kan dit alles binne die bestek van 145 bladsye vermag. Ek sal wil aanbeveel dat elkeen die geleentheid aangryp om sell deur hierdie boek aangegryp te word.

145 BLADSYE, ISBN 9781 77009 711 7,)

Review of Absent: The English Teacher - Mail and Guardian

Where Fiction takes Form

Absent the English Teacher
John Eppel

Harare. Weaver Press, 2009
ISBN: 978 1 77922 082 0

pp. 164; 210 x 132

Reviewed by Percy Zvomuya
for the Mail and Guardian, Supplement A
5th June, 2009

The publication of Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly (Faber and Faber) and John Eppel’s Absent: The English Teacher (Jacana and Weaver Press) means that the fiction games in Zimbabwe have begun in earnest.
For years it seemed that Zimbabwe fiction writers lay helpless, confounded by the enormity of the crisis in their homeland. The tomes upon tomes that came out were largely non-fiction, written mostly by foreign journalists. Christina Lamb wrote about the fate of specific victims: a farmer and his domestic worker; British journalist Martin Meredith, making extensive use of the wonder that is called the internet, also put out a book on how Zimbabwe went down; and so did Heidi Holland, whose biography of Robert Mugabe is much acclaimed.
Zimbabwean responses were minuscule. The more significant came from nationalist Edgar Tekere who produced a biography; journalist Geoff Nyarota wrote his memoirs; Geoff Hill, already looking ahead, wrote about what needs to be done to get Zimbabwe working again; Judith Todd, using letters, dairies and other documents, wrote an insightful book about how Zimbabwe was reduced to a shell of its former proud self.

Besides Gappah and Eppel, Brain Chikwava’s Harare North and Nyaradzo Mtizira’s The Chimurenga Protocol, were also recently published. I have also started reading architect Daneil Mandishona’s The Sound of Dreams, still in manuscript form, which will be launched at the Cape Town Book Fair.
Gappah’s collection of 13 short stories has been covered quite extensively in the western media. Perhaps this is because of the topicality of Zimbabwe as a post colony that got it horribly wrong. At the launch of her book in Johannesburg, Gappah admitted that the west’s reaction to her work is mostly informed by how it views Mugabe and Zimbabwe.
I found most interesting the stories that had nothing to do with Zimbabwe’s politics. The Annexe Shuffle, about a mentally ill law student, is easily the best. Although its tone is dispassionate, its voice is sympathetic. The narrator is not pretentious, and is to be commended for her refusal to resort to easy solutions.
The story I disliked the most is At the Sound of the Last Post, about the widow of a former minister about to be buried at the Heroes Acre, the country’s national shrine. The choice of voice is rather unfortunate – its easy-going accents not appropriate for such a subject. Perhaps the main problem with the story is its lack of distance from the actual events. Because it’s so close to the events the author is writing about, it feels like lazy political commentary and one feels obliged to criticise it not as fiction but as journalese.
The narrator describes a minister’s suicide after the infamous Willowgate Scandal, a car scam involving ministers, as a “supremely self-indulgent act”. Maurice Nyagumbo, one of the more principled men in a Zanu PF that was increasingly materialistic, committed suicide after being implicated in the scam.
Suicide is never easy; the narrator in Graham Greene’s book The Comedians said it was, “the clear-headed act of a mathematician, (for) the suicide has judged by the laws of chance – so many odds against one that to live would be more miserable than to die”.
Then there are the stale jokes. The one about the disappeared pearly gates in heaven and another about the country itself: “before the president was elected, the Zimbabwe Ruins were a prehistoric monument in Masvingo Province. Now, the Zimbabwe Ruins extend to the whole country.”
I felt that the author is at her strongest when writing about the lives of individuals. This is apparent in stories such as Something Nice from London and Aunt Juliana’s Indian (perhaps a nod here to Chimurenga 14: Everyone Has Their Indian). Here the author is not regurgitating urban legends or forcing her opinions down the throats of her characters. These stories are true to life with no stereotyping: these are real people faced with real problems.
At her best the Switzerland based Gappah has a unique vernacular voice, unearthing the pains and sorrows of the ordinary. In many ways she can’t be from anywhere but Zimbabwe.
Right from the cauldron that is Zimbabwe comes Absent: The English Teacher. Its author was born in South Africa but grew up and lives in Zimbabwe, where he is a teacher. His book is about a white English teacher who loses his job at a private high school in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. His pension, after 40 years of service, is enough only to buy two doughnuts and a tomato.
By a wicked stroke of bad luck his car crashes into a Mercedes Benz belonging to the mistress of a minister. The out-of-court settlement involves a post-colonial role reversal in which he gives up his suburban house and moves into the servants’ quarters to work as a houseboy.
This is a novel that attempts with varying degrees of success to relate the white Zimbab-wean/ Rhodesian to the space we call Zimbabwe. Early on, as the teacher is being interrogated by a cop after being arrested for “causing alarm and despondency among the aboriginal peoples of Zimbabwe”, he replies: “with respect, the bushmen are long gone.”
While in police custody he meets an Ndebele man who tells him: “They hate you because you are white; they hate us because we are Ndebele. They call us the dissidents”. Those who came first, he seems to be saying, hate those who came later. Ndebeles, led by Mzilikazi, came into Zimbabwe in the late 1830s and whites came decades later.

