Review of Strife - Franziska Kramer

Shimmer Chinodya`s Strife – translated into German as Zwietracht

Book launch – Reading at the ZGS in Harare 14th of April 2011

By Franziska Kramer

Welcome everybody! My name is Franziska Kramer, I am a MA Postcolonial Literature student from Leeds University, co-launching Chinodya’s German version of Strife – translated as Zwietracht – this evening on behalf of Weaver Press publishers Harare. Just a little note on tonight’s procedure: first, I will try to give you a brief introduction to the author Shimmer Chinodya, and then consider the themes and topics dealth with in the novel Zwietracht,l ooking at how they can be positioned in the canon of Zimbabwean and (what is sometimes misleadingly called) African literature and how the German readership (that is, reviewers in newspapers) might react towards the novel.

At the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010, the Wunderhorn publishing house from Heidelberg started a series called Afrika Wunderhorn in which they aim to publish 2-3 contemporary African novels per year in German. The series is edited by Indra Wussow, who is an author herself, as well as a literary scholar and translator, who lives both in Johannesburg and on an island in the North Sea called Sylt. Last year, Shimmer Chinodya and the well-known Zimbabwean poet Chirikure Chirikure were selected for the series together with the South African poet Lebogang Mashile with her recent anthology Töchter von Morgen [Daughters of Tomorrow] and K. Sello Duikers Die Stille Gewalt der Träume [The Quiet Power of Dreams].  

Chindoya, born in Gweru in 1957, is one of Zimbabwe’s best-known authors; since 1982 he has been writing novels, short stories, plays, film scripts (including the award-winning feature film ‘Everyone’s Child’), children’s books and literature-based educational texts used in Zimbabwe and SADC region. His fourth novel Harvest of Thorns (1989) won the Commonwealth Writers Prize (1990) and was published in German as Dornenernte a year later by Horlemann Verlag. His eponymous short story, ‘Can we Talk’ was nominated for the 1999 Caine Prize; and in 2005 his children’s book Tale of Tamari won best children’s book in the Zimbabwean Book Publishers literary awards. Strife (now Zwietracht) was also very successful being awarded the international Noma Award for publishing in Africa, the ZBPA literary award for best novel in English, and the National Arts Merit Award. Since being published in German, Litprom (one of the biggest publishing houses in Germany producing fiction from Asia, Africa and Latin America) shortlisted Zwietracht as the third best book in their category ‘Weltenempfänger’, which includes all novels published in Germany 2010/2011 from the above-mentioned continents. 

Manfred Loimeier, a journalist and lecturer in African Literatures at Mannheim, Heidelberg and Mainz, worked closely with Shimmer Chinodya in 2009/2010 to turn this distinctive novel into German. Loimeier is also known for his publications about J.M. Coetzee, Wole Soyinka and Sembène Ousmane.

I personally became fascinated by the Zimbabwean literature while studying for my BA in African Studies, through my work as Flora Veit-Wild’s assistant in Berlin and, most importantly, my time with Weaver Press in 2009. The publishing business is a tough one, especially in Zimbabwe and I want to emphasise what a great job Weaver Press and others are doing – for example, in the case of tonight’s event, with publishing the first edition of Strife in 2006. 

It was in Berlin 2008, where I met Shimmer Chinodya for the first time, when he read from and gave a talk about his short story ‘Can we Talk’ at the University of Humboldt. His novel Zwietracht is a family epic, told over several generations and historical periods (through the pre-colonial and colonial eras and the struggle for independence, the civil war, until today). He focuses on the social rise and fall of the Gwanangara family – a theme which will remind German readers of, for example, Thoman Mann’s Buddenbrocks.

We can regard Zwietracht a book that ‘crosses’ boundaries (which may be a bit of an over-simplification), not only in terms of time, but also through the way in which conjures the (mis-)understandings between the generations, between urban and rural people, and the gap between personal and political view points. To quote Manfred Loimeier from an interview I did with him in March this year: 

the life in Zimbabwe is described in its entirety, and Strife doesn’t cut off/separate tradition from modernity, but shows the long and self-determined way of a people from pre- to post-colonialism, and all that by [through] a perspective from below. 

Maybe one could better say that in Zwietracht boundaries are not so much ‘crossed’ as shown to have fluidity: past and present are vividly juxtaposed, life and death are intertwined as in Hundert Jahre Einsamkeit [A Hundred Years of Solitude] by Marquez. But in comparison to the latter, Zwietracht is less political and less economic in its themes. Chinodya chooses to focus on the personal and looks at the pressures and ambitions which lead to individual success or breakdown. Zwietracht is about the break away from the traditional religious understanding of the world, and the growth of individualism that undermines the commitment to the extended family.  It is a novel about transformations, about times of change; about cracks in the social structure and the fractures that can result. Being caught between tradition and modernity is the story’s recurring theme and best shown in the last scene of the book. 

Everything in the novel is atmospherically dense. The ‘mother figure’ in Strife searches for a ‘slice of the moon’, a metaphorical quest to reflect light on the excruciating fate of the Gwanangara family that seems to her to be living under an ancestral curse. Godfrey, the second son, is later introduced to us as the narrator of the book. His parents worked hard to allow him and his siblings a good education and an accessible future in metropolitan Harare; he is a child of modernity. One could ask – is the story really is about a family’s curse or just about its inability to bridge the divide between tradition and modernity? Godfrey’s brothers Rindai and Kelvin both suffer from serious illnesses: schizophrenia and epilepsy are respectively the diagnoses. The latter is constantly interpreted to signify that the family’s trajectory does not harmonise with the ancestors’ wishes or traditions, but just with modern progress. Kelvin, who suffers a mental breakdown, sometimes speaks in the voice of the old hunter Mhokoshi, who died generations ago in the forest and whose weapons where never found: traditionally this would be reason enough for a plague or curse. His voice most puzzlingly assumes an array of other symbolic characters, such as his late grandmother Njiki who had died in a far away missionary hospital and whose wandering spirit had not been restored to the family as per the dictates of tradition, his equally disturbed university roommate Sebastien and even the maverick Zimbabwean revolutionary Edgar Tekere, recently returned from the bloody war of liberation.

