In The Dictator's Shadow, Life

An Elegy for Easterly
By Petina Gappah
Hardcover, 240 pages
Faber & Faber
List price: $23

Read An Excerpt

An Elegy for Easterly
Petina Gappah i i

hide captionAuthor Petina Gappah told Morning Edition that people from her native Zimbabwe "find ways of coping with pain by laughing at it and by laughing at ourselves."

Bathsheba Okwenje
Petina Gappah

Author Petina Gappah told Morning Edition that people from her native Zimbabwe "find ways of coping with pain by laughing at it and by laughing at ourselves."

Bathsheba Okwenje

In her richly observed debut collection, An Elegy for Easterly, Petina Gappah tells the story of contemporary Zimbabwe and its people: How, during almost 30 years of rule by Robert Mugabe, they've managed to live amid rampant inflation, AIDS, infidelity, black marketeers and a Kafka-esque bureaucracy. Zimbabweans are proud of leaving a colonial past behind, but they look enviously toward the U.K. and the United States, where spending money isn't counted in the millions.

Gappah's stories all touch on tragedy, but they aren't overwhelmed by it. One, about a local dancing competition, begins this way:

When the prices of everything went up ninety-seven times in one year, M'dhara Vitalis Mukaro came out of retirement to make the coffins in which we buried our dead. In a space of only six months, he became famous twice over, as the best coffin maker in the district and as the Mupandawana Dancing Champion.

The author now lives in Geneva — where she's an international trade lawyer — but grew up in Zimbabwe, and she succeeds in capturing a world that tourists could otherwise never hope to see: People, rich and poor, going about living their lives in the surreal shadow of a post-colonial regime.

In "Something Nice From London" a family waits at the Harare airport for a flight that will bring them the remains of their dead son. A police investigation has delayed the release of his body, and the extended family has already begun to descend on their home.

But how to tell people: please go away, we have not started officially to mourn? They have spent money to get here; the old aunts from Shurugwi have taken out their notes from the old pots in which they keep their money. And then to tell them: please, find more money, go away for now and come back later, wearing your most sorrowful faces.

The opening story, "At the Sound of the Last Post," sees a state funeral through the eyes of the widow of a "national hero" — a euphemism for those in Mugabe's inner circle who managed to remain in his good graces. As the eulogies continue, she remembers her husband's political corruption, the so-called small house he kept for his mistress, and the "long illness" that won't be mentioned in the state-run newspaper's obituary.

Perhaps the saddest of the stories is "Our Man In Geneva Wins a Million Euros," in which a Zimbabwean consular officer for the U.N. — new to both his duties and the Internet — is taken in by an online scam.

Gappah, as a Zimbabwean with a European education, is an ideal cultural translator. But she's an agile writer too: Her style, tone and perspective change dramatically from story to story — as does the socioeconomic status of her characters. But the book never loses coherence as a collection.

The characters in Gappah's stories accept the small and large tragedies of their daily lives as a given, and the author presents these constant indignities with the same inevitability. This backdrop of shadow makes the foreground action shine with an even richer, more rewarding and authentic hue.

Excerpt: 'An Elegy for Easterly'

An Elegy for Easterly
By Petina Gappah
Hardcover, 240 pages
Faber & Faber
List price: $23

The Mupandawana Dancing Champion

When the prices of everything went up ninety-seven times in one year, M'dhara Vitalis Mukaro came out of retirement to make the coffins in which we buried our dead. In a space of only six months, he became famous twice over, as the best coffin maker in the district and as the Mupandawana Dancing Champion.

Fame is an elastic concept, especially in a place like this, where we all know the smells of each others' armpits.

M'dhara Vitalis was forced to retire three years earlier than anticipated. His employer told him that the company was shutting down because they could not afford the foreign currency. There would not be money for a pension, he was told, the money had been invested in a bank whose directors had run off with it kwazvakarehwa to England. He had been allowed to keep his overalls and had been given some of the tools that he had used in the factory. And because the owner was also closing down another factory, one that manufactured shoes, M'dhara Vitalis and all the other employees were each given three pairs of shoes.

Jeremiah, Bobo, and I saw him as he got off the Wabuda Wanatsa bus from Harare. "Thirty years, vakomana," he said to us, as he shook his head. "You work thirty years for one company and this is what you get. Shuwa, shuwa, pension yebhutsu. Heh? Shoes, instead of a pension. Shoes. These, these..."

The words caught in his throat.

"Ende futi dzinoshinya, all the pairs are half a size too small for me," he added when he had recovered his voice. We commiserated with him as best we could. We poured out all the feeling contained in our hearts.

"Sorry, M'dhara," I said.

"Rough, M'dhara," said Jeremiah.

"Tight," said Bobojani.

We watched him walk off carefully in his snug-fitting shoes, the plastic bag with the other two pairs dangling from his left hand.

"Pension yebhutsu," Jeremiah said, and, even as we pitied him, we laughed until tears ran down Jeremiah's cheeks and we had to pick Bobojani off the ground.

M'dhara Vitalis went back to Harare to look for another job, but who wanted an old man like him when there were millions unemployed. He looked around Mupandawana and was fortunate to find work making coffins. M'dhara Vitalis was so efficient that he made a small contribution to the country's rising unemployment — his employer found it convenient to fire two other carpenters. And that was how he became known as the coffin maker with the nimblest fingers this side of the Great Dyke.

We had seen his hands at work, but of his nimble feet and his acrobatics on the dance floors of Harare, we had only heard. As the person who told us these stories was the man himself, there was reason to believe that he spoke as one who ululated his own praise. As Jeremiah said, "There is too much seasoning in M'dhara Vita's stories."

But to appreciate M'dhara Vita's skill is to understand that he was an old man. They had no birth certificates in the days when he was born, or at least none for people born in the rural areas, so that when he trained as a carpenter at Bondolfi and needed a pass to work in the towns, his mother had estimated his age by trying to recall how old he was when the mission school four kilometers from his village had been built. As befitting one who followed in the professional footsteps of the world's most famous carpenter, he had chosen December 25 as his birthday, so that his age was a random selection and he could well have been older than his official years. What was beyond dispute was that he danced in defiance of the wrinkles around his eyes.

Even if he had not gotten his drinks on the house, many of us would have bought him if not his favorite brandy, then a less expensive alternative. ... We began to gather at the Why Leave Guesthouse and Disco-Bar every Friday evening to watch M'dhara Vita. Fueled on by the bottom-of-the-barrel brandy and the museve music, his gymnastics added color to our gray Fridays.

It was no different on that last Friday.

The owner's wife had come to understand that it was the Congolese rumba, which demanded agile waists and rubber legs, that really got M'dhara Vita moving. So on that night, the Lumumbashi Stars blasted out of the stereo as he took center stage. He stood a while, as though to let the brandy and the music move its way though his ears and mouth to his brain and pelvis. Then he ground his hips in time to the rumba, his eyes closed all the while and his arms stretched out in front of him.

"I am Vitalis, shortcut Vita, ilizwo lami ngi Vitalis, danger basopo. Waya waya waya waya!" He got down to the ground, rolled and shook. We crowded around him, relishing this new dance that we had not seen before. He twitched to the right, and to the left. The music was loud as we egged him on. He convulsed in response to our cheering. His face shone, and he looked to us as if to say, "Clap harder."

And we did.

It was only when the song ended and we gave him a rousing ovation and still he did not get up that we realized that he would never get up, and that he had not been dancing but dying.

Excerpted from AN ELEGY FOR EASTERLY, published by Faber and Faber Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Petina Gappah. All rights reserved.

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