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Zimbabwe in Black and White

There’s bitter dark humor about contemporary Zimbabwe in Petina Gappah’s glorious second novel, The Book of Memory. The narrator refers to an article in the Financial Gazette, with the headline: “Country Lacks Hangman.” And she continues, “It would appear that, in addition to all the other shortages—no doctors, no nurses, no teachers, no books, no democracy, no sense—we are enduring a chronic shortage of people willing to tie nooses, slip them around the necks of their fellow men, string them up and drop them to their deaths.” Still, one final observation: “‘The country’s severe economic crisis is having an effect on the delivery of justice,’ a Minister of Justice was quoted as saying.”

Actually, the narrator of Gappah’s novel, whose name is Memory, or Mnemosyne in Shona, has reason to regard the above information as hopeful. She’s in prison, “the first woman in more than twenty years to be sentenced to death,” charged with murder, of having shot Lloyd, her benefactor, because his will indicates that his estate will be left to her. The case against her resides in part because she has informed the authorities that Lloyd, who is white, bought her from her parents when she was nine years old. (She’s an adult when the accusations are made against her.) The Judge argues that that’s impossible—people are not sold in Zimbabwe. And the final caveat—perhaps the most interesting part of the novel—is that Memory is an albino.

That fact in itself requires additional commentary. Because of a genetic predisposition, more albinos are born to Africans than to Caucasians. It’s difficult to spend much time in tropical Africa without encountering an albino, a person endowed with typical African features (kinky hair and flat nose) but skin as white as a sheet of paper and eyes that are pink. Both of these attributes make life in Africa for the albino pretty miserable. The sun burns the white skin; most albinos have difficulties with their eyesight. The biggest stigma is that an African albino sticks out in any crowd, and in too many instances they are treated very badly, routinely bullied, and—in much more extreme cases—forced outside of traditional communities, and sometimes murdered for their body parts. Witch doctors are believed to value these body parts. To all this, add a common belief that albinism is caused by ancestors punishing the living and you have a rather horrendous situation. When I taught in Nigeria fifty years ago, there was an albino woman working in midwifery across the school from where I lived. The running joke in the village was that she was my wife. It didn’t bother me, but I’m certain it unsettled her.

These stigmas do not all apply to Memory, in Gappah’s novel, though one wonders if Lloyd (a university professor) would have been so concerned about her if she had not been visibly white. He provides her with a quality education in a private institution, and he takes care of her medical needs. She lives, pretty much, the life of an elite white Zimbabwean, also acquiring advanced education. Still, Memory is totally conflicted about Lloyd’s interest in her, because the day he takes her away from her family, she sees him give her father a bundle of money. “For as long as I lived with Lloyd [nine years], we did not talk about the circumstances that had brought us together. Whenever I felt the subject was looming between us, I did everything I could to deflect it. Lloyd did the same. On the rare occasions that he spoke of how I came to be living with him, he spoke only of ‘taking me in,’ of ‘giving me a home.’” Fortunately, Lloyd’s interest is not prurient.

The counterpart to all this is the unfolding political situation in Zimbabwe that destabilizes the country. There are references to white settler farmers losing their lands and being murdered. The country’s economy collapses because of governmental ineptitude and mismanagement. The black/white tension is just below the surface of the narrative. But then there’s Lloyd, staying on as a professor at the university, not fleeing the country after the land transfers begin. And Memory—who is visibly white but not regarded as such by Africans—living with a white man, benefitting from his education, money, and culture. That fact does not set well with the charges against her that she murdered him in order to gain access to his money.

The Book of Memory is a bold undertaking because of Petina Gappah’s resolution of the various conflicts of her narrative. I refuse to divulge them here because that would not be fair to the reader. But, I can say, that suddenly the novel segues to issues of sexual identity, parental deception, and intolerance—all of these slipped into the earlier narrative so seamlessly that you realize that you have been prepared for the changes in characters and in their backgrounds when they finally occur. You are not so much surprised as left with a sense of wonder, admiration for the writer, who has plotted such a compelling narrative. And the final shift that suggests the possibility of racial healing, well that alone tells us something about the people of Zimbabwe we have failed to realize. So cheers for Petina Gappah and Memory’s own book of memory.

Petina Gappah: The Book of Memory

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 276 pp., $26

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

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