Book Review: Chioniso & Other Stories

Book Review

Chioniso & Other Stories by Shimmer Chinodya

Published by Weaver Press

Review by Jerá
Published in The Zimbabwean: 11 October, 2012

Too often, the phrase ‘man who needs no introduction’ has been bandied about.  He wrote his first book – Dew In The Morning – at the age of 18, his mantelpiece sags with the weight of several literary awards, most notably the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize. His work has been studied for two decades now and two of his books, Harvest of Thorns and Strife, have been translated and published in Germany. Shimmer Chinodya truly is a man who needs no introduction.

Chioniso & Other Stories is an anthology of largely self-referential short stories by Zimbabwe’s most prolific author, Shimmer Chinodya.  Drawing from his personal experiences, the country’s national literary treasure composes his tenth book in a long and prosperous career in his usual style, comprising humor and the vivid descriptive language for which he is famed.

‘Martha’s Hero’ is a cut-out from the yellowed pages of the country’s civil war.  Hovering on the fringes of magical realism, it is a haunting piece, inspired by events from 1975, when the war was at its zenith. This story is likely to trigger nostalgia among Shimmer loyalists for its theme, similar to that of his earlier work, Harvest of Thorns, which was also centred around the liberation war.

Why Not is set in Swaziland in the late 1980s.  A familiar character, making the long journey from the pages of Dew In the Morning, Godfrey, Shimmer Chinodya’s alter ego, reappears as a writer visiting Swaziland.  Chinodya is in his element as witty dialogue assails the readers’ eyes from preamble to conclusion.  An expert at drawing the reader into the story, Chinodya cleverly dispenses with dialogue tags, a technique which not only heightens the pace of the discourse but also makes for a smooth and exhilarating read.  I loved the banter between the characters and the manner in which Mercy, a Zimbabwean feminist, held her own against a barrage of chauvinistic remarks.  I also liked the often playful, recurring references to the story title.  Why Not is an expertly crafted and memorable story, notwithstanding Chinodya’s slight slip up – proving that he is human after all – of permitting a few ‘now’ phrases (such as ‘Zimbo’, ‘download’ and ‘crash’ (of computer) – which predate the period in which the story is set, to leak into the narrative.

Once again assuming the Godfrey persona, Chinodya narrates the story of his adventures in Germany, in Prisons on the Road, set in the early 1990s.  Godfrey has to keep his wits about him as he is torn between his loyalty towards Simon, his German host, and succumbing to the demands of Vera, the forthright hostess who won’t take ‘No’ for an answer.  As he did in Why Not, Godfrey is tactful in dealing with the strange and sometimes tricky questions that one faces when visiting far away lands.

In both Why Not and Prisons On The Road, similar in that they are both based on Godfrey’s travels, I had the sense of an awed nephew, seated at the campfire, listening to the wild anecdotes of a once naughty uncle.

I was torn between laughter and sadness upon reading The Car, a story about, what else, a car, which comes between husband and wife.  As I struggled to pick one word, between comical and tragic, it occurred to me that this is also a commentary on modern day marriage, where man finds himself somewhat emasculated by his wife’s advancement.

Chioniso, the story from which this anthology derives its title, is lifted from the journal of a man battling to deal with a rebellious teenaged daughter, a task not made easier by an equally headstrong wife.  Chioniso takes on the tone of a personal diary written in an informal approach, where Chinodya speaks directly to the reader and takes on the moniker of Chirasha, in whose name he published Child of War, in 1986.  Chioniso is the typical tale of the war between old and new generations, which will leave a childless reader either thankful for not being in the narrator’s predicament or frightened at the prospect of parenthood.  Good literature moves the reader.  Often, when I shut a good book at the end, I find myself wishing to meet the writer, implore him to sign the inside cover of my book, find out what inspired him to write it, the usual questions asked by an awestruck fan.  However, at the end of the story, Chioniso, I found myself wishing to put a consoling around the troubled shoulder of Mr Chirasha, the protagonist of the tale.

Indigenous is a reflection of the frightening reality of our society – greed and corruption.  It is also allegorical, to a point, laced with the didactic message; it is better to live happily on the fringes of poverty than to dabble in corrupt get-rich-quick schemes, which often end in misery.

Infidel deals with the abandonment of traditional beliefs, exposes the hypocrisy that is rife among some churches and speaks of how the country’s economic woes have given rise to numerous religious entities, as people seek something to hold onto, in these troubled times.  Through the voice of Godfrey, Chinodya pulls no punches as he reveals the dark side of new-fangled churches that are rife in Zimbabwe and, throughout, the scent of Godfrey’s disdain for all things religious rises of each page.

The one notable gripe I have with this book – daring to throw rocks at the throne – is that in Last Laugh, a story set in the Murambatsvina era, Chinodya over-translates, as he attempts to articulate jokes that would, no doubt, elicit laughs in vernacular but, when written in English, are lost in translation.

Chioniso;  noun, a mirror.  Often, readers and book critics speculate on the title of a book, its meaning and hidden message.  Apart from the humorous anecdotes of an accomplished writer, this anthology is, by and large, a social commentary – the demolition of houses under Murambatsvina, the snaking queues of desperate motorists waiting for fuel, corruption, domestic disputes, the rise of Pentecostal churches, the decline of the agricultural sector.  Through his book, the author holds up a mirror, chioniso, in the face of society and, perhaps, it can also be said, it is a reflection of the life of the man behind the book.

On reading Chinodya’s very first book, Dew in the Morning, written when he was only 18, I felt a young man with incredible talent.  On reading his latest work, Chioniso & Other Stories – effortless, uncontrived – I sensed a writer who has achieved greatness and has little left to prove.

What I cherished most about this book, as with all other Chinodya writings, is the imagery and inventive use of words.  At the end of the book, I felt pleased to have been granted a peek at the life and psyche of a man who has achieved so much as a writer, scholar and educator. My copy of Chioniso & Other Stories, with its pages heavily tattooed with the marginalia of a man impressed – exclamation marks, highlights and underscores – rests among my most treasured books.