European Literature Days 2016: Review of Petina Gappah by Beat Mazenauer

The Demon and Mnemosyne (Memory)
Some rulers seem to live forever. Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is one of them. Born in 1924, there seems to be no end to his almost 40-year-old regime. In Petina Gappah’s debut novel The Book of Memory (published by Faber & Faber in 2015; trans. by Patricia Klobusiczky as Die Farben des Nachtfalters) this is vividly described.

Gappah narrates the story of Memory, an albino woman, who grows up in the poor suburbs of Harare and is sold to a white man aged nine. It is the story of how this Lloyd Hendricks dies two decades later under tragic circumstances, how Memory is arrested as the main suspect and, after a forced confession, is sentenced to death. In prison she writes down her story in a notebook that she intends to go to an American woman journalist. The prison daily routine is miserable, but this is only one of the reasons why past events reluctantly come back to her. Not only the legacy of colonialism weighs heavily, but old traditions and myths continue to exert their power – first and foremost, the demon of fate – the “Ngozi”. Nobody escapes his allure, not even Memory, although she doesn’t want to believe in him.

She wonders where to begin, “when everything that you previously thought to be true turns out to be a lie”. She cautiously approaches the “truth” that increasingly casts a shadow over her. For years she had believed that she had been sold by her parents for money, but this turns out to be false.

This falsehood shaped her relationship to Lloyd for a lifetime, even if she had learned to grow fond of him. However, she hadn’t noticed how this shy philologist was himself a rank outsider who had joined with the blacks in the fight for liberation and had learnt fluent Shona. But in free Zimbabwe his homosexuality was regarded as a condemnable offence.

“Speak, Mnemosyne” is how Memory was greeted by Lloyd the first time they met – a distant echo of Nabokov’s “Speak, memory”. Together they build a bridge between white and black culture, and Memory finds her totem animal in the black-and-white peppered moth. “Like the peppered moth, I adapted to my changing environments.” However, the Ngozi, who determines fate, doesn’t allow a happy ending.

The writer, Petina Gappah, born in 1971 in Zimbabwe, was educated in Cambridge and Graz, and now works in Geneva as a lawyer for the World Trade Organization; she knows all about this intercultural balancing act from her first-hand experience. She understands the perils lurking in the grey areas.

She develops her material with narrative cautiousness, by allowing her heroine, Memory, the time gradually to feel her way forwards, until she is ready to retrieve the core of her memories: her own guilt towards Lloyd, which she tries to atone for by wrongly accepting the blame for his death.

The tension is maintained until the very end because even Memory doesn’t know everything herself. She personally destroyed an unread, potentially informative letter from Lloyd.

The Book of Memory gives a precise description of  the details of the dull prison routine, while Memory’s recollections, which constantly intervene, retain something enigmatic and dull that evades explanation. Instead, Lloyd’s jazz records resonate, memories of children’s songs and linguistic interludes in Shona give the novel a special tonality and musicality. Amidst the original idiom and reading Dickens, tradition and modernity, family and politics this book reveals a warmth and coherence that poetically defies all demons. Only Mugabe has no intention of yielding.

Petina Gappah: Die Farben des Nachtfalters. Novel. Trans. from English by Patricia Klobusiczky. Arche Verlag 2016.

By Beat Mazenauer

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

 This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 29 September 2016.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory

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