Saturday, October 29, 2011

John Eppel's Hatchings reviewed by Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende

The incisively satirical novel Hatchings, by John Eppel, is set in the city of Bulawayo, during the doldrum years of post independence Zimbabwe. In it we find Elizabeth Fawkes and her family, a representation of the ever dwindling middle class and middle class values of solid family ties, sound education, hard work and integrity. The story centres around the Fawkes family, who are in a sense the barometer of normality against which the reader can measure all the other characters in the novel. Some of these characters are extreme criminals of foreign extraction whose predatory instincts bring them to the chaos that is Zimbabwe and become the opportunistic parasites feeding voraciously off the dying country. Such an unsavory character we find in the person of Sobantu ‘the butcher’ Ikheroti, who is devoid of conscience or anything that amounts to human sympathy. Ikheroti is involved in the business of providing illegal abortions to pregnant underage girls, who have been put in the family way, thanks to the rampant penchant for “Black pussy”, by two British expatriate primary school teachers, Simon and Nicholas. Enter the Ogojas, Nigerians, who deal illicitly in stolen emeralds and who are in business with Ikheroti, who incidentally pimps the girls he provides abortions for so that they can pay him back for relieving them of their unwanted babies. The dead babies are passed on to the esteemed artist Ingeborg Ficker, who is creating an organic statue using hills valleys and trees called the Gwanda Giantess who will be birthing these babies.

Eppel’s characters move along the natural continuum of class and racial composition of Bulawayo (and therefore Zimbabwe), sardonically invoking stereotypes of the various classes and racial groups. There are the residents of Cornwall Street in the city centre: the Amazambane and the Ilithanga families, Ndebeles who cohabit in one small flat, all 14 of them. There is the old coloured family, the Reeboks, whose one son was hanged for murder, the other was doing time and the mother of their 11 year old granddaughters was strung out on drugs. The bitter divorcee, Aphrodite Fawkes, and the bachelor Boland Lipp, in possession of pathetically good heart and a love for classical music and the colour green, complete the residents on Cornwall Street. Let us not forget the Indian landlord who is reminded of the plight that befell his kinsmen in Uganda when he inquires about the number of people living in flat 3- the Ndebele flat.

Enter the Mashitas - the Shonas, who have turned their whole yard into a maize and vegetable farm, the Macimbis - the Ndebeles, who have assisted nature by denuding their yard of all vegetation and swept the ground clean of its topsoil, the Voerwords of Afrikaans ancestry and the Pigges, whose lineage hails out of England. All of them are neighbours to the Fawkes family and their children, Black and white play in the neutral zone which is the Fawkes’ backyard. They are in what was formerly a middle class neighborhood but the clear delineations that defined such a neighbourhood have become somewhat blurred.

Then we move on into the world of the obscenely rich, those who can afford to waste water in a city whose resources are fast dwindling. It is the world of the born again Christians with their ostentatiously wealthy pastor whose powerful preaching of the gospel of prosperity induces mind numbing orgasms to the women folk in the congregation. It is the world of true believers who sing and dance and clap and in trancelike state sign huge cheques for the Lord. It is from this world that the Black Rhino elite private school draws its student population with the sole aim of “ensuring the high standards of Rhodesian education”. At this school, the students, over indulged children of the wealthiest farmers and business men excelled in those aspects of Rhodesian education which mattered the most: “rugby, water polo, bullying and geography”. In this setting we find the very ordinary Boland Lipp as the English literature teacher who strives to impart a love for the written word to his students, who are only really interested in brand new fast cars, motor cycles and sex.

In stark contrast to Black Rhino School is Prince Charming High School, embedded in one of the ghetto townships of Bulawayo. It is here that Simon and Nicholas the English teachers teach politics and have sex with the female students, getting a fair number of them pregnant, which results in expulsions and several fair skinned babies found dumped in different places around the city.

John Eppel sets the scene for New Year’s Eve parties in the city of Bulawayo, by providing imaginative and hilarious descriptions of the idiosyncrasies of each of his characters. Each character, community, race and class brings a different but colourful dimension and meaning to the terms corruption, greed, slovenliness, debauchery and selfishness, which renders the story of the parties on New Year ’s Eve in the various locations uproarious. Despite the dead babies that are a constantly being discovered throughout this story, Eppel succeeds in delivering a story about a city whose inhabitants have lost the qualities of Ubunthu: those qualities which form the fabric of strong communities in which the individuals care about the wellbeing of the others, demonstrated in simple acts such as preserving water during a drought, in order that there may be enough for everyone. This delivery is neither moralistic nor judgemental, but it is brutally honest, stripping individuals literally to their bare bottoms and institutions to reveal their rotten innards, all accomplished with humour, great skill and unparalleled precision.

The story lifts the reader out of the filth and one is deposited at a light, hope inspiring end. Young Elizabeth Fawkes’ love for the ruthlessly handsome, devil- may- care Jet Bunion is finally reciprocated, and the egg she has been incubating for her father in her bra is hatching. Fresh beginnings and a new day are possible after all.

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