This small book, almost a novella, erudite and intelligent and to appreciate it you must have done a fair amount of reading. The teacher a fastidious gramatarian, talks in a conversional tone about Andrew Marvell, John Keats, Shakespeare, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and others. But there isn’t a hint of pedantry in this entertaining, intellectually stimulating book. Not even when the author talks about words from the poetic lexicon, such as pentameter, catalectic, trochee and so on, does he alienate the reader.

In many ways, Absent: The English Teacher is about a specific white man, a species the narrator calls, “part of the sub-culture ... almost extinct”, who knows the landscape and its plants, who first lived in “fascist Rhodesia” and then in “Marxist Zimbabwe” and who finds both dispensations woefully inadequate.

The narrators in the books by Gappah and Eppel have a lot to dislike about Zimbabwe. None does for the same reasons and neither should. Gappah’s view is that of a black woman living in Europe and looking in; Eppel’s is that of a white man living in Africa and gazing at his homeland from within. Both takes on Zimbabwe are equally valid, deeply felt and have a certain poignancy. Both stories should live side by side – perhaps that way we will begin to understand the true meaning of being Zimbabwean.

Review of Absent : The English Teacher - Wasafiri

Absent: The English Teacher by John Eppel
ISBN 978-1-77922-082-0 & ISBN 978-1-77009-711-7
Harare: Weaver Press, 2009 & Johannesburg: Jacana Media, 2009

Reviewed by Lizzy Attree
In Wasafiri 63

In his sparkling review, Kizito Muchemwa describes Absent: The English Teacher as having “an exhilarating verbal agility (which lends the novel much of its humour); a powerful evocation of place and historical period; and the vivid creation of memorable characters.”  Certainly Eppel’s strongly satirical and often hilarious new novel is the best thing he has written to date in my view.  Perhaps this is because the subjects of his ridicule are so ripe for excoriation but also because he manages to gently poke fun at himself, or at least the character of the English Teacher, who seems so perfectly modelled on a more hapless version of Eppel, that one cannot help but feel affectionate towards the disastrous sequence of events that befall the tragic hero in his hometown of Bulawayo. 
After being sacked from his job without much if anything of a pension “his pension payout, after forty years of full-time service, bought him two jam doughnuts and a soft tomato” (28) the English Teacher, George Jorge George or “Joji” as he is called by his mistress Beauticious, gradually loses purchase on all his worldly goods and position in society.  He is usurped not only by the woman whose car he crashes into, and who takes over his home, but by the local Chief Inspector who arrests him in various transparent attempts to pass his English literature correspondence course with the Open University by plagiarism.  Eppel’s literary dexterity is demonstrated by George who at times overflows with slippery linguistic eloquence, so much so that in a bracketed intervention from an editor of sorts, Eppel seems to break in to George’s monologue about his Eastern European origins with “(that’s enough George!”) (31)  This admonition not to be too loquacious, is something both George and Eppel are prone to if left unrestrained.  It is when explaining catharsis and epiphany to his Mistress’s children that this narrative subtext is most clear, as George explains “They say there’s always an ironic gap between author and persona, but I’m not so sure, really...not so sure.” (33)
It’s not just the plot and the mishaps of George’s life that make the novel so funny, the author plays with language, style and genre to comic effect too, most satisfyingly when he writes one chapter as a play.  This device helps to remove too many controlling fillers by the author, leaving the satire to work on the stage alone.  Continual misunderstandings based on puns and confused metaphors work brilliantly in the dialogue between two policemen and George in a police station in which his mention of a schoolboy called Kaufmann is confused with “kaffirman” leading the policemen to accuse George of racism.  The denouement of this episode is particularly cutting as the trumped up criminal charge is that George deliberately displayed a picture of Ian Smith instead of Robert Mugabe in his classroom when the school was visited by a Deputy Minister from the government.  One of the policemen asks George where he got the picture, only to reveal that “last week I sold a ‘Rhodesia is Super’ T-shirt for five pounds sterling.” (17)  His interest in George’s treasonous Rhodesiana is purely for his own financial gain.
There are whole sections of the text which dissect Shakespeare like an A-level set text, which could lose some readers, but which for an English literature lover are eminently readable and astute.  The constant parallel with Shakespeare and King Lear in particular lends the novel its “comedy and tragedy” duality.  There is a sombre moment in prison when George’s fellow inmates describe the effects of the Matabeleland genocide murambastvina on themselves and their families, and this exchange is deadly serious: 
GEORGE: Were all the others killed?
FIRST PRISONER: All.  I lost everything. (23)
Overall there is a sense that George’s fate, funny as its exposition is, is deeply tragic at the same time.  The story becomes more heart-warming and sympathetic towards George when we realise he is ill and dying.  He also adopts a young orphan girl who he finds outside his gate and names Polly, gradually coaxing her back to life by sharing his meagre rations and reading her stories; most crucially she lends his life the meaning it has hitherto lacked.
Robert Muponde and other reviewers suggest that the novel is “a welcome contribution to the literatures of the region” and it is true that the evocation of local detail and affection are at times overwhelming.  Muchemwa suggests that Eppel displays an “intimate knowledge and love of the local flora and fauna but an abiding concern for the environment”.   And it is to this natural idyll that George returns at the end of the book when he walks into the Matobo hills with Polly to take her home to the Empandeni Mission in the Mpande Communal Lands, and return her to her people, fulfilling a final noble quest at the end of his life.  Using beautiful poetry, as ever erudite and allusive, “the dying George thought of the dying Keats... ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’” (129) Eppel reveals that “It was his stomach, not his lungs, which pained him.”  It is with beauty and pain that George shuffles off his mortal coil in the kraal of his forefathers, having survived in the wilderness like an Ndebele nomad, prostrate in the dust as Lear on his heath, quoting Byron:
So, we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright. (144)

