BETWEEN THE LINES: Tanaka Chidora
Title: House of Stone
Author: Novuyo Rosa Tshuma
Publisher: W W Norton & Company 2019
AFTER reading this novel, I was left reeling from the effects of 372 pages of “hi-story”, told using a voice that is humorous, nonchalant and playful, then passionate and emotive, then sermonic and persuasive — a hybridised narration that takes you by the hand into history, to gaze, cringe and laugh and get shocked and hate yourself for belonging to such a bloodied history!
Here is the story: Bukhosi, the teenage son of the Mlambos goes missing. Their lodger, 24-year-old Zamani makes a move to replace him. In order to do that, “hi-story” must be excavated because… because… Well, is not an excavation of the past done to facilitate present positionings? Abed’s “hi-story” must be excavated. The “hi-story” of Mama Agnes too. But as the hi-stories of these two are being recounted, you realise that the personal is linked to the national, sometimes in very tragic ways.
I remember that after reading it, I made a call to a friend in Bulawayo, to ask them to take me on a House of Stone-guided tour of “hi-story” — from the plains of Kezi, Tsholotsho and Balagwe that hide “hi-story” in their folds, to the once perfectly cobbled, but now potholed streets of the City of Bulawayo, to Entumbane and Luveve. I want to go there and walk around, a Castle Lite in hand, and survey these landmarks of “hi-story” and shudder at the bloodied paths we have travelled as a nation and wonder how a whole nation tried to decimate itself for the sake of transient and fallacious ideas that do not put food on the tables.
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House of Stone, as the title suggests, is about the personal hi-stories of the inhabitants of the “house of stone” and the personal “hi-story” of the “house of stone” itself. The weaving of personal hi-stories and “house of stone” hi-stories demonstrates that the individual is caught in this thing that he can control while at the same time he cannot control. This simultaneity of control and its lack is what gives the hi-stories of the characters an inexorable development: “hi-story” hurtling towards something — a place, a precipice, a maelstrom. The small victories that the characters score are transitional because the hurtling is unavoidable. It is like turning right or left, but remaining trapped within a circle of time which is hurtling towards a direction you cannot determine. Zamani tries, by trying to be the dark force that redirects the trajectory that would be taken by the Mlambos, but we feel, as readers, that because he is in the “house of stone”, the fate that visits its inhabitants shall also be his portion!
What I loved the most about House of Stone is its effortless narration, and the narrator’s un-literariness. He is your next door fellow, who describes the world in your everyday language. He is not the “educated” narrator who uses sophisticated metaphors. I think Novuyo handled this narrator extremely well. I also liked the fact that she did not overtly handle the narrator in a way that makes him Novuyo’s ventriloquist. The narrator is free.
The event that provides the inspiration behind House of Stone is a traumatic one, but Novuyo’s narration redeems laughter for the reader even where the “hi-story” of the nation weighs down on us like a cloak of shame. I especially like the moments Zamani enlists the services of Bell’s, Johnny and later ubuvimbo. The movement from Johnny to ubuvimbo is hilariously narrated. The deeper we dig into history, the further we journey in our need for something to numb our minds, for our history is not something we can confront without trying to run away or smack someone for making us confront it. That is why when I finally journey to Entumbane, Kezi and Tsholotsho I will make sure I carry equivalents of Bell’s, Johnny (seeing as my RTGS dollars are not well-positioned to buy the originals) and ubuvimbo!
What can we do with our “hi-story”? When we stare up its skirts and shrink at the folds of it, what do we do? (You realise I have stolen something from Brian Chikwava’s narrator right?) Cry? Slink away in shame? We create beautiful stories! House of Stone is, without doubt, a very beautiful story! I envy Rosa Tshuma for writing such a story.
NB: By now I know you should be wondering why I have used “hi-story” (with a dash) instead of “history” (without a dash). Well, it’s because Zamani prefers “hi-story” over “history”. Besides, “hi-story” is more appropriate as a description of the fragments that litter our past and are still littering our present.
Tanaka Chidora is a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe’s Department of English.