Dambudzo Marechera and Sony Labou Tansi are not household names in South Africa, or Africa. But if the German academic and African literary scholar Flora Veit-Wild is to be believed, they should be.
“Both writers represented the avant-garde of a new generation in their respective countries and regions; their writing was a departure from narrative forms, a breaking of new ground. They converted the absurd realities of the societies in which they lived into texts with an absurd, a grotesque, a mad quality,” says Veit-Wild.
She makes her compelling case in her paper, The grotesque body of the post-colony: Sony Labou Tansi and Dambudzo Marechera, also recently presented at the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research (Wiser).
For Veit-Wild it is the carnivalesque — that literary form deploying bad language, comic violence, hyperbole and satire — that informs and inspires much of these groundbreaking writers’ works.
For 20th-century Russian literary scholar and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, carnivalesque was a historical phenomenon and literary form enlisted in the struggle against orthodoxy and for the liberation of the human spirit and imagination. The carnivalesque world is strewn with the complex and the unstable, the satirical and the fantastic, the poetical and the pursuit of truth.
So too with the Zimbabwean Marechera’s work, as in these lines from the poem I am the Rape.
I am the rape / Marked on the map/The unpredictable savage / Set down on the page / The obsequious labourer / Who will never be emperor … Sit out this truth out at sea/Shit the shit when you go out to tea
Veit-Wild collected the bohemian Marechera’s scattered manuscripts, edited them and published them as The Black Insider (a novella), Cemetery of the Mind (a collection of poetry), and Scrapiron Blues (an odd collection of short stories and poetry by a much mellower writer that was penned mostly before his death from Aids in 1987, aged 35).
Much of the influence came from fellow writers who shared a “carnival attitude to the world”, among them Aristophanes, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Francois Rabelais, Gunter Grass, John Fowles and Wole Soyinka. Veit-Wild argues that this devil-may-care attitude to literature dominates discussion of post-colonial literature and post-modernist experimental writing.
This is particularly true of Marechera’s experimental Black Sunlight, which reviewers at the time dismissed as “absurdist” and “lacking structure and coherence”.
There was everything to shock the censorship board, from fellatio and a narrator who is crucified upside down in a parody of white images of a primitive cannibalistic Africa and its fascination with the black phallic symbol. There was also a character questioning his identity: “Perhaps I was on the wrong planet … In the wrong skin. This black skin.” Black Sunlight was banned for obscenity and violating Christian morality, though the ban was lifted on appeal.
Veit-Wild says that while Marechera’s novels raise the obscenity and grotesqueness of power to a more metaphorical level, Labou Tansi, from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), clearly spells it out, the dictator appearing in all his ugly deformity and stupidity. She argues that Sony’s novels La Vie et demie and L’Ã‰tat honteux recreate the typical post-colonial figure of the dictator and president-for-life figure in all his ugliness, absurdity, surreal pompousness and imbecility. While Labou Tansi may have found rulers like Mobutu Sese Seko from the former Zaire and other autocrats inspiring or incensing models for these literary projections, he goes beyond any likeness to real events by accentuating the absurdities.
Veit-Wild is not sure if Marechera and Labou Tansi knew about the other. While only Zambia geographically separates Zimbabwe from the DRC, there are more crucial barriers of language and culture. Nonetheless, their works share similar attitudes towards writing and politics.
Labou Tansi’s characters are hyperbolic, his narrative plots baroque, absurd and meandering. For instance, in La Vie et demie, the ruler known as the Providential Guide decides to create a legacy. He then prepares to fertilise 50 virgins in his palace, a scene that is to be broadcast by radio and television “despite the intervention of the Pope and the United Nations”. The 50 children born from this multiple copulation spree were variously known as Jean Coriace, Jean Calcaire, Jean Crocodile, Jean Carbone, Jean Cou, Jean Cobra and Jean Corollaire.
This fascination with the “grotesque body” has antecedents in Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival, where the bowels and the phallus play a pivotal role. Veit-Wild argues that one of the most defining narrative features of L’Ã‰tat honteux is that the deformity and monstrosity of the body politic is shown in the narrative style itself. Here, the narrative voice jumps in the middle of sentences from the third to the first person and back and tenses change abruptly between past and present. Consequently “the boundaries between narrating and narrated figure, between narrating and narrated time, dissolve into a breathless, endless flood of words without clear meaning”.
Although different in several respects, Veit-Wild concludes that what unites Marechera and Labou Tansi in the post-colony is “a search for the humane in the middle of an utterly inhuman world”.
Marechera’s poem, The Bar-Stool Edible Worm, encapsulates this:
I am against everything / Against war and those against / War. Against whatever diminishes / Th’individual’s blind impulse
Flora Veit-Wild’s Writing Madness: Borderlines of the Body in African Literature will be published by Jacana in December