Chairman of Fools
2005: (pp: 182) 210 x 134 mm
5 November 2005
Reviewer: Memory Chirere
Leading writer falters
Shimmer Chinodya’s latest novel, Chairman of Fools, is the latest curiosity in Zimbabwean literature in English. For some time to come, there is bound to be debate on what kind of success Chinodya’s offering is. This is Chinodya’s sixth novel.
One is therefore bound to consider it in the shadow of Harvest of Thorns (1989), arguably Chinodya’s most successful piece of art to date. It won him the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region, 1990). Harvest of Thorns is phenomenal in the way it locates the black Rhodesian community in the various struggles against forces of colonialism. The level of craftsmanship and vision demonstrated in that novel was bound to put Chinodya himself under pressure to beat his own record in whatever piece he would write afterwards.
In addition to that, Chinodya had began to establish even a new tradition in short story writing. His Can We Talk and other stories (1998) had seen him threaten to run away with the Zimbabwean short story crown, which, arguably, is held by Charles Mungoshi. Chinodya’s book of short stories is very experimental. It extends the boundaries of stylistics in short story writing.
In that light, Chairman of Fools is a controversial success. Of course it is at least an absorbing book. However, so much about it is a far cry from what we know of Chinodya’s capabilities. Granted, there is the characteristic twist and turn of phrase, especially in the sections where Farai Chari is gradually sinking into depression. But on the whole, one feels that Chinodya is trying too hard to reach the level of Farai’s Girls (1984.)
Maybe the plot is rather thin here: the pursuit of Farai and Farai alone up to the end. Then the laidback reminiscences of Farai as he relaxes in the lunatic asylum. The comic way in which the fellow inmates at the asylum elect him their chairman! From the moment you meet Farai the plot just goes downhill, more or less as fast as Farai loses his mental centre. A sub-plot or its semblance to accompany the major story could have been adopted. Without a subplot Chinodya loses opportunity to explore Veronic, Farai’s wife. One wanted to know what exactly about Veronica’s ‘evolvement’ unnerves Farai.
Veronica remains so much behind the scenes that you wonder whether she is indeed the villain in this story or not. One also wanted to know the content and form of Veronica and Farai’s disagreements before Farai went abroad for the twenty months. One feels that the reader has not been equipped enough to appreciate the major conflict in this story. Was Chinodya working in unfamiliar territory? Maybe Chinodya wanted to work with the theory ‘the less you know, the more you want to hang around’ But even so, he overdoes it.
The other daunting thing is the absence of ‘space’ in this novel. Farai’s world is largely the ‘car-world’. He is always driving. Drinking, brooding and driving. The insistence on driving up and down takes away opportunity to explore character and place. Chinodya himself must have sensed it. At some point, too late even, he portrays the car as an entity, a character that goes where it wants inspite of Farai the driver.
But then, as a novel that explores the decadence of Zimbabwe’s petty bourgeoisie, Chairman of Fools is successful. There is here a thin class of people that think that roving in cars and having an occasional braai is a measure of success. The little house in the medium-density suburb, a big television set, a car that breaks down regularly and a swimming pool, are considered, seriously, to be PROPERTY: Farai and the people around him are trapped into ‘eating’ and ‘good living’. It is on the strength of that ‘wealth’ that Veronica ‘rises’ and realises her ‘individuality’. It is from such ‘high towers’ that Farai and his class looks at society.
Sadly, at that point, one begins to wonder what exact force to bring back Veronica to Farai will not misbehave? Is Veronica now an independent woman? On what basis does she acquire her new consciousness? Is it the church? Her husband’s long absences? His drinking escapades? Indeed this is going to be a special novel for even the feminist readers of the Zimbabwean novel. There are many in Southern Africa.
What really causes Farai’s breakdown is another question that this novel raises. But because that kind of background is not given, one assumes it is Farai’s realisation that he cannot ‘control’ his wife anymore. He cannot have her in the house when he wishes. She has developed new attachments outside Farai's gaze. She has discovered church. She has acquired a car… But then, even in the so-called traditional society, was there any man or husband who had ‘total’ control over his wife’s day-to-day thoughts and movements? So what exactly troubles Farai? Is it important that Farai’s uncle is convinced that Farai’s problem could be traditional? That the medical doctors tests reveal that Farai suffers from bipolar disorder complicates matters.
This novel gives Chinodya an opportunity to decide whether, from now onwards, it is going to be short stories or novels. With Can We Talk he had struck a very high pitch.
There is no doubt that Chinodya is a leading Zimbabwean writer; whatever he publishes reflects on the health of Zimbabwean literature.
© The author/publisher
Chairman of Fools