On this journey “the intoxicating beauty of this ancient granite landscape acted as an analgesic on George” (136) and George teaches Polly how to use the fruits and leaves to sustain herself, in another role reversal that is poignant and less comic than his erstwhile transformation into a house boy, spoken to in “Kitchen Kaffir” by Beauticious.  With the knowledge that he has acquired (not all of it dwelling in the romantic poets after all) as a white Zimbabwean, it seems that George will leave a real legacy in his wake.  Embodied in his gentle lyrical appreciation of the land and its bounty, and his love of the child, is the potential for the future of Zimbabwe, the spirit of the Swahili harambee (all pull together).  This is the ‘teaching’ that the English Teacher will leave behind, found not in Shakespeare but amusingly and more simplistically in The Enormous Turnip which he has been reading to Polly.  The play on words in the title: ‘Absent’ is rooted in the references to Hamlet that are threaded throughout, meaning ‘not to be’.  Eppel answers the eternal question “to be or not to be?” echoed later by Keats: “the feel of not to feel” with the affirmation to feel and just be, at least for as long as one can.  It seems that Eppel, like George by the end of this novel, has “done his duty” (145) and come home.

Review of Absent: The English Teacher - Tonight

Book review: Absent: The English Teacher

July 2, 2009

Absent: The English Teacher

Author: John Eppel

Publisher: Weaver Press

Reviewer: Janine Magree

Something that struck me about a visit to Zimbabwe some years ago was not just the largely unspoilt natural beauty of the place, but also the unconcealed fact that it was a desperately needy Zanu-PF police state with road blocks galore and photographs of Robert Mugabe calling attention to his omnipotence from the walls of virtually any public building you cared to visit.

With the ANC Youth League calling for our own president's photograph to grace the walls of our schools, one might say this is a brilliantly timed piece of satire that pokes fun at the ruling elite and their mistresses.

The perspective is that of a world-weary English teacher who has undergone one too many rounds with Moyo, McKaufmann, City Lights and the other pupils in his Form 3 Remove class. When George J George loses his teaching position at a private school owing to drunkenness and an act of sedition he did not commit, he undergoes a complete transformation to play the role of "houseboy", resplendent in khakis and tasselled red fez, to the cellphone-toting, tea-swilling Mercedes-driving Beauticious and her family. George examines texts from Macbeth to A Grain of Wheat, Waiting for Godot and Lord of the Flies to draw comparisons between the text and the Zimbabwean social scene which he parodies so cleverly.

Accurately setting the Zimbabwean scene are the beautiful surroundings of Bulawayo's Matopos Hills, the empty shops, chronic shortage of skills and spares, power outages, and meals of sadza.

Eppel poignantly captures the Zimbabwe I remember and delivers a skilfully crafted African novel which leaves one with a lot to think about.

