grandnarrative + bodily collapse in dambudzo marechera

Jean-Francois Lyotard states in his seminal book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge that, ‘simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as an incredulity towards metanarratives’. He specifies that ‘whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation’, all have ‘lost their credibility’, and consequently ‘the social subject itself seems to dissolve’. This essay will argue that, echoing Lyotard’s assertions, Dambudzo Marechera’s short stories in The House of Hunger show the breakdown of societal narratives as inscribed on and through the human body. Though the novella ‘The House of Hunger’ will be referenced in passing, I generally exclude it from my analyses due to the large amount of critical work already undertaken on it, and instead focus on the shorter stories towards the second half of the volume, which have received considerably less attention. After a justification of why Marechera’s work are a relevant site for this analysis, I begin reading individual stories closely with a Bakhtian mode of criticism, before moving “outwards” to examine how the body and subjectivity collapse between different stories.

A number of postcolonial critics suggest that in newly independent African countries, the imperial grandnarrative was quickly replaced by another. As Elleke Boehmer describes, this period was ‘distinguished by literal belief structures’, which included a ‘strong, teleological faith in the actual existence of the nation as “people”, and the sense that history essentially unfolded as a process of the nation’s coming-into-being’. Christopher Wayne and Bridget Grogan point to Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Ayi Kwei’s ‘accessible, social realist mode’, as evidence of this new grandnarrative of ‘anti-colonial, nationalist themes that had become the predominant concern of early post-colonial African fiction’. They add that the problem inherent in replacing the imperial grandnarrative with an anti-colonial, nationalistic one, is that newly independent nations become locked into ‘a system of binarisms’ that, like colonialism, ‘employ oppositions “in the cultural construction of reality”’.

This can be seen on the socio-political and theoretical level. Boehmer points to the postcolony embedding itself in ‘negritude-style illusions even while simultaneously compromising its principles of socialist redistribution by retaining colonial and capitalist hierarchies constructed on similar lines to those in, for instance, apartheid South Africa’. On the theoretical level, Wayne and Grogan highlight how ‘much postcolonial theory is premised upon colonialism’s construction of the “other”’. Pointing first to Edward Said’s claims in Orientalism that Western discourse attempts to ‘control, manipulate, even to incorporate’ the Oriental ‘other’, as well as Abdul Jan-Mohammed’s Manichean Aesthetics where he states that ‘dominant model of power-and-interest-relations in all colonial societies is the Manichean opposition between the putative superiority of the European and the supposed inferiority of the native’. The problem therein, as Ashcroft et al. rightly identify, is that the ‘danger for anti-colonial resistance comes when the binary opposition is simply reversed, so that “black”, for instance, or “the colonized”, become the dominant terms. This simply locks the project of resistance into the semiotic opposition set up by the imperial discourse’.

Flora Veit-Wild and Anthony Chennels observe that, because of such binaries, Marechera has ‘been regarded as the “man who betrayed Africa”’, that ‘broke ranks with the sort of nationalism which gave a peculiar authority to pre-colonial African culture’, his ‘art refused to be rooted in an Africa which the political and cultural officialdom of the 1960s and 1970s imagined’. Rather, Marechera attempts to ‘place Africa in a broader context than that provided by either indigenous cultures or by a simple opposition of European imperialism and African resistance’, his work can be understood as an attempt to disassemble the ‘African image’ that he saw being ‘invoked to authorize and thus disguise the tyrannies of many of the regimes which came to power in the 1960s and 1970s’. These critics argue that Marechera can be considered part of postcolonial literature’s fundamental achievement: showing that ‘that as long as the colonial encounter is imagined in binarisms of coloniser and colonised, oppression and resistance, foreign and native, neither has an identity outside a paradigm of mutual dependence’.

Going further than Veit-Wild and Chennells, I suggest that rather than just acknowledging this binary, Marechera collapses it. As Boehmer describes, ‘in the decades since independence’, African writers ‘have come round to concentrating on the imaginative as opposed to the actual status of the nation’, ‘the constructedness of the nation is now engaged’ as a central topic. Veit-Wild adds that, in the postcolonial and Lyotardian postmodern view, ‘reality becomes complex and hybrid’, ‘in place of a homogeneous view of the world and clear-cut modes of interpretation, a fragmented, fundamentally sceptical perspective dominates’. I argue, in line with Achille Mbembe’s comment from his seminal study On the Postcolony that postcolonial identities are ‘multiplied and transformed’ ‘in distinctive ways’, that Marechera presents the nation and the national grandnarrative as a fragile, fragmenting construct, whose collapse is mirrored in a collapse of the body and subjectivity.

