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: firstname.lastname@example.org.