Wednesday, December 10, 2008

ARC 3: "Harvest of Thorns"

Harvest of Thorns by Shimmer Chinodya was published in 1989 and won The Commonwealth Prize (Africa Section) for Best Novel, 1990.

Harvest of Thorns portrays the history of Zimbabwe from its late days as a member of the British Commonwealth through its time as an independent Rhodesia under a white minority government and the consequent Bush War to the transfer to a majority-ruled Zimbabwe; these events and their consequences are seen primarily through the eyes of the young man Benjamin Tichafa.

As the novel begins, the Bush War has ended, the new majority government of Zimbabwe has taken power, and Benjamin returns home for the first time in three years after fighting as a guerilla, surprising his divorced mother and crippled bother who have not heard from him.  Shortly afterward, a pregnant young woman appears, whom he finally introduces as his wife.  He attempts to collect his back and demob pay, but because he left his last encampment without being formally discharged, he is unable to prove he's owed the money.  He tries to join the new national army, but the waiting list is many months long; further, the economy is in a shambles and he's unable to find work.  Depressed, he goes to visit a friend, accompanied by his 14 year old brother, who becomes drunk when Benjamin fails to keep track of him.  Returning home, he is berated by his deeply religious mother who expresses her disappointment with her entire family:  her husband has abandoned her, Benjamin had simply disappeared after getting into trouble 3 years earlier and now is corrupting his brother, and her daughter has run off with an unknown suitor.  Life for the family, in short, is unpleasant.

The narration then shifts into a lengthy flashback which takes up most of the rest of the novel.  We see Shamiso, Benjamin's mother, as an 18 year old in the late 50s when the country is still part of the Commonwealth.  We follow her courtship by Clopas Wandai J. Tichafa, who has a minor position as a messenger for the local city government, her eventual marriage to him, and their early married life.  Although there are occasional impositions by the white authorities, by and large their lives are not intruded upon.  They become converted to a particularly strict Christian sect, and, when their children arrive, those are raised within the practices of The Church of the Holy Spirit, in which Clopas becomes an important figure.  He enforces particularly strict discipline upon the children, although Benjamin, even at a young age, is resistant to the pressures to which he is subjected and becomes somewhat rebellious.  Eventually, he also recognizes that his father has violated the basic beliefs of the religion  enforced on the family by taking a mistress and comes to hate him even more.

When Benjamin is 6 in 1965, Rhodesia breaks away from the Commonwealth under Ian Smith's white minority government, a government which becomes increasingly repressive of the black population as time passes, engendering various types of opposition.  When Benjamin is 11, he and several other children are lured by some black rabblerousers into burning a white-owned bar; accordingly, he acquires a reputation as a troublemaker and is severely punished by the authorities, by his father, and by the church leader.  Sometime later, in disobeying his parents, he is responsible for his bother's losing his leg and becoming a cripple.  By the time he is 17, the Smith government is being hardpressed by black rebels and passes harsh laws drafting every young black man who isn't maintaining high marks and good citizenship in school.  Benjamin becomes involved in a march opposing this draft and is arrested.  Facing the mandatory draft, he escapes and flees into the bush along the border, seeking out the guerillas as the only people he believes will accept him.

Much of the remainder of the novel deals with his life as a guerilla.  Chinodya in no way romanticizes  Benjamin's experiences; life as a guerilla is enormously difficult, both physically demanding and emotionally trying -- hunger, thirst, exposure to weather, constant fear of discovery and even greater fear during attacks on white farmers and villages which have cooperated with the government, death of one's comrades -- all take their toll.  So does the brutality of the conflict, on the part of both the government forces and the guerillas; both sides are equally responsible for terrible atrocities.    Chinodya also shows us, in several brief passages, how things appear from the point-of-view of several innocent victims who are dragged unwillingly into the conflict and become targets themselves along with their families as a result. 