The Grotesque Body

The breakdown of grandnarratives is reflected in Marechera’s presentation of grotesque bodily sites, wherein bodily limits are transgressed and collapsed. Mikhail Bakhtin describes the grotesque body as ‘a body in the act of becoming, it is never finished, never completed’, focusing on ‘those parts of the grotesque body in which it outgrows its own self, transgressing its own body’. He cites the phallus as the primary site of transgression, but suggests it is closely followed by ‘the bowels, the genital organs [more broadly]’, ‘the mouth’, and ‘the anus’. I argue that, through an extended emphasis on bodily functions, excretions, and sex acts, Marechera’s presentation of the grotesque body can be considered part of a wider emphasis on ‘scandalous and eccentric behaviour that he uses to subvert and desacralize hegemonic discourses and established hierarchies.’

The most confronting example of grotesque ‘genital organs’ occurs in the first part of ‘The Writer’s Grain’. After the nameless narrator storms out of a party to find his adulterous wife, picking up a canine companion en route, he ‘bursts into the room, expecting to see my wife in that devil’s embrace’, and finds them ‘naked and sweaty and puffing away at it like mad’. Though explicit, this passage is not grotesque; the fight that ensues, however, definitely is. ‘My wife was scratching and clawing at anything and for an agonising ten minutes she found my balls and squeezed and tugged and squeezed until I thought I was going to die’. Luckily, his mongrel steps in: ‘The dog saw my predicament clearly and came to my rescue. Dogs know the importance of balls; at least, that one did. He bit her in the rump. He bit her breasts. He bit her throat’, and finally ‘dived in between her legs and took a sharp bite’. Nearly all the body parts listed one of Bakhtin’s sites of bodily transgression: the ‘balls’, the ‘rump’, the ‘breasts’, the ‘throat’, that which lies ‘between her legs’. Moreover, as well as being sites of transgression, here they are torn apart and broken up, further breaking down the body’s boundaries in both quasi-castrations.

Marechera’s obsession with ‘the anus’ and its functions work to similar effect. Literal ‘shits’ and ‘turds’ appear across his work, but the most pointed example appears in ‘The Christmas Reunion’. The narrator tells his sister that ‘They look at you like you want me to look at that goat. They look at you like you were a potential meal, and they digest your innards and fart you out and call it progress’. The direct comparison of an anal function to an abstract socio-political paradigm, that of ‘progress’, demonstrates that Marechera acknowledges a direct link between the body and the grandnarrative via the grotesque. Furthermore, the verbal expletive ‘shit’ appears even more frequently than literal-shit: ‘shit in its good earthy sense’, the ‘uneducated shits who counted their pennies and paid the rent’, the ‘little shit’ cat in ‘The Writer’s Grain’ who meets an untimely demise under an Encyclopaedia Britannica, are a few of the many available examples. Though expletives are pervasive in Marechera’s work, I do not consider it a coincidence that the word appearing most often is that which is the most grotesque, bodily, and body-transgressing.

Lydie Moudileno extends Bakhtin’s grotesque to the ‘dismembered body’, suggesting that in seeing the body’s limits exploded, a ‘new novelistic paradigm’ of the grotesque emerges. Marechera’s work is far from lacking in dismembered bodies, as the ‘Salad Room’ in the second part of ‘The Writer’s Grain’ demonstrates. The boy and his guide, the anthropomorphised Warthog in a yellow apron, take the ‘steep little stairs’ that ‘creak impishly beneath their feet’, before ‘Mr Warthog opened a small red door and they walked in’, the ‘boy looked, and his breath suddenly came out in little gasps of pain’: ‘the salad was human! No, the human was the salad. No, the salad plants looked just like humans. “It’s the only salad that grows here”, Mr Warthog explained as he nibbled a piece that looked like a human ear’. The ‘Salad Room’ is filled to the brim with dismembered human body parts, bodies that have had their supposed limits exploded beyond all recognition and reconnection. Going even further than the mauling mongrel, the dismembered body parts are eaten by Mr. Warthog; they enter through his mouth but, one can safely assume, they also travel through his entire body, transgressing bodily limit upon entry, during travel, and through their inevitable exit, wherein they become unrecognisable. The body loses all semblance of the “human”, and associated narratives, which held it together. As Veit-Wild summarises, Marechera’s ‘various appearances of the deformed or grotesque body, and the body’s impurity become, in his work, symptoms of the mental sickness of society, of a disturbance in the relationship between people’. I argue that the disturbed relationship is not just between people, but between people and their world, a world which, as their bodies enact, exists in a time of narrative collapse, losing any sense of singularity and cohesiveness, as the grandnarrative that once held it together falls apart.

