FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Waiting for the Barbarians

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Zimbabwe again, though not through the eyes of the typical critic.  No white observer, flaying Robert Mugabe and his cohorts; no African narrator crying in despair and frustration.  Instead, a narrator who—although white—ponders the question of cause and effect, how the country reached its current state.  And that state is chaos and violence, unspeakable crimes against others.  Further, that narrator—the main character in Ian Holding’s second novel, Of Beasts and Being shares the author’s name, Ian.

Ian is the last of his family to stay in Zimbabwe.  His parents and siblings left some time ago when Mugabe entered his final stage of madness.  The young man is in his early thirties, single, a teacher, and the sole occupant of his family’s residence, their final stronghold after living in the country for several generations.  But events have reached a tipping point, so he decides to sell the family residence and begin life anew as a teacher in South Africa.

As readers, we don’t learn any of this until a third of the novel has passed, when Ian finally takes over the narration.  Before that, the longest section of the novel relates the plight of an unnamed African male who—as the story opens—is scrounging for food in what appears to be an abandoned garden on the “outskirts” of a city, probably Harare.  Punks apprehend him, place a gag in his mouth, and tie him to a rope so that he is forced to follow them as a hostage for whatever reason (it isn’t exactly clear).  But shortly the “hostage” is traded off to a family composed of a man, his very pregnant wife, and two sons, probably in their late teens.  Same deal.  The gag remains in his mouth except when he is given a little water and even less food.  He’s tied with a rope to a two-wheel cart that the woman rides in and is expected to pull the cart for the family.

Mother Courage?  No.  Waiting for Godot?  No.  Something worse as the unnamed man becomes the beast of burden, pulling the cart with the very pregnant woman, through the countryside, as the father and his two sons scrounge for food and water.  There is evidence of carnage everywhere, of villages wiped out by government troops, of farms that lie barren from misuse—in short, of many of the despicable activities of Mugabe’s reign of terror.  Eventually, the two boys are killed by soldiers or they run off (it is not clear), and the husband manages to commandeer an automobile after shooting the driver, load his pregnant wife into the back seat, and leave the man alone at the side of  the road.  The question running through my mind is why the unnamed puller of the cart has made so little attempt to free himself of the ugglesome family that has kept him hostage for so many months? Is Holding suggesting that people are so docile that they are afraid to rebel, to fight back? Possibly.  But a more likely answer is what happens to Ian as he winds down his commitments to the country he is about to abandon.

In the process of getting ready for that departure, Ian has shown little concern for his remaining servant, named Tobias, who has been employed by the family all of Ian’s life.  Tobias needs medical care for an infection, but Ian delays that care until the servant is very ill.  When Tobias leaves the city to return to his village, no real tears are shed on Ian’s part about the man who largely raised him.  Instead, Ian is happy to be rid of the man.  Then, after shifting back to the story of the cart-puller, and then back again to Ian’s imminent departure for South Africa, the narrative makes an abrupt shift.  It would be unfair to describe that event other than to say that it provokes Ian to question the matter of blame.  What is it that has brought forth such a state of collapse in Zimbabwe?

“Thought: I’ve been living here, in the country of my birth, in the land of my parentage, all this time—haven’t left at all–& I’ve experienced everything: the whole journey of a fledging country, from birth to now, thirty years later.  I was just a small boy when this country came into being.  I was tiny when they signed the charter & Dad came back from the bush & put aside his fatigues & pledged allegiance to the new republic.  It was a new beginning for everyone.  A fresh slate.  So we’ve been side by side, siblings in infancy, in childhood, in adolescence, as adults.

“Realization: I’ve been a willing participant, a screw its machinery, its mechanisms.  A component part to every little thing.

“Question: am I to blame?”

Later, Ian will describe himself as “a passive bystander in the collapse of a system.”

Of Beasts and Beings
By Ian Holding
Europa, 224 pp., $15

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
June 24, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
A Blow for Peace and Democracy: Why the British Said No to Europe
Pepe Escobar
Goodbye to All That: Why the UK Left the EU
Michael Hudson
Revolts of the Debtors: From Socrates to Ibn Khaldun
Andrew Levine
Summer Spectaculars: Prelude to a Tea Party?
Kshama Sawant
Beyond Bernie: Still Not With Her
Mike Whitney
¡Basta Ya, Brussels! British Voters Reject EU Corporate Slavestate
Tariq Ali
Panic in the House: Brexit as Revolt Against the Political Establishment
Paul Street
Miranda, Obama, and Hamilton: an Orwellian Ménage à Trois for the Neoliberal Age
Ellen Brown
The War on Weed is Winding Down, But Will Monsanto Emerge the Winner?
Gary Leupp
Why God Created the Two-Party System
Conn Hallinan
Brexit Vote: a Very British Affair (But Spain May Rock the Continent)
Ruth Fowler
England, My England
Jeffrey St. Clair
Lines Written on the Occasion of Bernie Sanders’ Announcement of His Intention to Vote for Hillary Clinton
Norman Pollack
Fissures in World Capitalism: the British Vote
Paul Bentley
Mercenary Logic: 12 Dead in Kabul
Binoy Kampmark
Parting Is Such Sweet Joy: Brexit Prevails!
Elliot Sperber
Show Me Your Papers: Supreme Court Legalizes Arbitrary Searches
Jan Oberg
The Brexit Shock: Now It’s All Up in the Air
Nauman Sadiq
Brexit: a Victory for Britain’s Working Class
Brian Cloughley
Murder by Drone: Killing Taxi Drivers in the Name of Freedom
Ramzy Baroud
How Israel Uses Water as a Weapon of War
Brad Evans – Henry Giroux
The Violence of Forgetting
Ben Debney
Homophobia and the Conservative Victim Complex
Margaret Kimberley
The Orlando Massacre and US Foreign Policy
David Rosen
Americans Work Too Long for Too Little
Murray Dobbin
Do We Really Want a War With Russia?
Kathy Kelly
What’s at Stake
Louis Yako
I Have Nothing “Newsworthy” to Report this Week
Pete Dolack
Killing Ourselves With Technology
David Krieger
The 10 Worst Acts of the Nuclear Age
Lamont Lilly
Movement for Black Lives Yields New Targets of the State
Martha Rosenberg
A Hated Industry Fights Back
Robert Fantina
Hillary, Gloria and Jill: a Brief Look at Alternatives
Chris Doyle
No Fireworks: Bicentennial Summer and the Decline of American Ideals
Michael Doliner
Beyond Dangerous: the Politics of Climate
Colin Todhunter
Modi, Monsanto, Bayer and Cargill: Doing Business or Corporate Imperialism?
Steve Church
Brexit: a Rush for the Exits!
Matthew Koehler
Mega Corporation Gobbles Up Slightly Less-Mega Corporation; Chops Jobs to Increase Profits; Blames Enviros. Film at 11.
David Green
Rape Culture, The Hunting Ground, and Amy Goodman: a Critical Perspective
Ed Kemmick
Truckin’: Pro Driver Dispenses Wisdom, Rules of the Road
Alessandro Bianchi
“China Will React if Provoked Again: You Risk the War”: Interview with Andre Vltchek
Christy Rodgers
Biophilia as Extreme Sport
Missy Comley Beattie
At Liberty
Ron Jacobs
Is Everything Permitted?
Cesar Chelala
The Sad Truth About Messi
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail