Review of Strife - Dr Thomas GroB

Review of Zwietratcht (Strife) by Shimmer Chinodya,

reviewed by Dr Thomas GroB

Mannheimer Morgen 3.2.2011, Germany

This review is translated here by Adad Hoesch

Indra Wussow is convinced Europeans can learn something through African literature not only about Africa, but about themselves. The (island- of- )Sylt -based author and sponsor for culture is publishing therefore in the Heidelberg-based publishing house ‘Wunderhorn’ (reminiscent of ‘The Youths Magic Horn’, a collection of folk Songs, edited by Clemens Brentano and Achim v. Arnim in 1805 -1808) a series of publications, named ‘Africa-Magic-Horn’. The aim is to publish three high quality new books by contemporary African authors each year. Recently, the novel ‘Strife’ (Zwietratcht ), by the world renowned Zimbabwean author Shimmer Chinodya, was published in Germany.  It was translated from English by Manfred Loimeier, edited by him and has a helpful glossary and epilogue. Dr Loimeier, is a well-known Africanist and journalist of this newspaper.

About Cults and Beliefs in Magic Spirits

Everything in the novel is atmospherically dense. The young moon is introduced; a woman, the mother-figure in the book, searches symbolically for its (limited) light in the dark. At first, one doesn’t know who she is or what her quest is. The search becomes somehow clearer and sheds some light into the fate of the family. Above that family, which is the centre of all, seemingly hangs a dark cloud. In italic printed sections (of which more follow in the novel), a hunter named Mhokoshi, and his archaic life and animistic cults and beliefs in spiritual are described. More details of the family’s forbears follow, with engaging resonances running through the generations right up to the present.

Slowly the relations amongst the family kinship become clearer, between the woman and the hunter who turns out to be a grand-uncle of her husband. Soon it becomes clear that the basic conflict is that between tradition and modernity shaping the novel. One may suppose the author characterizing Zimbabwe’s situation, comprising probably the whole of Black Africa.

The narrator turns out to be Godfrey, the second son of that woman. In him, the 1957-born author emerges as the chronicler of the family history, and his country. The history of that sorely afflicted family develops before the background of the last 30 years. The long rule of Robert Mugabe; the political, economic and social contemporary problems stretch into the family’s life. They stand for the misfortunes of the Gwanangara family, for the several illnesses and premature deaths. The reasons for the ill-fortune are almost incorrigible, but they follow a gripping literary method, whereas the traditional and superstitious neighbours seem to see things more clearly. It becomes a case of ‘too much Bible and Education’ because the Gwanangara family has dedicated themselves to the western values. That’s how they climbed the social ladder into a dubious but promising middle-class, developed ambition, lost interest in the extended family, therefore severing themselves from their own roots. What does the European reader learn from this? That, of course, for African literature too, culture is dynamic and yet lasting, that nothing humane is alien in the world. One is intensely fascinated by the juxtaposition of the past and the present and the constant interrogation of the ‘supernatural’.

The past, embedded into the presence, characterizing this book, as well as the presence of a magical world view evokes memories for milestones of Latin American literature such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Hundred Years Of Solitude and Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits – Loimeier’s knowledgeable epilogue points this out. The added family tree is helpful; without it it would be difficult to keep track of the overview. (This is a feature common in Russian novels of the 19th century.) 

Analysis of the social middle-class

The novel, and this analysis of it, is more than just of literary interest. In Africa too, the author is aware of fears of loss of social status. One becomes more aware of the familiar arch-European conflict between tradition and modernity, recognizing the specific African style and the challenges and dilemmas of the African condition, which are imprinted by colonial influence.

The book and the Wunderhorn series is worth reading and it is enlightening in many ways.

The globalised times make books of erudite and experimental authors like Chinodya, who is familiar with many literary trends, ‘weltliteratur’, world class literature. However, the book would have had a stronger impact with less and instead more deeply developed characters.