Review of Absent: The English Teacher - Sunday Independent

John EppelJohn Eppel's latest novel is, among many other things, an example of Loser Lit in its most literal sense. Its protagonist, George J George, loses, in quick succession, his job, his car, his house and all his possessions and, ultimately, his life. This crude synopsis may seem to promise some exceedingly gloomy reading. But Eppel's account of George's declining fortunes is enlivened by a satirical bent, mainly at the expense of the new Zimbabwe and its perennial expectation of ‘the mother of all agricultural seasons’.

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Review of Absent the English Teacher - Muponde

Absent: The English Teacher
John Eppel
2009: (pp: 164) 210 x 132 mm
ISBN: 9781779220820

7 March 2009
Reviewer:    Professor Robert Muponde, Department of English, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

John Eppel’s novel, Absent: The English Teacher, is a welcome contribution to the literatures of the region, and Zimbabwe in particular. This seemingly innocuous story of a rather wayward white English teacher in contemporary Zimbabwe is actually a vicious satirical attack on the values and practices that have led not only to the meltdown of the economy but of morals and commonsense. The rather disaster-prone character of the pretentious teacher Mr George Jorge George can only have been drawn from the enduring oeuvre of the likes of Dickens, Cervantes, Swift, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Marechera. George Jorge George takes himself too seriously, which is a good thing, but is unaware of the paradoxes that surround his background and the methods of his teaching. He is soon threatened with a tragic sense of irrelevance, while at the same time his disproportionate sense of commitment to his subject avails his talents to his interrogators and abusers in the police force and society at large.

It is only George Jorge George who can endure the burden of carrying the remains of a tradition of learning as a fascinating, talismanic relic, and manage to convert himself into a much-sought-after collector’s item. In one instance, his rather arcane methods of teaching literary criticism deliver him into captivity by the Chief Police Officer, who throws him into a cell in order to extort help from him. The officer is a student of literature at the Open University who has no time to read and understand his setbooks, and will only release George on the condition that he helps him with his Open University assignments, but from behind bars. In another instance, the teacher’s fetishistic adherence to the fashion of his Rhodesian past delivers him into the hands of some collector who offers to purchase his safari suit from him and then proceeds to undress the unwilling seller in public in order to collect the prized period item.

Perhaps, after suffering the endless attrition of the spirit and mind, only a Marechera would have continued with the hilarious absurdities of an exaggerated quaintness and erudition, for the sake of smiting settled and jaded sensitivities in a situation in which pandemic insensitivity is encouraged by an all-consuming materialism. In no other place will George Jorge George be born and raised than the meeting point of the overrated high-brow culture of Rhodesia and an abrasive and iconoclastic Zimbabwe.

This novel is a sturdy satire from one of the foremost rebels of what is left of the white culture as the colonial past made us to understand it. It is a satire of the dramatic paradoxes that characterize the life of an ever-diminishing species of white teacher and an ever-increasing bitchiness of the new black elite. It is about the tenacity of culture when the human spirit is being relentlessly eroded, and personality and convictions are reduced to labels.

Eppel’s novel is also about the life of a language (English) and a mind that is as endangered as the farm. The novel satirises the mixed fortunes of linguistic imperialism and those who attempt to retain the language’s aboriginal purity. George Jorge George is therefore stripped of his language and mind and his world, as these have become the equivalent of ‘ngoda’, the elusive riches of the Marange diamond. Only a few black people have turned to the lucrative business of trading Rhodesiana, which George is a symbol of in their eyes. George remains an important but endangered fossil. His erudition remains somehow irrelevant to those who pursue and torture him to impart it. He does not run short of captors, because to some extent, he has become the remnant of a tribe that colonial anthropologists would have celebrated as a rare find. In this novel, it is the black woman, Beauticious, mistress to a philandering black politician, who entraps him and converts him into her domestic factotum, having stripped him of his house, books and pets.

But John Eppel has done more than make us appreciate the dangers of certain patrimonies, whether political or cultural. He has written a novel about books. Stories in books and about books, and books in life. It is a novel about the lives around books. In a literary culture beset by an undeveloped reading culture, it is a welcome intervention. It is also an example of the broadening of subject beyond themes of culture shock, land invasions, genocide, media hangmen, death and disease that the 'Zimbabwe crisis' produces. It is a story of the struggle of books over videos, i-Pods, hamburgers, pizza and Coca-Cola. It is a struggle staged in an arena in which the proverbial melting down of all solid things surprises all of us, if one goes by the accolades the losers in this struggle, our progeny, get for aiding their own ruin. It is fitting that, at the end of the novel, George heads towards the historic ruin that entombs his grandmother’s remains, and dies there, after having led the little abandoned girl Polly back to a more welcoming spirituality. There lie possibilities.

© The author/publisher.