Friday, October 16, 2009

Review of John Eppel's Hatchings, from

Hatchings is set in a Zimbabwe that many whites have fled but in which there is still a large group that either has taken advantage of the situation or is there for (supposedly) ideological reason. An equal-opportunity satirist, Eppel mercilessly skewers almost everyone, black and white, in an often outrageous work that also has a surprisingly gentle edge to it.
It is around New Years, 1991 going into 1992, and the story begins with the Fawkes family on a camping trip. The daughter, Elizabeth, is going on sixteen and torn between her lust for bad boy Jet Bunion and her new-found religion. Though her parents aren't devout, Elizabeth has found herself born-again -- and disapproving of the ways of many of the girls at school.
Underage sex is rampant at Bulawayo's various private (public) schools, with various teachers and headmasters taking advantage of their positions to get sexual favours from the often extremely young girls. This unfortunately results in a lot of unwanted pregnancies, and one of the novel's very sharp running gags is that disposing of these (and many other) unwanted infants has become a big business -- so big that they're running out of places to stow them away, leading to several cases of the discovery of the dead babes, with a variety of consequences. Early on, when a dumped baby is discovered, all the girls at one school are lined up by the police and:

They then systematically felt every girl's breast in order to determine which, if any, were in milk. The fourteenth girl in the queue was discovered to be conspicuously pregnant so then the police began to feel tummies (and even further down with the prettier girls) as well as breasts. As a result of this exercise, no fewer than seven girls, one in the first form, three in the second form, two in the third form, and one in the sixth form were instantly expelled from the school. All these girls, the police investigation showed, were either pregnant or had recently given birth.
Elizabeth wants to be virtuous, but Jet is oh so tempting ..... Still, her parents -- despite their concerns about her religiosity -- are supportive and this is a functioning family. When Dad asks Elizabeth to hatch a prized Asil Khan egg he has obtained she agrees to carry it around in her bra for the necessary three weeks -- apparently the best environment for successfully bringing it to hatch (they've done this before). This obvious infant substitute is in good hands with dutiful Elizabeth.
Many of the other kids aren't involved in nearly as harmless fun -- but the fault lies largely with the adults, who range from corrupt to what amounts to criminally insane (usually with a strong ideological foundation). One reason
Hatchings works is because there are also some genuinely decent (and/or clueless) adults, including Elizabeth's parents, but much of the fun is with the over-the-top characters who engage in some of the worst stuff. Beginning with Ingeborg Ficker, "Bulawayo's premier artist", it's a very comic cast of characters. Ficker, for example, is "one of the few, very few native born white Zimbabweans who had not been corrupted by colonialism" -- at least as interpreted by the local ideologues; in fact, of course, her brand of revolutionary liberalism (and her art) is as off the wall as anything.
Typical for Eppel's humour (at least of the less sexually explicit sort -- of which there is a great deal) are observations such as:
It was fashionable at parties where anybody who was about to become anybody in Bulawayo had been invited, to ask a sprinkling of non-whites to attend. This created an exquisite feeling in the hosts and hostesses of living on the edge of peril. It is a shocking yet exciting thing for your ex-Rhodesian to entertain in his home -- on his settee, mind you, eating off his plates, drinking not out of an old jam tin under a tree in the back yard, but out of proper glasses, using your toilet, for Christ's sake ! -- a sprinkling of non-Europeans.
He's also particularly good at skewering those who have benefitted from the great white flight after independence, taking advantage of what was left behind -- property, jobs, opportunities galore -- and cashing in on it. So, for example, the "desirable Cocks" (yes, Eppel is a bit too obvious with a few too many of the names):
They were very proud of their home in the Eastern Suburbs, which they'd bought in the early eighties for seven thousand dollars and which was now insured for half a million dollars. True, they'd upgraded the property consistently over the years. They'd taken out all the indigenous trees and put in a swimming pool and a sauna. They'd cut down the hibiscus hedge and put up a seven foot instarect wall topped with five layers of barbed wire. They had paved nearly the entire one and a half acres with 'state of the art' bricks. They had fitted a second hand plastic seat to the lavatory in the servant's quarters.
Eppel moves the novel across quite a few characters and a variety of conditions; the Fawkes' place is one of the few relative idylls, while elsewhere corruption -- sexual and moral -- dominates. With an easy style and making absolutely everything fair game -- some of the conduct is, even when recognisable as satire, absolutely shocking -- Eppel has writen a very entertaining and sharp book. Remarkably, he also offers what can only be described as a sweet ending, a perhaps too abrupt backing off of all the harsh (but admittedly very amusing) glare from before (and, yes, it does involve that hatching of the chick).
This is very good social satire, tackling some serious subjects -- the theme of the water shortage is well-integrated into the story, for example, and though he plays it for cruel laughs he does right by the sexual abuse as well. Eppel spreads his story a bit thin -- it is very crowded and storyline-packed for such a short novel -- and occasionally feels a bit rough and rushed, but on the whole is an impressive achievement. Despite its flaws, it is well worthwhile.

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