Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sketches of High-Density Life by Wonder Guchu

‘Sketches of High-Density Life’ by Wonder Guchu
Weaver Press, Harare
Isbn: 77922 031 6
(A review By Memory Chirere)
Wonder Guchu’s first short story collection, ‘Sketches of High Density Life’ is thankfully very experimental and bound to change the meaning of “short story,” at least in Zimbabwe.

I started waiting for something from Wonder Guchu from the first time I saw him way back in the early 1990’s. It was at a writer’s workshop at Bindura’s Chipindura High School. Guchu was in a heavy crimson jacket and a green–green oversize trousers that trailed on the floor. He peered alternately at the resource person at the podium and at something out in the school grounds and seemed disinterested and bewildered. At tea break, he ambled to a corner and cracked a biscuit (they were hard!) On being introduced, much later in the day, the unsuspecting budding writers were pleasantly surprised to be in the company of a popular Sunday Mail magazine short story writer!

Then the Sunday Mail always carried a short story either by Guchu or the late Stephen Alumenda. You searched for The Sunday Mail in order to read a story and it went down well with a Sunday tea and biscuit.

But wonder Guchu was not very happy with his own stories. Sipping his tea and between bites of the stony biscuits at the workshop, he volunteered that he was looking for a “new form”, something that approaches the story “from inside”. I honestly thought he didn’t know what he meant and his stammer didn’t help matters. I thought he would write a long novel-like Dostoevsky because I thought he looked severe, energetic, if not wayward too.

Trailing a long-long way behind current literary traditions, the editors have named Wonder Guchu’s collection “Sketches,” which is slightly unfortunate. Sketches? What sketches? These are deeper and finer narratives than sketches. These are “flash” stories. They are ‘finished’ and ‘complete’ as they are.

I remember talking to a friend who kept on insisting that I should quit short stories and write a novel as soon as possible! Even in Guchu's case, that these are ‘short-short’ stories does not mean that they are not ‘serious’. If a story is short, it does not mean that it is not important. It also does not mean that it is incomplete!

Dwelling on one seemingly insignificant item - a person, a subject… the Guchu short story drills a tiny-tiny hole with a needle in order to make you howl. The intensity of each of these stories pays you dearly and makes up for the physical brevity and “abrupt” departures and arrivals.

They remind you of the rare stories of Lanston Hughes, especially ‘Thank You Mum.’ and Earnest Hemingway’s ‘Up in Michigan’. The short story has fast retreated from being a novella. The short story is fast approaching the intensity of ngano and subtlety of a joke well told.

Guchu has done well to choose particular locale – the city of Harare and its down-trodden ‘fellas.’ Here, as in Laguma, Gordimer, Mphahlele and others, ‘writing’ the high density suburb calls for a “hurrying” style.

People and place are glimpsed and only become whole in their collective bewildering monotone. This is ably executed in Guchu’s “The Wooden Bridge”. There is a realistic sense of place and you are not “reading” but you are there:

"I heard footsteps - four or five pairs-coming behind me. Breaking into a trot… No footsteps approached. The road was deserted. The night was still. A few neon lights flooded the dark streets with an assortment of colours. Streetlights, some choked with dead insects, flickered on and off."

There is a very silent theory here. It is the world being painted that demands a special kind of brush-stroke and a certain texture of canvas. These are not “sketches.” This is how this ‘world’ has to be presented if it has to be true.

If a prize will be given, it should be for Guchu’s ability to ‘hurry’ and create pathos at the same time. Usually narratives about the city as in Laguma’s rarely achieve immediate pathos but Wonder Guchu’s do. Though sneaky and measured, “Fading like a flower” is underlain by very poetic echoes:

"It’s the children. They ask too much. And every time they ask, I force a smile. But I tell them that it’s alright … They believe me. Later, I sneak into the bedroom because I do not want them to see my tears because then they will then know that I’m lying …"

In a very short space and with very few words, the writer manages to peg down the reader, causing almost the equal amount of depth and force which would take Dickens or Dostoevsky acres and acres of print.

The intensity of these short-short stories sometimes comes through the “photographic” style used. “Size 4,” for instance, reads like a film script - the sense of staccato, the deliberate ‘overvisualisation’ and the move towards the twist in the tale…

A shoe is thrown into a room-but you don’t see the man who throws it. You see a man’s feet walking – but you don’t see the full frame of the man. A man dies and the suburb watches the police collecting the carcass and the aura attacks the reader like a sharp adze.

But there is one aspect of a Wonder Guchu short story which I fail to define, however hard I try. It is the idea of “the dead body”. In many of these stories there is a dead body. The urban violence is almost a machine, churning out dead bodies at the rubbish dump, the river, the bridge and even right on the road between the rows of township houses.

I am generally unnerved by dead bodies in a short story or film but each of Wonder Guchu’s dead bodies tends to be metaphorical. Each dead body is a kind of ‘harvest.’ Each dead body is as anonymous as the crowd of onlookers. Always its face is deformed or hidden from the view of the crowd. Looking for lunch, one meets a dead body in the park. These stories dwell on the fragility and the temporariness of the body. Dying is as easy as taking a cup of tea.

These stories tend to challenge a certain blind love for the city that young Africans often have. In these stories, Harare is a giant which man built. Now Harare escapes man’s grip, forcing man and fate to perform a curious art. One senses that there is a sick God on the loose. The pursuer and the pursued dash in a certain madness, doomed to catching or being caught. Even at midnight sleep is pretence and death is next door.

Wonder Guchu achieves a certain description of city people that does not render them visitors or passers-by. These people here trap and are trapped by the city. The brutalities do not make them less human. They still love, listen to music and laugh and one identifies with their fears and desires.

In ‘The dollar’ a man helps strangers look for a dollar coin which one of them has supposedly lost, yards and yards into the tall grasses, until he is mugged. In ‘The Township Fella’ a man turns into a witty beggar-conman and he laughs with pride as he does it.

And for some of us who are Guchu’s contemporaries, Sketches of High Density Life is the mouth of a creative river, stretching from here and branching towards a broad green valley whose grasses need to be watered constantly….

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