Saturday, January 14, 2012

A long and entertaining review of Peter Godwin's latest offering

Title: The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe
Author: Peter Godwin
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Year: 2010
Reviewer: Emmanuel Sigauke, (adopted with full permission from his blog:
N.B. This is probably the best review that i have read in the past decade. You will understand.

I first bought a Peter Godwin book, 'Mukiwa', on June 21, 1997, in Sacramento, California. I was an employee at Borders, and I remember bragging to co-workers about how I had just discovered yet another African writer in the store's stock. Those were the days when you had to scour shelves for months, looking for African books that never seemed to show up, so you were then tempted to buy a second copy of 'Things Fall Apart' (we got an employee discount). Long story short, I was happy to discover 'Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa'. From the start, I have read Peter Godwin as a fellow African, for the power of his prose and his panoramic coverage of the Zimbabwean landscape. His narrative persona loves to describe Zimbabwe, the Eastern highlands, particularly Chimanimani. I liked this because the year before, 1996, I had discovered Chimanimani and had thought it paradise. I sipped every detail about the landscape that Godwin rendered. He gets panoramic, he gets epiphanic, recalling Rudolfo Anaya's essay "Landscape and the Writer's Epiphany". So, two traits in Godwin's writing, prose and landscape, but I have never quite broken into his political commentary; I have not been so drawn by his journalistic maneuvers...until now, while reading 'The Fear'.

Before I review 'The Fear', let me repeat that I enjoyed 'Mukiwa'. My 1997 copy is heavily annotated and I even began to write notes of my own Chimanimani memoir. I lived in Chimanimani for four months, four busy months of teaching English to Ndau kids. I was also busy learning to belong because everyone there argued that I should be from there, given my last name. Even the Mutare education officer who had deployed me to Chimanimani told me, "Welcome home". And my protests regarding how I was actually from Zvishavane were all in vein. He couldn't even listen to my request to teach in the city, perhaps Mutare Girls High, or even somewhere in Dangamvura. Finally, I ended up in Chimanimani, and fell in love with it, but my attachment to that landscape was not as deep as that Peter Godwin shows in his books. It is the kind of love that rubs off on you, because now you want to write about your own homeland too. Homeland and boyhood. By the end of 'Mukiwa', Peter Godwin had already attained his signature fearless critique of black leadership in Zimbabwe. It is this critical voice that has sustained his journalism, and earned him the label of courageous journalist, one who goes where no other journalist can. Certainly, 'The Fear' takes the reader to the inside machinations of a failing Zimbabwe.

Just as I was preparing to get a copy of 'The Fear', a colleague bought me 'When the Crocodile Eats the Sun' for my birthday; I could have read it first, but a journal peer review request compelled me to read 'The Fear' first. Now, we can get into my thoughts about it.

As I write this, 'The Fear' sits on at least one American Best 100 Books of 2011 list. I can see why. Characteristic of Godwin's works, this one is highly readable. And disturbing. Unbelievable. Some things I don't want to believe, like how I don't feel willing to believe all that CNN, or BBC has to say. The atrocities covered, the torture, the deaths...these are dizzying accounts of human suffering. We get a close-up of what was happening in Zimbabwe, especially during and after the last elections that led to the unity government with the MDC. The book is very informative to the point of failing as a book. Let's put this another way: The memoir element suffers, but the human catalogue element succeeds, making this a deeply felt, a heart-rending mix of observed, heard, and rumoured suffering. The book works effectively at an emotional level; the book fights through its words, it takes sides (which is what it intends to do) and becomes unashamedly subjective and biased, which again is one of the author's goals. I am one of the readers who, without first hand information about much of the experiences the author depicts, have to decide to believe it all; and being aware that the author wants it all believed, I suspend disbelief, so I believe.

This kind of writing reminds me of the days I worked as a temporary teacher in Glen View, teaching English and Science. Once in a while an essay would come which would start with a first sentence you had to connect to emotionally: "When I was in Grade 3, my mother died." It's the kind of emotional hook that you would find unreasonable to fend off; it's what they experienced, and there is nothing you can do about it; in short, you are bound to read the whole story with a certain emotional guarantee: empathy. 'The Fear' has that quality of hitting at the core: it pulls your heartstrings; but this is not a cheap emotional gimmick; you trek with the author as he witnesses endless acts of brutality, and he puts a face to many of the accounts; you were not there, but he was; and he heard it, and you didn't, and he is the reporter and you are not. You read on; you don't want to believe but you do. You notice what seem like unfair emotional maneuvers but you don't have the time to make a fuss; you are the reader and you are reading, you want to finish the book, you want to hope that there is actually hope at the end of the book. And there is; the book ends with victims of torture planting trees to forget and, perhaps, forgive. Planting trees, that's good; Wangari Maathai did it in Kenya; my Rwanda commemorative poem, which I read every April, is about a tree growing in Rwanda, one tree, then many trees. That's hope; and in 'The Fear', that's a good place to end a book.

