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Literature and social crisis



My simple take is that sometimes literature shows us the real life behaviour of characters that are living in communities going through high social crisis. History gives the record but literature is capable of bringing real life drama to historical events. History intends to record events as accurately as possible, while literature interprets historical or everyday events in an imaginative way. By using the example of World War II, a novel such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five presents a more personal perspective of the cannibalistic horrors of war. The novel depicts the state of mind of a soldier fighting to survive in a prisoner of war camp during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany. In writing the satirical novel, Vonnegut drew on his own experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden. We go to history books for the concrete events in Russia towards the end of Tsarism but we may go to Maxim Gorky’s novel, Mother, to get what it felt to be in the Russia of the early 1900’s. Gorky’s Mother presents a panoramic gallery of female characters such as Nilovna, Sophia, Natasha, Sasha and Ludmilla. Mother depicts and dramatises the emerging class-conscious revolutionary proletariat class in Russia. The Caribbean islands were faced with very unique challenges after slavery and colonialism. Each island tended to be too small to stand alone. The islands are numerous but small in size and they speak different languages; English, French, Spanish and others. A sense of oneness is difficult to achieve in such a set up. They looked to America for leadership while sometimes looking to Africa for identity. There is always a feeling of being marooned in the vast sea. There is a subsequent feeling of entrapment and attrition. You find this brought to life in the works of VS Naipaul, particularly in his short story book of 1959, called Miguel Street. It is set in Trinidad where the author grew up. Although each story in Miguel Street is individualised, the setting is Port of Spain. Characterisation is one of the more effective ways to understand this collection of stories. The characters tend to be tragicomic, striving to attain some goals which are too high to be attained by them. They end up in trouble or are thoroughly disappointed. They want to escape from themselves or the island. Bogart appears in most of these short stories. His real name remains unknown. He is Bogart, a name of an American film called Casablanca. Sometimes he is called Patience, the name of the game that he plays. Bogart dramatizes the feeling of instability and insignificants of the Caribbean people who are found aping foreign people and foreign heroes. One day he tells his playmates that he is going to the toilet and is coming back soon, but he actually disappears for months! The boredom in Bogart’s life reflects a deep lack of purpose. The ennui around him is palpable as shown here: “What happening there, man?” he would ask quietly, and then he would say nothing for ten or fifteen minutes. And somehow you felt you couldn’t really talk to Bogart, he looked so bored and superior. His eyes were small and sleepy. His face was fat and his hair was gleaming black. He was the most bored man I ever knew… His “acting big” at least shows a certain yearning for real achievements which people in these post slavery societies cannot sustain. Asked by a friend why he commits bigamy, Bogart answers, “To be man, among we men.” In the short story called “The Thing Without a Name,” Popo does not make a thing even when he is called a painter. Hidden in this situation is Popo’s desire to be creative and useful. He wants to be big, affluent and eccentric, without the means and without having to work. It is his wife who has to work for the family. Popo is eventually arrested for remodeling and selling stolen property. Man-man is probably the most remarkable character in this collection of short stories. He wants to be eccentric, stylish and popular, but he does not measure up. Like Bogart, Man-man comes closest to his ideals through some form of drama. He can pretend that he is an English man through his accent. He can pretend to have the guts by running in an election. He can finally pretend he is Christ by asking people to nail him on the cross. When he cannot go on with the crucifixion, he comically calls to the people from the cross, “Cut this stupidness out!” You can see that this is a community with a shortage of solid heroes. B. Wordsworth is a story that explores the idea of surpassing one’s real life in pursuit of another which is more powerful. The fake poet in that story declares that he is the iconic English poet, Wordsworth. The fake poet wants to write what he calls “the greatest poem in the world,” which he hopes would “sing to all humanity.” It would be written over a period of 22 years. He struts all over the place playing the poet. He is the Caribbean’s version of Wordsworth. Sadly, this Caribbean Wordsworth writes only one little line which goes: “the past is deep.” He is a far cry from the real Wordsworth who left behind a rich collection of poems. There are several other artistic figures who go nowhere in this collection. There is Morgan in “The Pyrotechnist” whose fireworks do not bring success but disaster as they burn down the house. There is also Backu in “The Mechanical Genius.” He is a fake mechanic who is putting engines apart, further damaging them. There is Edward in “Until the Soldiers came” who surrenders his artistic pursuits, ending up pretending to be an American. In the final story called “How I left Miguel Street,” the narrator finally leaves because his mother realizes that there is little to achieve on the island and he is getting too wild. Once he stays drunk for two consecutive days! At the airport during his departure, the narrator’s shadow is described as “a dancing dwarf on the tarmac.” He does not look back as he goes to the plane. He can be compared to Trumper in George Lamming’s novel, In The Castle Of My Skin, who leaves the islands in a similar fashion. In his better known novel, A House for Mr Biswas, Naipaul