Phillip Chidavaenzi’s debut novel called The Haunted Trail is, for a number of reasons, a good omen for the Zimbabwean novel in English.
Zimbabwe boasts of a good number of fine novelists, but since the death of the prolific Yvonne Vera, the novel in English has remained the sole forte of Shimmer Chinodya, who has been able to publish annually for the last four years. Both young and established writers seem to have settled, at least for now, on the short story.
But Chidavaenzi is both a new and a young novelist. He is a “born free”, a Zimbabwean term for all those people who were born after Zimbabwe’s independence in April 1980.
During the first decade of independence, Zimbabwean writers were rightfully keen to explore the just ended war of liberation in various ways.
The Zimbabwean war novel is unique. It tends to do three things in one breath; explores the course of the war, outlines the causes of the war and attempts to imagine the kind of new nation that the war aims to bring about.
Fine authors were born to this genre. Alexander Kanengoni, Edmund Chipamaunga, Charles Samupindi, Garikai Mutasa, Bruce Moore King and others.
Among them are combatants from the warring sides and ordinary men and women who have never fired a gun in their lives.
Chidavaenzi belongs to a generation of writers that was born after this war. And in The Haunted Trail one sees the typical desire to mirror the challenges of independence.
It has always been pointed out that war is complex in that it progresses and changes form from generation to generation even when its content remains the same.
The Haunted Trail is about Zimbabwe’s new war, particularly the war against the lack of discipline in the Zimbabwe monetary system.
The Zimbabwean reader will have one rare opportunity to read about the issues of our time now-now!
A young banker, Michael Denga, who is corrupt and corrupting, whose bank has branches in the major cities in Zimbabwe, has had his bank put under curatorship. Several years ago banks in Zimbabwe were also put under curatorship.
As a result, their clients suffered physically and spiritually because all their fortunes or earnings were frozen and locked up in the failed banks.
People milling outside a frozen bank, their month’s salaries inaccessible and with no bus fare to go home was a familiar feature.
The novel here captures them stewing in their newly found misfortunes: “All my life’s savings are locked up in there . . .” “My children are supposed to go back to boarding school . . . But I cannot access my money for their fees!”, “The parents of the sick girl could not pay cash upfront . . . their accounts were frozen in this bank.”
Michael has risen from rags to riches. He is a Mbare prostitute’s ill begotten child. Michael Denga represents the worst that Mbare can produce.
His first ever experience is to see his mother being intimate with a man half her age. When his mother dies, he walks away from her corpse.
He survives on well wishers who pick him from the open and send him to school.
Even when he finally goes to Fort Hare on a Presidential scholarship and comes back to become a banker, he remains a wide-eyed savage cat that only thinks about profits and gains.
And when he walks, his step is an attempt to outdo everything and everybody other than himself.
He keeps a chessboard in his office not in order to enjoy the game but to remind himself about never to fall again.
But Michael falls for Chiedza, a very gentle young woman who has just graduated in accounting.
When you think that here is an opportunity for Michael to reveal the human being inside him, he ravishes the girl, infects her with the HIV and discards her without flinching.
But you have sympathy for him because he is not constructed for life. He does not know what else he can do with his “success”.
But Chidavaenzi has his other ways. He feels deep into his women folk. This is often difficult for male writers. Jackie is “an affable easy-going young woman with bright flashing eyes that never seemed still”. Stella “was ever grateful to God for giving her (Michael) despite the fact that he was a spitting image the man who broke her heart and trampled on her soul before coming to a disgraceful end.”
Chiedza is very immediate and well explored and there is going to be debate on whether this novel is about Michael or Chiedza.
There is a way in which the main character is overshadowed midway by his “victim”. Chiedza is also spurred on by the fight she puts on when she realises that she is HIV positive.
One also hopes that the sequel to this novel might have to explore Jackie further because at some point one thought she would take over Michael and thickens the crisis in this story.
The succeeding novel must be able to explore the story of a worldwise girl who has a friend who is HIV positive.
The language used here is so closely drawn that the text reads like it has been written and rewritten.
Here, as in Stanley Nyamfukudza and Nhamo Mhiripiri, writing becomes a way of drawing that as you read, you “hear” the writer breathing and panting from the burden of care and poetry.
This makes it a book easy to read and remember.
There is no running away from the fact that the Zimbabwean novel in English will never be the same again.
From now on the writers will be more inclined to search for the lost soul of the nation and where most of us abandoned the life-giving values to wallow in economic crime, fornication and murder. And nobody might do it better than the young writers. –www.mazwi.net
Title: The Haunted Trail
Author: Phillip Chidavaenzi
Publisher: Longman Zimbabwe (2006)