Intense experimentation with language, form and tight situations sits at the heart of Tafadzwa Z. Taruvinga’s new novel: Gone With The Blue Zodiac. Various Zimbabwean writers are known for taking the margins of the novel beyond the horizons and this writer has joined them.
Broadly this is a story about Nyika and Bettina Denga, a young couple living in Harare who are happy together until one fateful night when their car, a zodiac, driven by Nyika, collides with a train and he is killed, leaving behind Bettina and their children, Tungamirai and Paidamoyo and the family dog, Mazowe.
Perhaps, Taruvinga is breaking new ground here. Is it easy for a modern African, or Zimbabwean woman to be precise, to move on after her husband’s death and start a new relationship, even marriage, considering the many difficult family circumstances? Are we ready to embrace this? Taruvinga probes these pertinent questions through his fluctuating narrative. Suddenly readers are once more brought to the territory of the award-winning film, Neria, but with new twists and innuendos.
Five years after the tragic death of her husband, Bettina remarries a new man in her life; one Sam Shumba. It is usually not easy as Bettina has to go through the cultural norms of informing her deceased husband’s in-laws first; and ask them their ‘‘permission’’ for moving on with this new man in her life. And Bettina poignantly remarks of her deceased husband’s mother Mbuya Goneso’s response:
‘‘My son is gone. It’s been five years now. It’s not good for someone like you to be alone, my child. All we ask is that you don’t stop bringing my grandchildren to us time and again…’’
Taruvinga certainly pulls at the heartstrings here, in his depiction of cultural norms as Bettina delicately navigates them. For instance, in one poignant scene, she can’t contain her tears as she visits her husband’s grave to ‘‘inform him’’ she’s moving on or getting married again.
The emotion is overwhelming in this scene and she’s largely tearful. That this observance of tradition and customs is coming from a supposedly educated woman, a midwife, is testament to the author’s ability to navigate one’s social standing or educational background. Procuring the Hwedza blessing, as Bettina terms it, becomes paramount for her to transition to another ‘‘new life.’’ It’s also a mark of respect to her former in-laws that she exhibits the decency to consult them in addition to soliciting for their blessings.
But there is more outriding experimentation in this novel. One such way it is done is using a unique voice of a dog character, Mazowe, the protagonist Denga’s family dog. Mazowe the dog is given space to also contribute to the narrative. In yesteryears, Ignatius Mabasa included in his Mapenzi novel the trials and tribulations of a dog called Harare when it transfers from posh Borrowdale to the sewage strewn Chitungwiza township.
Taruvinga’s narrative is told in an out of sequence flashback mode which at times veers to the present moment. Such an unorthodox style is a personal narrative strand favourite of mine. The chapters are prefaced with key characters’ names who take turns to narrate the story in what may be termed point of view perspectival shifts. This is reminiscent of another very experimental Zimbabwean novel, Chibarabada by Tinashe Muchuri in which the text moves variably from reminisce to song, play and dream. The future is also in the past and can even be visited.
There is also Taruvinga’s expert fusion of Shona and English words which adds to its cultural richness. Phrases like ‘‘roorard me’’ and ‘‘imajen’’ are some of the deliberately ‘‘defiled’’ Shona words which highlights the writer’s language play, following new stages of development in our African languages. Amongst some of the names deployed by Taruvinga are: Mukoma Wirisoni, Faustina and Manyengavana, the village weirdo and pervert. Or when at the funeral the deceased’s cousin UK-based Faustina, the nurse, invokes totemism as she commiserates with Nyika’s wife: ‘‘Amai vangu kani imi Chihera.’’ There is syncretism, indicating that Shona society can never be consigned only between Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers.
Set in Zimbabwe in the 1990s at the height of an unfolding drought and the ravaging effects of IFM’s ESAP, the country in the novel is reeling in turmoil.
But not all is sad. M’koma Nyika goes cattle herding with Sisi Esteri. Many of us Zimbabweans can identify with the duo reading in the evening light by the side of the paraffin lamp. Who cannot relate with orature when M’koma Nyika dared to teach Faustina and Sisi Esteri creativity and imagination through song and dance, key attributes which engendered the duo’s aesthetics appreciation of the world around them.
The mercurial exhibitionist Faustina is one such character who makes a lasting impression to the reader with her zany eccentricities. As the grieving Bettina aptly describes Faustina:
‘‘Once the tears have started drying off, Faustina, our very own Black Mae West from Wedza, will be heard, even at an incomprehensible time such as this. In her mind, her high-pitched mosquito buzz must prevail.’’
There are Faustinas amongst all of us and our lived experience. We’ve all seen them, one way or the other. One other larger than life character who looms large in the narrative is Bettina’s new mother-in-law in her second marriage; whom she nicknames Mai Huku.