explores the idea that the Caribbean is desperate for an identity and also for a roof above his head. Nevertheless, Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. At some point in his life, Naipaul declares that, “Nothing has ever been made in the Caribbean.” He is pessimistic. He invites us to laugh at the pitfalls of a people who, having slave ancestry, cannot be inspired by their past and therefore cannot inspire anyone in return. For most of these characters, exile seems to be the only salvation. The text is well known for its characters and background that breathe the life of Trinidad and Tobago in a way that no historian could have possibly captured. Nadine Gordimer’s novel of 1981, July’s People, is a futurist novel inspired by the guerilla-Marxist-Leninist kind of Independence in neighbouring Zimbabwe in 1980. Gordimer imagines a sudden South African future of more active urban black uprising that sees the whites flee in all directions. The novel is set during a fictional civil war in which black South Africans have violently overturned the system of apartheid. In its painstaking tone, the novel exudes a strong sense of place. Apartheid is turned on its head. The blacks are suddenly on top where the whites used to be. Apartheid is now on trial and you hear it squeak in this novel. The author goes on ahead of history and creates exciting psychological images. The whites have an opportunity to taste the kind of humiliation that black South Africans have endured under white domination. Bam Smales, a successful white Johannesburg architect, his wife Maureen and their three children, are rescued by their servant of fifteen years, a black man called July who takes them to his rural home 600 km away in their small car. In this novel, there is an outstanding relationship between Maureen the white madam and her black houseboy, July. One way or the other, we are tempted to look at this story in view of Lessing’s The Grass is Singing, where Mary Turner has a curious affair with her houseboy, Moses  and  Oyono’s Houseboy where the houseboy, Toundi, comes very dangerously close to the Commandant’s wife. Taking the colonials from the infrastructural and racial comfort of urban to a distant African village, Gordimer must be playing on an experimental theory which needs investigating as it is based on clear cut and well known black white relations on the frontier. To a great extent, Gordimer attempts to experiment with a new form of defamiliarisation. In the literature of the African frontier, the meeting place between black and white has always been the exclusively white territory, like the farm, the mine and the industrial working place, far away from the blackman’s traditional base in the villages. Here is a reverse case where the Smales actually find themselves in unfamiliar territory. There is a way in which the major supposition is that July and the Smales switch positions and that the Smales are at the mercy of both July and July’s village. The village and the hut where the Smales are accommodated transform and challenge them physically and spiritually. Maureen fails to read the novel she has brought with her because she is already in a novel environment. Within weeks of settling in the African village, Maureen’s naked body becomes, “ungroomed and ungroomable” that her husband cries, Oh my God!” when he looks at it during their now fast dwindling intimacy. Without a regular bath, the privacy of the urban bedroom and the toiletry of civilization, Bam, Maureen’s husband actually looks like a “primate.” The whites are now at an equal level with the usually haggard African villagers. With the help of the moment, July gradually stands up to his former employers. This involves July ceasing to be a houseboy. He now asks his own wife to wash the clothes for the whites instead of washing them himself as he used to do back in Johannesburg. July can also be seen taking over the white people’s car without their permission. July can now disposes Bam of his gun and helping Daniel the Sowetan to rev it and drive it around the village. July also pleads for mercy with the Chief on behalf of Bam. He is now able to stand up to Maureen until she becomes his potential sex partner. In such unfamiliar territory and circumstances filled with distress, Maureen is preoccupied with July’s presence. She sometimes wonders about July’s town women whom they have left behind. She wonders whether July craves her too in the manner of a jealousy lover! Maureen and July do not share a sexual experience but their private interactions are laced with conscious eroticism. As Maureen stands nude in the rain one night, she falls into a state of transfiguration and sees and hears July. Later, when they meet to discuss who should keep the car keys, they share a certain hazy shame associated with illicit sex partners and the narrative states that they are both glad that Bam is not near them. Removed from the public sphere of the racial city, Maureen imagines that she is in a love triangle involving Bam and July, whom she silently calls her “frog Prince and savior.” In their third meeting, Maureen feels that it is natural that she is meeting July out in the bush. They talk about ordinary matters of the past and as July brings his right fist onto his chest, the thud sounds as realistic as the fear in her chest. This is the first time Maureen ever feels the aura of a natural man. Her husband, the text claims, is only “a presence in circumstances outside those the marriage was contracted for.” It is interesting to note that the equality between Maureen and July only happens in phantasmagoria in territory hidden beyond Johannesburg where issues really matter. July’s wife and mother and Chief still view the Smales as the others. The story is futurist and has the tendency of fables and has an inconclusive ending too. In this novel, the mistrust and misunderstanding between black and white South Africans are so palpable that no historian could enact them in equal measure. Indeed, history intends to record events as accurately as possible, while literature interprets historical or everyday events in an imaginative way. Memory Chirere

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