The final short section of the novel returns us to the setting and time of the beginning of the work.   Benjamin's father comes to see his son, but they quarrel, a quarrel that deepens when Clopas' new wife shows up, excerbating matters.  Clopas' newly purchased car, which he has just obtained from a white man leaving the country, breaks down and no one is able to fix it.  Benjamin's sister arrives with her husband Dickson; he and Benjamin attempt unsuccessfully to repair Clopas' car, but in the process develop a friendship.  For the first time, Benjamin opens up and talks to Dickson about his terrible experiences as a guerilla, speaking bitterly about the waste of human life, especially those of his comrades, that the Bush War has been.  Benjamin's wife goes into labor and is rushed to the hospital; Benjamin is given his son to hold and thinks of the hopelessness of his situation but attempts to convince himself that he will do everything he can to provide for his son.

What Chimodya shows us throughout the novel is the continuous breakdown of Rhodesian/Zimbabwean society.  By the time of the end of the Bush War and the new majority government's coming into power in 1980, the country is economically wrecked.  One might tend to think the ascendance of a new government would be reason for hope, but Chimodya -- writing in 1989 -- knows that in fact the history of the decade of the 80s, with Robert Mugabe in power, will simply reveal continued violence, this time of faction against faction, and of  extreme corruption that will in fact make things worse, not better.  Chimodya shows us this failure of the future through the image of Clopas' car; superfically, it looks good but in fact it is a wreck which cannot be repaired.  In a very real sense, this is Zimbabwe's position as well; the nation inherits an at best damaged governmental structure from the departing white minority, and this structure simply cannot be repaired and made to work again, at least not in the hands of those who will come to govern it.  Benjamin's attempts to reassure himself in the novel's closing lines are futile; things aren't going to get better, and there will be little or nothing he can do to provide for his family in the years to come.  It is this bitter, barren future that is the "harvest of thorns" of the title.


Blogger Charmaine said...


My sis said you were a very smart man. Likely smarter then her but that you were wrong on the copywrite protection issue.

She's never lost a case in her career.

She gave you a gentle smack down on my blog. What I think is that it is hilarious beyond measure that she was sticking up for me. She didn't like the condescention of your "Absoltely not" remark.

I've spent my entire life sticking up for her, smacking down people who might try to hurt my baby sis and now...our roles just reversed.

Dang I love that kid.

5:07 PM  
Blogger Hedgie said...

Heh -- See, I've it possible for your sister to give you a delightful Christmas gift.

5:19 PM  
Blogger ♥ Braja said...

Hedgie I read your profile and got immediately freaked out: I was in a Calcutta bookstore yesterday and lying on top of a pile of books was 84 Charing Cross Road. I picked it up and thought, "I haven't seen this book for years," and was kind of mesmerized by it and by the inability to put my finger on exactly where and when I'd read it...but Charing Cross Rd itself is a place dear to me...and then I read your profile, "Favorite movie: 84 Charing Cross Road." So, like, I'm outta here....

5:54 PM  
Blogger Hedgie said...

Thanks for stopping by, Braja; come back and spend some time when you're less freaked out.

6:33 PM  
Blogger Charmaine said...

Yes Hedgie, you did. Thanks. I'll take a warm fuzzie over a matching set of hat and mittens...any day.

3:59 PM  
Blogger Charmaine said...

I get why who married. We all fall in love.

I want to know why an intellectual divorces. You are brilliant and witty...I see that..

What did you miss?

8:29 PM  
Blogger Hedgie said...

"I want to know why an intellectual divorces."

For exactly the same reasons as anyone else; individuals expecting more and/or different things from their spouses than their spouses can give and/or be.

"You are brilliant and witty"

Alas, even if true, that has nothing to do with making a better marriage than others or even a successful marriage.

8:53 PM  
Blogger Charmaine said...

Yea. I know.

See my last comment to you on my blog.

Did you really think a woman could sprial from one man every seven years to the dreaded and unimaginable?

Doesn't mean I can't think about it.

1:51 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home