Sunday, February 7, 2010
Chenjerai Hove's amazing narrative(s) in Ancestors
I have been re-reading Chenjerai Hove’s novel of 1996, ‘Ancestors’. I think it continues to fascinate me (and I hope not for the wrong reasons.) For me, Ancestors is about ‘narrating the narratives of a non narrating narrator’.
Mucha, the immediate narrator, tells us his story and the story of his family as it moves from the Tribal Trust lands to the Purchase Areas in colonial Rhodesia. He continues up to the time his mother is divorced with her second husband. He proceeds until the family migrates to Fanwell’s place. That first narrative strand ends with Mucha, now a fully-grown man, sitting at his deceased father’s home for a memorial ritual. This first strand of the narrative is the family story as Mucha consciously knows and remembers it.
The second strand narrative is the subterranean narrative. In this one Mucha narrates the family story from the point of view and spiritual instruction of Miriro. Miriro is a female ancestor who was born and lived deaf and dumb! She dies tragically when she hangs herself because she has been forced to marry a local drunkard. Through Miriro, Mucha sees and recalls the past before his own birth. Miriro appears to Mucha in dreams and sometimes in some kind of trance akin to spirit possession.
While Mucha’s own reminiscences capture events at the level of realism, Miriro’s give to Mucha (and the reader) first hand details of what happened in the family before Mucha was born! In addition, Miriro’s voice acts as the all-seeing force that tells Mucha the immediate thoughts of family members, in the present and in the past. Combined, Mucha and Miriro’s family experiences span a period of about a hundred and fifty years.
This makes Ancestors rather challenging to read, as the reader must constantly determine the exact speaker at any given time. Sometimes Mucha speaks for himself and yet sometimes he is listening to what Miriro is saying about herself or other people.
But that is not enough: Mucha has insight into other family members’ narratives. For example, Mucha becomes privy to the personalized narratives of his mother, Tariro and even his father’s. These are parallel stories within a story, told by one person as he tells an individual story and that of of one ancestor who lived and died deaf and dumb!
The narratives here are ‘blind.’ They go very haphazardly across the ages and generations from 1850 to 1989 to 1960 to 1920 to 1970… creating a very hypnotic and complex maze.
Adding on to this charm is the fact that Miriro, who remained deaf and dumb throughout her short life, is telling us what she ‘heard’ during her lifetime. She remembers the sounds of birds and animals, people’s songs and conversation. She remembers all things that are normally not available to those who are deaf and dumb.
However, it is important to stress that she can only ‘hear’ the sounds of the old world NOW, “many years after I have died…” and “Many years later, after I have died, I can speak. I can tell my story to all hearers. I can say all the words of the world… My joys and sorrows cross all the rivers of time and distance, hearing voices from across generations of families and homes. I hear voices of young women courting before I was born.”
Hove has written a number of novels: Masimba Avanhu (1986), Bones (1988), Shadows(1994) and Ancestors (1996) Bones won the “Noma Award for Publishing in Africa” in 1989 and has remained Hove’s most prominent publication.