The Carnivalesque Body

Thus far, I have focussed on Marechera’s presentation of the body in isolation, focusing on specific body parts and their significance. However, using another of Bakhtin’s theories – the carnivalesque – I will now focus on the narrative elements with which grotesque bodies are compared and contrasted. In turn, I will suggest a further link between bodily and grandnarrative breakdown. Veit-Wild describes how ‘elements of hybridity and carnival are major characteristics of postcolonial literature’, with ‘the subversive quality of syncretic, carnivalesque art’ helping to ‘decentre dominant discourses’. She rightly claims that carnivalesque works ‘undermine and challenge discourses of African identity which have not only become outdated and obsolete, but extremely dangerous’, because ‘they are used by black elites to justify their autocratic rule’. In Bakhtin’s own words, ‘the laws, prohibitions, and limits that determine the habitual order of life are not in force for the duration of the carnival’, and that ‘this applies above all to the hierarchical order’, because ‘carnival unites, mixes, and marries the sacred with the profane, the high with the low, the great with the small, the wise with the foolish’. Specifically, it is the carnivalesque’s syncretic emphasis on ‘bodily baser instincts, eccentric, abnormal and indecent behaviour, the violation of good manners and social rules’ which I will use to further my reading of the grotesque.

Fittingly, an example of syncretism occurs just ‘next to the Salad Room’ that I previously described. In this second room, ‘two naked figures, male and female, stood facing each other’ before Mr Warthog ‘pressed an intriguing combination of buttons’: ‘The male figure was having a swift erection and moving with an oblique heat towards the female figure, who was gently parting her thighs and slowly raising her arse to receive the man’, ‘he was between her legs and they were both trembling violently’, until ‘electric sparks spun out from their furious activity.’ As the boy ‘yawns’, the two figures ‘writhe and moan and howl such a hoarse icy blast of air that for a moment the boy paused in mid-yawn and cocked his ears’, before proclaiming that ‘“My dog used to make that sound when there was a full moon”’.

Though the figures here are undoubtedly grotesque, what makes them carnivalesque is the syncretism that the wider scene entails; a number of societal expectations, norms, and conventions are broken. First, there is a breakdown of the public and private through the voyeurism of the boy and the warthog. Moreover, the age and species of the two voyeurs constitute further boundary collapses: that which is usually “adult” is gazed upon by a child, and that which is strictly human – the conscious sexual act, the concept of “making-love” – gazed upon by an animal. Similarly, an act usually deemed “natural” is shown to be both machinic in the spinning ‘sparks’, and also animalistic in the boy’s ‘half-forgotten’ comparison to his family pet. His forgetfulness also points to another collapse: the peak of arousal, intensity, and excitement becomes dull, boring, and yawn-inducing. Through an inversion of these wider societal paradigms, the body is again used as a site on which to enact a more abstract kind of collapse.

Veit-Wild highlights another element of the carnivalesque which she calls ‘metaphorical border-crossings’. She claims that on the stylistic level, Marechera’s ‘rejection of realism’ reflects ‘his hybrid consciousness and his cross-cultural imagination’. Marechera uses this cross-cultural imagination to create ‘hybrid realities’, in Homi Bhabha’s words, ‘by yoking together unlikely traditions of thought’. Veit-Wild cites Marechera’s poem ‘Oracle of the Povo’ as an example of this technique, because ‘the high-class figure of the oracle (from Greek mythology) is juxtaposed with the low-class povo, a Portuguese expression used in Southern Africa for the poor, the people, the masses. The sacred oracle is thus debased’.