From now on Zwietracht tells two stories in the same family: the first one (in italics) about Gwanangara and his wife Mariba, his second wife Njiki and their sons Tachiona and Dunge (all living in the rural areas when the first missionaries and British colonizers came) and the second about Dunge’s children Rindai, Godfrey, Kelvin, Shuvai, who are living more or less in today’s Zimababwe. 

Chinodya himself called Zwietracht his ‘shona novel’ – a story about a culture with its own philosophy, ethics and view of the world, one not easy to follow or engage with. In an interview with The Herald, he admitted that Indra Wussow’s suggestions for the translation came ‘out of the blue’. This is why I contacted the translator Manfred Loimeier to seek his opinion about the potential interests of Germans in Zwietracht and what he thought they would ‘find’ in Chinodya’s book that they cannot find in other texts by African writers. He said:

Concentrating on Zimbabwean fiction German readers have the possibility to compare Strife only with the oeuvre of Chenjerai Hove and Yvonne Vera, of Dambudzo Marechera and Tsitsi Dangarembga, and with several books by Charles Mungoshi – and Shimmer Chinodya’s “Harvest of Thorns”. Generally speaking, Vera and Dangarembga have been read as representatives for [of] women’s literature, whereas Hove and Marechera have been read as political authors who developed a fascinating poetical style to write about the war for independence in Zimbabwe and about the following civil war (Hove). Knowing this it becomes clear that Strife for German readers is completely new – this novel doesn’t serve the readers’ expectations.

And, in my view, he is right in saying that, Zwietracht offers a new way of looking at the present when juxtaposed with the past. It does not address political issues in a blunt way at any level – even though the reader is aware that in the ‘contemporary story’ and the Gwanangara family members are indirectly suffering under the 30 years of the dictatorial rule of Robert Mugabe. Nonetheless, Chinodya remains purposely silent on that and other common and so called ‘African themes’ like race, politics, HIV i.e. So my answer (and I hope Manfred and Shimmer will agree) is ‘yes’, there is much new to be found in Zwietracht German readers do not expect from an African novel. It is a family novel – something well known to German readers, I mentioned Thomas Mann already – Loimeier believes: 

that German readers will read Strife as the story of a family who tries to climb up the social ladder, who struggles to improve its economical and social standard, who follows the idea of freedom and wealth – and all that in a time of political changes and in a period of a redefinition of the base of one’s own way of thinking and living.

A situation that also my recall memories of the time after the WW II when the German nation had to reorient themselves – a bold comparison, I know. But Germany had not just to rebuild their country and their existence, but the society had to overcome a stage of extreme intellectual irritation. People then concentrated on the ‘Wirtschaftswunder’, that is the ‘economic miracle’ and, as a consequence, are lacking now a system of values – which caused the renaissance of family and friendship and commitment. Like the family Gwanangara some people in Germany realize that their lives fell apart. 

Another question I asked Manfred Loimeier was, if he thinks German readers will maybe see the text as an evocation not of exotic Africa exactly, but as troubled Africa, an Africa where nobody feels responsible after the experiences of colonialism. While I am still very ambivalent about European responses to ‘African’ literatures, as they tend to emphasise the exotic aspect of such fiction, Loimeier interprets these tendencies as something positive with regard to Zwietracht, as he believes that it will makes people curious

to detect the ongoing importance and presence of African philosophy, morality, religion and system of values as a vivid part of the (only partly) westernized day to day life. It may be new even for a greater part of German readers to realize this undercurrent of an African way of thinking in the modern African world, this cosmology of African ethics.

Moreover, I was interested in the gender aspect of the text. That is: will German men read Zwietracht differently from women? The echoes in Zimbabwe have been quite diverse: while some praised the ‘modernity’ embodied by a young single mum called Daphne in the last chapter of the book as very progressive, others viewed it as misleading, because this book does not actually deal with the position of women within the social fabric. Ironically, however, the female characters, no matter how understated, are the ones who appear to integrate into a modern world without the conflicts or trauma of their male counterparts.   

Perhaps, I can conclude by saying that Zwietracht will allow non-African readers to have a glimpse of life in traditional Zimbabwe, which is both complex and specific in its rules, norms and values. In addition they will be challenged by the role of the main narrator Godi, who seems at ones to revere traditional ancestral values, while occasionally wanting to subvert und criticize them.

Maybe Zwietracht is partly not so much about a particular geographical space in Zimbabwe, but about the individual dealings with situations of transition and change: human success and failures can be found all over the world. One cannot deny that the story lives from its ‘shona-ness’ or Zimbabwean peculiarity, but a generational struggle between modernity and tradition has been fought in Germany after the WW II just as well as in Chinodya’s Zimbabwe of today. And not just in those days, but every day in every household when the children’s generation grows out of the sphere of their parents’ influence. Zwietracht manages to be specifically Zimbabwean, but also globally human at the same time by using innovative a structure, style, multiple voices and storytelling techniques.