In one satiric comical moment, Bettina nicknames her mother-in-law as Mai Huku on account of her obnoxious character which makes her a befitting mother hencock, the slave master as Bettina derisively calls her. Mai Huku is uncouth and crass as she subjects her daughter-in-law to cruel jibes and domestic-chores servitude. She is the proverbial mother-in-law from hell who likes to punish people who do not follow her bidding. Not only is Bettina her daughter-in-law at her mercy but so is the male help at the house, James, whom Mai Huku unashamedly humiliates and emasculates in the full glare of the public at times docking his wages for non-compliance.
In keeping with Zimbabwean literature, land is also a key trope in Taruvinga’s novel perhaps exaggerated in Mai Huku’s comical theatrics of how important land means to the majority of black people in post-independent Zimbabwe. In a cringeworthy garish spectacle, Mai Huku obsesses on the opposition leader at the time, the late Morgan Tsvangirai whom she demonises and vilifies as ‘‘a puppet,’’ parroting the establishment’s puerile propaganda in Zimbabwe. Mai Huku gleefully pontificates to all and sundry:
‘‘Therefore, women, hear me when I say this. THIS.IS.OUR.LAND’’
That the preceding four words are all in capital letters perhaps serves to underscore the importance of the land question to the populace in Zimbabwe. Through her over-the-top portrait, it appears the author is wilfully caricaturing this Mai Huku woman as someone imbued with irrational zealotry and fervour some exhibit towards the ruling establishment, unable to see how it has unashamedly failed them as it is mainly the architect of their misery and abject poverty. In one of her comical stunts, Mai Huku brazenly sings to anyone who cares to listen:
‘‘Simudza gumbo hee/ harisi rako/ nderemusangano
Kana rikaguka tinoisa rimwe
Loosely translated her song is extolling the masses to unquestionably give their all to the ruling party as it owns them. Bizarrely, the irony eludes her: she is also a victim of the very servitude she sadistically subjects her daughter-in-law Bettina and the family hand James.
Equally, Taruvinga deploys dialogue as a narrative device in a self-assured way which sucks in the readers. Apt use of dialogue enmeshed with monologue is beautifully showcased in the dressing down scene between Sam and his side dish Sandra. A cheating spouse is just what one need for things to go pear shaped in a fledgling marriage and Taruvinga delineates this very well in the book. Add into the mix, the strain of raising children like you are on your own as Bettina acknowledges to Faustina.
‘‘Sometimes it feels like I’m raising them on my own.’’
She’s taken on a lot as she’s also playing stepmother to Sam’s two daughters and yet Sam is hardly in the picture to support her.
The author expertly delineates the intricacies of grief and bereavement through a minutiae description of Nyika’s funeral formalities in breathtaking elaborate details which is gut-wrenching not only to the deceased’s family but to the reader. The minute scene descriptions equally pull heartstrings.
Equally, Gone with the Blue Zodiac also dabbles into the place and scope of a woman who is expected to sit quietly as a non-participant with her late husband’s brother deciding who should inherit her, kugara nhaka. For a professional woman, the nurse she is, the patriarchy expects Bettina to quit her nursing job in the city and come and be part of a polygamous setup in the rural areas. As she quietly reflects, she is well aware of the stakes at play so she plays her cards smart:
‘‘If I am maddened by these notions, my insanity should never be visible, so I am careful to show no contempt of the whole thing, and I will see it through with absolute discipline. According to the custom, it is my duty as a muroora to be composed. Not speaking at the dare is my place as a woman.’’
There is a recurrent dream motif in which Bettina has a series of weird dreams about her departed husband perhaps, itself a sign of a frayed mind and unresolved grief.
Taruvinga’s story beautifully comes together as wholesome in the end as gaps are plugged and the narrative segues seamlessly. Not until the denouement’s dramatic infused finale! I will not say more… Will leave it there for want of a spoiler…
Taruvinga’s book is available to order online from leading South African bookshops and readers can also reach the author directly on his social media platforms to place orders. The book is self-published by the author’s company: Seven Sigma Writing.
Andrew Chatora is a noted exponent of the African diaspora novel. Candid, relentlessly engaging and vulnerable, his novels are a polarising affair among social critics and literary aficionados. Chatora’s forthcoming novel, Born Here, But Not in My Name, is a long-run treatment of race relations in Britain, featuring the English classroom as a microcosm of wider society post-Brexit. His debut novella, Diaspora Dreams (2021), was the well-received nominee of the National Arts Merit Awards in Zimbabwe, while his subsequent works, Where the Heart Is, Harare Voices and Beyond and Inside Harare Alcatraz and Other Stories, has cemented his contribution as a voice of the excluded. Harare Voices and Beyond has recently been nominated for The (2023) Anthem Awards.