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Book review: Zimbabwe: Marechera – the Cat Every Dog Secretly Feared

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DAMBUDZO Marechera is a household phenomenon in contemporary literature. Power brokers often operate from the political domain, but Zimbabwe's lost generation writer still commands notable influence since his tragic death in 1987. If critical acclaim was a credible basis for establishing ethical value in literature, Marechera would have been the posthumous Pope of the domestic arena while Dr Tinashe Mushakavanhu and Memory Chirere would be his Swiss Guards.

Marechera has remained the object of emulation for budding writers and a framing point for liberal schools of thought, chiefly because the evolving standards of morality now authenticate his notoriety and unsettling world-view. The laboratories of literary criticism still submit that Zimbabwe's bad boy writer was one enigma too sophisticated to break down in conventional literary test tubes.

Forensic proponents like his biographer, cheer leader and girlfriend, Flora Veit-Wild, have made a virtual trade and earned a claim to fame out of the eccentric Oxford jerk.

Marechera's literature, which crosses genres, exacts the enthused appeal of left-leaning social engines, pressure groups, critics and the current crop of budding writers, owing to its forceful diction and dissembling social outlook. He has been often eulogised in his own words:

"I think I am the doppelganger whom, until I appeared, African literature had not yet met."

His estate, the Dambudzo Marechera Memorial Trust gathered all his slapdash writings into three volumes, with the last one published in, 1997, ten years after he died.

In 2005, controversial urban grooves artiste Alicias Musimbe, better known as Maskiri, evoked fond hindsight of Marechera in an interview with the now obsolete Trends magazine.

"I think if Dambudzo Marechera was alive he would understand me. There is nothing done to contain his literature but with my music it is road-blocks all the way," said Maskiri as he protested the ban of his lewd album.

In that same year then Power FM CEO Admire Taderera tagged Maskiri's music as "bad influence to the youths", George W Bush categorised Maskiri's hip-hop idol Eminem as "the second biggest threat to American children after polio."

Maskiri's work was not more prone to censorship than Marechera's.

The latter's debut novel, "Black Sunlight" was banned by the Government in 1984 on the grounds of blasphemy, obscenity and deliberate offense to Christians. Musaemura Zimunya successfully challenged the Censorship Board to lift the ban, arguing that the grounds for the ban were "outdated".

One recalls E.M Foster contesting the ban on D.H Lawrence's "The Rainbow" which had been blacklisted for similar reasons. Dr Zimunya wanted the "Rest" to catch up with the "West" in this regard.

Lawrence is now considered the greatest writer of the 20th century despite having two of his novels banned on pornographic grounds. Owing to evolving standards of morality, Marechera has also risen to become the best-known Zimbabwean author.

What is missing, though, is identification of the writer for what he really was: a pervert off the leash, fermenting decadence and disintegration.

It has been said that one needs not stick his nose into the sewer to know that it stinks. Still, I am obliged to pass this sober shrift on Marechera's literature because it is within my mandate to contend for reason and truth.

As the power broker he now is in the formulation of discourse, much of what he says escapes scrutiny.

As such, it is an ethical imperative long overdue to debunk the deficiency of judgement that runs the tapestry of his work. Marechera himself outlines his work ethic or rather lack thereof in an interview with Alle Lansu: "I like to write the kind of thing which destroys things people take for granted because in my mind original thinking can only come when we have destroyed the idea of taking anything for granted.

"That's why, for instance, I always attack people's ideas of morality because morality is one of the things taken for granted."

Marechera was a proponent of anarchy and individualism. He preached a dystopia devoid of morality and family values; one revolving around the individual's selfish instincts.

His rejection of Christianity as a demobiliser of originality was, however, lame pretence, for Marechera had his own uncouth muses whom he owed inspiration.

In the Literary Shock Treatment interview, he says: "Responsibility. Yes, as a writer I feel that word echo in my head all the time, but I see my responsibility as a writer not so much to society, if I may say so, but to my voice."

This blows the cover on Marechera's claims to originality, the red line he professes to outweigh the need for morality. It is only fair enough to probe how much originality this "voice" embodies.

Was it conscience or rather acquired knowledge from familiar texts and previous associations adapted to personal weaknesses that guided Marechera?

Rejection and satirisation of Christianity, often attacked in his literature, was not logical ground for claiming originality as it only meant reverting to alternative.

Marechera made allusive reference to Greek and Roman mythology in justifying his methods. In the interview, he appeals to the example of Cassandra whom he says obtained prophetic powers after an intimate encounter with the "god" Apollo.

His work resonates with heavy allusiveness to Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and others. He often used their methods to justify his output.

