If, as my husband does, you prefer your fiction plot-driven and straight-up - not shaken, not stirred, no rocks, then this book is probably not for you. Like The Interrogative Mood, Padgett Powell's 2009 novel comprised entirely of questions, A Fine Madness is as much mesmerising poetry as it is prose narrative. Mashingaidze Gomo (a former Alouette helicopter gunner in Zimbabwe's air force) tells his story of African history and revolution in the declamatory style that lends itself particularly well to an out-loud/spoken word gig. With a view of the continent not often encountered in news reports, much less in novels, this narrator laments the spirits of the brave dead warriors who, in 1896, waged the First Chimurenga (national struggle) in resistance to colonial occupation of Zimbabwe; facing machine-gun fire with only assegais and knobkerries. He applauds subsequent wars fought to eradicate "colonialist arrogance and demonization" from the continent. He stares down "neo-colonial puppet rule tailored to protect the minority interests of capitalist manipulators" and the ‘insolence' of destabilising civil wars designed to preserve "imperialist lawlessness."
Stirring stuff and the narrative, in chant-like refrain, lights on subjects as diverse as literature (Africa's legends "dwarfed into ragamuffin villains in Eurocentric literature"), the media ("a Western media propaganda that hypnotizes African children into zombies"), and corruption ("What corruption could be worse than slavery? Forced labour? Minority rule? Apartheid?")
Based on Gomo's experience of fighting in ‘Africa's World War' a few years back, and on his attempts to make sense of that madness, the book centres around Tinyari, "an older woman aged in beauty."
Tinyari is Zimbabwe who the narrator, while fighting in Boende, missed "with a nostalgia that was like madness... I wandered in the loneliness of memory... missing her." Tinyari is also mother of all Africans who weeps, "refusing to be consoled for her children / were going to be duped and slain again." And Tinyari appears too, as the continent about which some people "surprisingly black too... have argued that beauty so superlative is too good for an African."
We hear how Tinyari is gang-raped by "exploiters from the West / And they took turns on her / Germans, Americans, British, French, Portuguese, / Belgians..." We watch surreal morphings as she becomes a courtesan, dressed by Western photojournalists to parade in a "bum-hugging drop-waist the colour of violet crimson" to please tourists; tourists who become terrorists with cameras that become "sniper rifles with telescopic sights" to kill the woman. And then we see pimping African ‘funeral men' jostling to sell her body in exchange for British pounds.
Rhetoric, hyperbole, passion. Gomo tells his story with page on page of powerful repeats that pound hypnotically like the beats of chopper blades;
"And the Alouettes beat on / Two birds of war, on the trail of a tireless horizon...African people must know that sometimes it is fine to be mad / African people must know that a madness they believe in must be a fine madness / A VERY FINE MADNESS".
A Fine Madness
Review: Moira Richards
Review first published, Cape Times: Friday 17 December, 2010
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