Another segment from the second part of ‘The Writer’s Grain’ exemplifies this by its contrast of a high-class cultural artefact, not with a low-class figure, but with the bodily grotesque. Towards the end of the story, Mr Warthog brings the boy a gift: ‘“Lysistrata – a Greek play. It’ll amuse you. If not, I’ve also brought the Satyricon and that one you wanted, the Golden Ass by that fellow Apuleius”’. However, the boy ‘says nothing, and Mr Warthog sneezed and blew his nose loudly’, ‘in the silence that followed the boy’s breathing scraped and rasped against the walls’, Mr Warthog ‘smiled uncertainly’ before asking the boy if he would ‘like some more salad instead?’ Here the appearance of the ‘high-class’ Greek works is carnivalesque: the plays, a “high-art” form of entertainment, exist in direct contrast to the warthog’s own debased and grotesque forms of bodily entertainments. The warthog offers the boy more ‘salad’ instead, referring back to the first room they visited. Moreover, this passage takes place directly after the aforementioned scene with the naked figures, so direct contrast is further invited. Most pointedly, however, the offering of the plays occurs just before the very last passage of the story, wherein the two characters watch a film together that depicts Nazis ‘frying eggs and eating them while with their bayonets they prodded an endless line of naked children into a huge sulphuric acid tank’. Thus, the plays are directly contrasted with another form of entertainment, the film, which is arguably the warthog’s most debased exhibit yet. Furthermore, the film also depicts the children being ‘prodded’ into a tank of ‘sulphuric acid’; whereas the ancient plays are considered by many to delineate or consolidate what it means to be a human subject, in the film we see the human subject literally dissolve under the evils of modernity.

By first enacting a collapse on, through, and between the grotesque body and its surroundings, but then subjecting that body to the juxtapositions and contrasts of the carnival, Marechera shows how ‘elements of carnival and hybridity’ can ‘unmask and unsettle dominant discourses’, specifically those ‘in colonial and post-colonial regimes’, and consequently points towards a larger kind of collapse at the level of societal narrative.

The Doubled Body

So far, I have examined the bodily breakdown in isolation, and then contrasted it to other narrative elements within each story. Now, by looking within but also between stories, I hope to show that a doubling of characters and their bodies, ‘a splitting of the self, a fragmentation’, creates a ‘double consciousness and double-voicedness […] in a condition of alienation’; to reflect the fragmentation of grandnarratives, Marechera fragments subjectivity itself. In doing so, as Trudy Rudge and Dave Holmes describe, Marechera challenges established ‘systems of order, meaning, truth […] and laws that [attempt to] produce a controlled and manageable subject’. Wayne and Grogan take this suggestion even further, claiming that by raising questions of the body such as ‘Do I own it at all?’ and ‘by destabilising the boundaries between “self” and “other”’, Marechera ‘tears the body apart’, ‘simultaneously rendering identity abject and thus inassimilable’. Marechera’s perception of himself seems to support this view, having described himself at one time as ‘the doppelganger whom, until I appeared, African literature had not yet met’, and described his craft in the following terms: it is a short walk to the grave, only a drop of blood away; only a strong feeling away, […] there you meet all the versions of yourself that did not come out of the womb with you. It is of them I write. Doubled bodies and fragmented subjectivities are pervasive.

His short stories, however, take this idea much further. The most obvious and sustained instance of bodily doubling occurs in the first part of ‘The Writer’s Grain’. An unnamed narrator suddenly finds one of his doodles transform into dark spots that shoot ‘out with the very matter of his brains’, and finds his own face looking ‘coldly’ back at him. Upon touching the figure, it pulled ‘the skin of my face out’, ‘it revealed me to myself’. From this point onwards the dots begin to form a life of their own, arguably becoming more real than the narrator himself; ‘those fine black grain, they were my life’. From here the narrator goes to a party, gets drunk, and encounters the double again. He leaves with the intention of warning his estranged wife of the double. On the way, he meets his canine partner, and the aforementioned fight ensues. As Brendon Nicholls describes, this narrative, via an ‘externalisation of the narrator’s life and thoughts into the space of writing’ results in an ‘evacuation of selfhood’ through bodily doubling.

The effects of this doubling – the resulting fragmentation of the self and the subject – can be further emphasised by comparing these doublings to other stories in the volume; doubles become redoubled across the collection. For example, the first part of ‘The Writer’s Grain’ is partially doubled in ‘Thought Tracks in the Snow’; the narrator’s wife reveals an affair she has been having with a Nigerian student he has been teaching, and subsequently the student in question comes to blows with the narrator. The narrator, however, is unable to retaliate as he becomes lost in a flashback where police dogs attack protesting university students. This flashback precisely replays a moment in ‘The House of Hunger’, in which that narrator’s memory of being attacked by a dog recurs as he is beaten up at a right-wing student protest. Furthermore, the Alsatians in question are, debatably, bodily doubles of the shaggy dog in ‘The Writer’s Grain’, which is itself a ‘“shaggy dog story” related just before closing time in a bar’. Moreover, the wife in ‘Thought Tracks in the Snow’ is pregnant by the student, and the narrator suggests she get an abortion through his friend, Michael, a local doctor. In ‘The Writer’s Grain’, the narrator’s daughter, Clara, who happens to be almost identical to her adulterous mother, has an abortion through one of the narrator’s close friends. Thus, there is subtle but undeniable doubling of characters, and their bodies, between stories across the collection; they’re the same characters but, in Nicholl’s words, ‘filmed from the reverse angle’.