In critical circles, obscenity and blasphemy have come to be known as "Dambudzo relics". While it's now unconventional to lift a finger against Marechera's work for fear of the buzz of hornets, Marechera himself was irreverent not only to institutions but God himself.

What then was the voice to which Marechera owed his inspiration? It was not conscience. Nay, the writer himself defied the whole notion of morality.

If this were the case, then the claim of original thinking would still be beside the point. Whether, the basis of his inspiration was instinct or tangent the informing paradigm was the nature of acquired knowledge to which he was subservient. Originality is a posh word for that.

Still another possible option would be spiritual influence. For example, Charles Mungoshi once said to Teacher in Zimbabwe: "I write subconsciously as I am inspired by my ancestors." If that was his voice it cannot be classified as original thinking.

In Marechera's case, detachment from tradition means that ancestral agency is out of the context. Yet, while de-legitimising morality over issues of originality, Marechera waxes lyrical the link between a Grecian deity and his work ethic. Hence, Marechera also subscribed to a spiritual or, at least, allusive incentive in his work, the only difference being that his particular avenue for inspiration was a tainted source.

John Keats disingenuously believed that Christianity was copied from a Greek fable. Save for one ode which opens with a text from the Gospel of Mark, Keats was at home with pagan instead of Christian thought.

All the same, as in Marechera's case, it's downright logical fallacy to equate this to originality.

How do you account for reducing Jesus' name to a cuss word and interlacing it with obscenities, as Marechera does in "Mindblast", without the least urge of conscience?

How do you explain the championing of selfish injustice in the name of going at one's tangent? What is this voice Marechera claims to be responsible to more than society?

It takes stepping out of the beaten track to zero in on the truth: Marechera is an eloquent figurehead of a secular onslaught against the social function of literature.

Marechera envisages a dystopia of sorts, where the world begins and ends with an egocentric individual; a world where man roams free from moral accountability to God and obligation to fellow man.

Veit-Wild's paper "Me and Dambudzo" implies, by way of ethical deduction, that a lawful spouse and children were ripple casualties of an adulterous affair. Individual immunity from morality and responsibility cannot claim the faintest vestige of credibility.

Notwithstanding the veneration he has earned from the literary establishment, there is nothing to redeem from Marechera's work, aside exceptional diction. Otherwise Marechera's inventory dangles critiques without solutions and sophistication without substance.

Another misconception latent in Marechera's literature is the erroneous view that Christianity is the colonialist's ideology for gullible Africans.

Ngugi WaThiongo also writes: "I am not a man of the church, I am not even a Christian," and cites Christianity's alleged complicity with colonialism as the reason for his revulsion. Nothing can be further from the truth.

It is a historical fallacy to diminish Christianity into a mere sub-text of the colonial discourse. Christianity cannot be folded into the discourse of mere mortals or classified as a European religion.

Indeed, to suggests that Christianity is a European, African or Semitic religion is to miss the nature and essence of the faith. Christianity is not an ethnic, racial, political or religious construct.

 

Rather than the imperialist's rehearsed entry point to Africa, which it has been circumscribed to, the Bible was written over a period of 1500 years, a fistful of centuries before it came to England.

As a matter of fact, Christianity was instituted from heaven through the incarnation of Jesus Christ close to 2000 years before the Pioneer Column trooped into Zimbabwe or any of Africa, for that matter.

Can the Bible be discredited for unscrupulous people's manipulation of the scriptures for their own ends which the Bible itself does not condone? If a farming implement is used to perpetrate a crime by a base fellow, is it the manufacturer or the criminal who exacts blame?

Ironically, Marechera thought the tag "African writer" demeaning to the import and expanse of his function as a universal commentator. Veit-Wild notes: "Marechera refuses to identify himself with any particular race, culture or nation; he is an extreme individualist, an anarchistic thinker."

Yet it never occurred to Marechera that Christianity was not a petty phenomenon for him or anyone to circumscribe into a sub-text of a racial discourse. Clearly, there are neither legitimate nor logical grounds for doing that.

Why then should a mere mortal amplify his function to universal proportions and disown the sovereignty of the Maker of that universe, by diminishing him to a textbook concept.

While conforming to its model function of being society in miniature, Marechera's literature runs off-rail by condoning instead of condemning those circumstances. As it were, the doppelganger became a participant observer of the purposelessness and decadence and spiritual bankruptcy that he must resist.

The delusions and contradictions of Marechera's work are informed by disinclination to bear moral accountability to God.

In this Marechera is in league with many other writers, artists, media practitioners, academics and pressure groups who are peddling alternative discourses just to evade God's perfect law of love.

Sound judgment compels me to blow the whistle against the transmutation of literature into a 3-D image of death, decadence and despair.

The Herald (Harare)

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