It's hard to call this a memoir, especially of Zimbabwe. I might have to revisit the definition of the genre. But it is many other things, definitely. For one, the book is an attack on Mugabe and ZANU PF; the kind of attack a writer can make from a distance (in the sense that the book was written from a distance and published in America, to be read first from a distance, but not immediately reaching the people whose lives it chronicles; that's the nature of African publishing, of course, that the audience is not primarily African although the lives, or lack thereof, are African). The book is also a chronicle of the suffering of the victims the author came in contact with as he was traveling across Zimbabwe interviewing people and observing acts of atrocity. The very act of getting into places he was forbidden shows the author as heroic; perhaps that's the true memoir aspect of the book. Again, given its extreme subjectivity, you don't know what to believe, and it almost seems unreasonable to think about deciding what to believe; the author observed it, he talked to people, he witnessed suffering, he took notes, he catalogued the information, he wrote about the experiences; so you leave it at that: the writing is representational, utilizing the voice of witness, and reaching deep into our emotions, showing the injustice of it all.

The memoir genre in Zimbabwe could easily flourish. The people have experienced the kinds of hardships that would be of great interest to readers everywhere. The country has gone through rapid changes. But the true therapy of writing is in the victim being able to write his or her own memoir. We can't all be writers, but we can tell our stories in one form or another. Books like 'The Fear', though mouthpieces of their authors, and not necessarily of the victims, point to a need for real memoirs by the people who experienced the hardships. Subjectivity rings true and engaging if it's the subjectivity of the victim, not when it's streamed through the subjectivity of another being. Look at the disasterous third-party memoirs written in America on behalf of Sudanese child soldiers, or Rwandese genocide victims. The stories lose something in the filtering. Fiction is another matter; any writer with a shred of empathy and the impulse to engage injustice can learn and write about anyone's experience; but to write someone's memoir creates challenges and dangers of distortion. Yet in the absence of opportunities for victims to tell their stories, a third party account is better than nothing.

When the Zimbabwe memoir phase flourishes, we would be interested in reading both victim memoirs and confessional ones. We see them everyday in America, Europe and so on, those inside stories that always come at the end of a regime. In Zimbabwe, such accounts should have started in 1980, at the end of the Smith regime. I remember there was a flowering of one-sided Chimurenga stories published in Zimbabwe, the ones we had to read in school, and there was a total absence of stories from the white side; then when the white stories started pouring in, they had skipped, or ignored, whole generations of stories, or when some came out they were family accounts published as memoirs, marketed to an outside audience. The rich literary landscape of Zimbabwe needs a balance of stories coming from all sides, showing the complexity of life, getting to the core of what it means to be Zimbabwean. That story is certainly not just a ZANU-PF story proclaiming the victimshood of Zimbabwe in the face of European imperial interests, nor is it only of suffering opposition members; neither only that of landless black Zimbabweans tilling the dry soil of Mazvihwa and Chivi, nor only that of white farmers victimized on their farms; this story seeks a balance; this story seeks to plant a new tree that bursts with life.

As usual, I enjoyed the landscape descriptions in 'The Fear'. The Eastern highlands feature prominently. Look at this: "Once we gain height the view opens out into a primordial topography of jagged mountains, furrowed with ridges like mastiff brows, thickly vegetated with gurugushi bird bush and mupangara thorn trees, and, in the Nyadokwe Rivere valley, wide-girthed baobabs silvered in the sky. From across the coulee, baboons barked" (263). Here Godwin was in the Bvumba mountain area near Zimunya, a place I know. Elsewhere in the book, he takes us back to Chimanimani and describes the rivers, the valleys and the mountains ranges that undulate into Mozambique. But he does not stop here; he will also take you from Mutare to Bulawayo, then to Kezi. While chronicling the terror, he will still manage to throw in a few epiphanies about the landscape, shocking us even with one of female friends confessing that she had sex on Rhodes's grave in the Matopos. But when he gets to Bhalagwe, the prose has slowed down to an elegy, as he connects current experiences to Gukurahundi. The book covers all the provinces of Zimbabwe, following all the journeys Godwin made as he researched and witnessed the troubles in the country, often endangering his life, but also finding time to reminisce about the old good days. He has connections in Harare and is invited to tea and braai a lot.

I enjoyed the prose too. Godwin manages to make his sentences sing even as they portray horror. It is this craft element that enables readers to keep reading long after they can't stand the emotional weight. The book is repetitive, but you keep reading for that next sentence. However, Godwin has no excuse to continue misusing the few Shona phrases he includes in his writings. He repeatedly mispells words, offers unreliable translations, and has the foreigner's understanding of the language he grew up hearing or speaking.

A few other Zimbabwean writers have this problem too when writing in English; one, they italicize the Shona or Ndebele (that is, they apologize for using it) in the name of...communication; two, they mispell the words or phrases they co-opt; then, three, they offend with their use of parenthetical translations. This was the main off-putting element of 'The Fear', but again, the book is a work of journalism, reporting to an outside audience, so it may be excused, but the Shona words could have been double-checked for correctness.

For instance, I would just remind Godwin that they are called n'angas, not ngangas; and italicizing the word is not linquistically appealing. There is this one too: "Manjeni, kuona ingwe ichitamba nembudzi", which Godwin aptly translates as: "It's astonshing to see a leopard playing with a goat." My two concerns are: he italicized the Shona proverb, and wrote manjeni instead of manenji. Again, an occasional error here and there would not be a cause for concern, but turning such infelicities into fashions of error from memoir to memoir is inexcusable.

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