Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean who lives in Geneva and who, for most of her adult life, has worked as a lawyer, advising developing countries on trade. She speaks five languages — Shona, English, Ndebele, French, German — and, on her website, says she’s learning Swahili.
By William Skidelsky
She translates from English into Shona (romantic poetry, Animal Farm) and, less frequently, in the opposite direction. She collects Livingstone memorabilia and is collaborating on a musical. And in her spare time, she has always written fiction.
Rotten Row is Gappah’s third book, and her second short-story collection. (An Elegy for Easterly won the 2009 Guardian First Book Award; The Book of Memory, her first novel, appeared to general acclaim last year.) Like her previous work, Rotten Row is set mostly in contemporary Zimbabwe, and depicts a society that is both reassuring and unsettling, a place of normality and bewildering extremes. A distinctive quality of Gappah’s fiction is that, while the events she depicts are invariably tragic, the writing itself feels upbeat, excited. Describing the Radiohead song Creep, the music critic Alex Ross once wrote: “The lyrics may be saying, ‘I’m a creep,’ but the music is saying, ‘I am majestic.’” A similar tension informs Gappah’s work — although her stories depict a despair-inducing world, the spiritedness of her writing makes them seem almost gleeful.
This has much to do with her humour, which is mordantly satirical, somewhat Dickensian. Satire is Gappah’s tool of exposure, her means of revealing the hypocrisy, venality and indifference at the heart of modern Zimbabwe. If some of her targets seem too easy — such as the company boss who casually mows people down in his Range Rover — others are less predictable. Gappah is an equal-opportunities lampooner who directs her ire at black and white, men and women, do-gooders and villains, the dispossessed and the powerful. No one is above — or below — her scorn.
One case in point is “The Old Familiar Faces”, a hilarious account of an non-governmental organisation seminar. Usually, stories of this type lambast the unhelpful meddling of foreigners; but the failings targeted here are largely homegrown. Once kept afloat by lavish overseas funding, Zimbabwe’s voluntary sector, we learn, has fallen on hard times, and these days, to the outrage of its complacent employees, the “country’s human rights problems” are no longer “discussed exclusively in holiday resorts”. Gappah has fun, too, mocking the language of the delegates; one concludes his speech by memorably proclaiming that the police’s failure to tackle crime is “not just a dereliction of duty but also a defecation on democracy”. In its rather smile-raising way, the story makes a serious point — Zimbabwe’s problems are a contagion that affect every stratum of society.
These stories are not quite freestanding: various characters appear more than once, and the collection has an overarching theme. “Rotten Row” sounds like something dreamt up by Hogarth, but in fact it’s a real place: a track running through London’s Hyde Park which, in 1890, was adopted as the name for a thoroughfare in the new Rhodesian capital of Salisbury. Today, while Rhodesia has morphed into Zimbabwe, and Salisbury has become Harare, Rotten Row still exists: it intersects “Robert Mugabe Road” and is home to the country’s main criminal courts. Every story in Rotten Row relates in some way to the theme of criminality. Many feature murders or suicides, while others recount more trivial-seeming misdeeds, such as an elderly teacher who finds herself “$500 million” short in a supermarket.
(An understandable oversight, you’d think, in an era of triple-digit inflation, but the staff still treat her like a thief.) The point, once again, is unobtrusive: Zimbabwe’s convulsions have resulted not only in an upsurge of genuine criminality, but in the criminalisation of law-abiding people. In Rotten Row, Gappah has found a way of reconciling trenchant social criticism with the needs of entertainment — and the result, for the most part, is genuinely brilliant.
Despite in some ways seeming old-fashioned, these stories don’t shrink from the here-and-now. The characters endlessly consult their WhatsApp messages; there are a few daring touches of intertextuality; and one story is narrated in the first-person plural. There’s a sense, too, of diverse verbal influences rubbing up against each other: although written in English, the stories are studded with Shona (and Shonglish) dialect. Zimbabwe emerges as a country built from irreconcilable traditions — and the writing itself reflects that jumble.
Anger, of course, is the engine of satire — but if a satirist appears to enjoy herself too much, it may diminish the force of what she’s saying. Occasionally, Gappah comes across as having such a good time that readers may doubt the seriousness of her intentions. Perhaps her awareness of this explains the inclusion of a few less overtly satirical stories, in which the problems of Zimbabwe — and indeed of Africa — are contemplated in a more sombre fashion.
One such tale is A Kind of Justice, about a young Zimbabwean woman called Pepukai who lives in London and has “armed herself” with several law degrees, believing that this would enable her to “change the world”. Now, though, she’s considering abandoning the law and becoming a film-maker. (The film she wants to make is about the civil war in Sierra Leone.) “She had … come to realise that, actually, she had only the power of anger, of frustrated anger” — and that the best use for it is to be a “witness”. Gappah recently told an interviewer that she was giving up the law in order to concentrate fully on her fiction. Like Pepukai, she has decided, it seems, to devote herself to the task of bearing witness.