In these stories the subject, through bodily doubling, becomes ‘an object that endlessly morphs through a sequence of versions, or is constellated via partial correspondences that do not settle. Instead they shuttle, shimmer, or relay during the transactions of character and the designs of story’. Just like the postmodern view of the nation and its grandnarratives, this version of the subject, of the self, is ‘opportunistic, performative and, above all, ambivalent’. Thus, I argue that Marechera, through this bodily doubling, exceeds Homi Bhahba’s theory of the hybrid. Though Bhabha brilliantly suggests that ‘it is difficult to agree entirely with Fanon that the psychic choice is to “turn white or disappear” […] there is the more ambivalent, third choice: camouflage, mimicry, black skins / white masks’, Marechera’s work suggests a fourth option: a subject committed to ‘insistent, enigmatic and spectacular acts of self-rarefaction’, that can ‘resist being read form any locus of authority as a result’. As Veit-Wild succinctly summarises: ‘the divided self-mirrors the insanity, the fundamental disturbances of the society around him’; as societal grandnarratives, and subsequently their loci of authority begin to dissolve and decentre, so too do the bodies and subjects of Marechera’s stories.

Primary

Marechera, Dambudzo, The House of Hunger, (London: Heinemann, 1978)

Secondary

Ashcroft, Bill, et al., Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies, (London: Routledge, 1998)

Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky, (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1984)

  • Literatur und Karneval. Zur Romantheorie und Lachkultur, (Berlin: Fischer Taschenbuch, 1990)

Bhabha, Homi, ‘The Third Space: Interview with Homi Bhabha’, Identity: Community, Culture: Difference, ed. J. Rutherford, (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990), pp. 205-215

Boehmer, Elleke, Stories of Women, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005)

Jan-Mohammed, Abdul, ‘The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature’, Critical Inquiry, 12.1, (Autumn 1985), 59-87

Lyotard, Jean-Francois, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi, (Saint Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 1984)

Marechera, Dambudzo, ‘The African Writer’s Experience of European Literature’, Zambezia, 14.2, (1987), 100

Mbembe, Achille, On the Postcolony, (Berkley: University of California Press, 2001)

Moudileno, Lydie, ‘Labou Tansi’s La vie et demie, or The Tortuous Path of the Fable’, Research in African Literatures, 29.3, (1998), 21-33

Nicholls, Brendon, ‘Postcolonial Narcissism, Cryptopolitics, and Hypnocritique: Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger’, Postcolonial Text, 8.2, (2013), 1-22

Rudge, Trudy, and Dave Holmes, eds. Abjectly Boundless: Boundaries, Bodies, and Health Work, (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010)

Said, Edward, Orientalism, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978)

Taitz, Laurice, ‘Knocking on the Door of the House of Hunger: Fracturing Narratives and Disordering Identity’, Emerging Perspectives on Dambudzo Marechera, eds. Flora Veit-Wild and Anthony Chennells, (Trenton: African World Press, 1999), pp. 23-43

Veit-Wild, Flora, Dambudzo Marechera: A Source Book of his Life and Work, (London: Hans Zell, 1992)

  • ‘Carnival and Hybridity in Texts by Dambudzo Marechera and Lesego Rempolokeng’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 23.4, (1997), 553-564
  • ‘The Grotesque Body of the Postcolony: Sony Labou Tansi and Dambudzo Marechera’, Revue de Littérature Comparée, 314, (2005), 227-239

Veit-Wild, Flora and Anthony Chennells, eds., Emerging Perspectives on Dambudzo Marechera, (Trenton: Africa World Press, 1999)

  • ‘Introduction: The Man Who Betrayed Africa?’, Emerging Perspectives on Dambudzo Marechera, eds. Flora Veit-Wild and Anthony Chennells, (Trenton: African World Press, 1999), pp. xi–xix

Wayne, Christopher, and Bridget Grogan, ‘Abjection in Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger’, Tydskrif Vir Letterkunde, 55.2, (2018), 104-119

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