Gappah’s Rotten Row a cinematic scan of Zim

CRIME has always been a rich treasure trove for some of the most gripping and inspiring works of literature, with the genre spawning internationally-acclaimed writers in the mould of John Grisham, Martina Cole and Michael Critchton, among many others.

BY Phillip Chidavaenzi

Title: Rotten Row
Author: Petina Gappah
Publisher: Faber & Faber (2016)
ISBN: 987-0-571-32418-7

Zimbabwean award-winning author, Petina Gappah, has also added her own signature to this genre with her latest works, a novel, The Book of Memory (2016), and a short story anthology, Rotten Row, in which she exploits Zimbabwe’s own criminal underworld to come up with some of the finest pieces ever penned by a local author.

Zimbabwe and its political and socio-economic challenges are so very present in these stories, but tucked into the background by Gappah’s deft touch. It is so subtle that you almost feel these like shadows looming over the characters’ often fractured lives.

Another feature of these stories is the re-enactment of the colourful, almost amusing, life at church-run mission schools in Zimbabwe, particularly in the narratives, A Short History of Zaka the Zulu and Comrade Piso’s Justice.

Gappah strikes such a familiar chord with the Zimbabwean reader that one almost feels these are more than imaginative pieces, but real life captured on paper. Copacabana, Copacabana, Copacabana is so real you would think you once travelled in the kombi at the centre of the story. In just a short journey from Chisipite to the city centre, we meet Gidza, the conductor, who dies in exactly 43 minutes from the time he is first introduced, after a mob metes out instant justice when he is accused of having stolen a phone that one of the passengers has actually forgotten at home.

One thing I found particularly striking is the scope of Gappah’s imagination. In News of Her Death, we never get to meet the young hairdresser at the centre of the story, Kindness, but after reading it, we almost feel as if we have known her. We learn a lot about her, including the circumstances of her death, from the grapevine in the salon where she used to work. The hair salon itself is presented as a rumour mill, where theories around the circumstances of Kindness’ death abound.

In the Popular Culture discourse, gossip is an important conveyor of information, though frowned upon in predominantly patriarchal societies. Social theorists contend that gossip is an important means of social bonding in large groups and it is quite clear this is one of the major things that glue together the hairdressers in this salon and some of their “big mouth” clients like Mbuya MaTwins, a “devout” member of the Roman Catholic Church, who helps fuel the rumour mill even while clad in her church uniform.

Gappah exploits gossip in such a way that — through it — we learn she is a friend to Makorinde, another controversial character whom we later meet in the collection’s closing story, Ladies and Gentlemen, Bob Marley and the Wailers!

We find such creativity again in In the Matter Between Goto and Goto as well as In Sad Cyprus. In the former, the story is told through a court judgment in which an estranged couple is granted divorce. Perhaps what is quite remarkable about this piece is how court processes, particularly those relating to divorce, offer the public juicy sneak peaks of what happens behind closed doors when soiled laundry is washed in public.

In Sad Cypress is a story based on a post-mortem report by the first-person narrator, Ngonidzashe Gwata, a consultant forensic pathologist. I will not delve into the finer details of the story’s themes, but look at the style. Gappah’s inventiveness here is demonstrated by the decision to base the story on a post-mortem report, bringing diversity and creativity to the narrative style.

These stylistic innovations are also evident in From a Town Called Enkeldoorn, which exploits a social media troll to tell the story of a Canadian looking for “lost” relatives in Enkeldoorn, Zimbabwe. While other social media users are helpful, others are downright abusing, telling off the protagonist for his ignorance about developments in Zimbabwe, including the fact that Chivhu is no longer called Enkeldoorn.

While the anthology provides scintillating insights into contemporary Zimbabwe, some of the stories are too close to reality for comfort (albeit in a good way), where the dividing line between fact and fiction becomes blurred. In The Death of Wonder, for instance, a young police officer is called on to investigate a case in which an opposition political party activist is murdered.

Followers of news in Zimbabwe will quickly recall that sometime in 2011, the Chokuda family in Gokwe refused to bury their son who has been murdered by alleged Zanu PF activists including the then Midlands governor’s son, Farai Machaya. The deceased’s family, just like that of the character in the story, claimed the deceased refused to be buried until compensation was paid.

Such blending between fiction and realism coalesces with the appearance of real life characters in the text. These include public figures such as Kempton Makamure, Morgan Tsvangirai and Locardia Karimatsenga. In Ladies and Gentlemen, Bob Marley and the Wailers! the protagonist is in a bar with colleagues when an opposition party parliamentarian arrives. During the conversation that ensues, one of the group asks: “Speaking of small houses and wives … what’s happening with your party leader, what’s all this talk that he didn’t want to marry that woman?” The parliamentarian retorts: “She is a lunatic. What sort of woman claims to be married to a man who clearly says he did not marry her?” (pp332).

The scope of the stories collected here is expansive, a skill that is probably as rare as it is demanding. In Ladies and Gentlemen, Bob Marley and the Wailers! for instance, Gappah delves into the life of Samson, encompassing his curious relations with his landlord and landlady, his romantic attachment to an upcoming model Deliwe, his landlady’s political activism (basically as a Zanu PF foot soldier) and his out-of-sorts profession as a newspaper reporter who indulges in chequebook journalism now and again.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Bob Marley and the Wailers! which is the closing story, wraps up the anthology by neatly tying up all the pieces of this anthology, as Samson scans headline stories in the newspaper: “…A kombi tout accused of stealing a phone had been beaten to death at Copacabana. A man accused of having a pet snake … had been beaten unconscious on Leopold Takawira. A hairdresser knifed by her boyfriend at Northfields Penthouses had died from her wounds. A victim of political violence had refused to stay buried in Gokwe.”

The stories collected here, despite the grim nature of crime and its consequence, also have a healthy dosage of humour, while some of the cinematic descriptions make for a good read. Gappah, for instance, offers a picturesque description of Gokwe: “The kindest thing you can say about Gokwe is that it’s a place that the Devil once called home until he abandoned it altogether as he ran shrieking from its ruins” (pp59)

Other stories to look forward to in the collection include A Small House in Borrowdale Brooke, Miss McConkey of Bridgewater Close, The Lament of Hester Muponda, Comrade Piso’s Justice, The White Orphan and Anna, Boniface, Cecelia, Dickson.

Gappah’s Rotten Row a cinematic scan of Zim : NewsDay Zimbabwe.