AUTHOR: JAMES KILGORE
PUBLISHER: UMUZI PUBLISHERS
RELEASE DATE: JUNE 2009
Recommended retail price: R195
“HISTORY is not an academic exercise in Zimbabwe, my friend. Whoever controls the past controls the future.”
This is probably the most outstanding quote in James Kilgore’s first novel and will speak much to those familiar with how Zimbabwe’s history has been twisted, erased and given different meanings to serve desired ends. The definition of what a hero or heroine is easily springs to mind. Is it distinguished by courage, selfless service to others or reserved for those who historically aligned themselves only to a certain ideology to their graves?
Whilst being supposedly detective fictional work, it is woven with historical and present truths, both in quantity and emotional extent. It’s hard to pass this novel as entirely a work of fiction. Though the characters are mainly make-believe, Kilgore leaves no ambiguity with Robert Mugabe, using his name as such. There is also the Elias Tichasara character who draws so heavily on the real-life man, the late Josiah Tongogara. Like the latter, Tichasara perished in a mysterious accident days before the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement. It is impossible to think Kilgore meant anyone else.
Written during a six-and-a-half year incarceration in a Californian prison, sceptics may think twice concerning the author and truths. Kilgore lived in Zimbabwe (1982-1991) as a fugitive as he would later do in South Africa under the false name Dr John Pape. A respected academic at the University of Cape Town, the law caught up with him in 2002.
The author seems to borrow heavily from his time in Zimbabwe; descriptions of Highfield, Waterfalls and the Avenues are too vivid to have been written by someone who has not stayed in Zimbabwe before. Zimbabweans will no doubt “see” themselves in the etiquette of characters –– such as passengers dangling from open trucks, the grabbing of sadza, meat and vegetables in one mouthful and small boys playing with a soccer ball made from plastic bags tied together.
Set in post-Independence Zimbabwe, young history PhD student Ben Dabney arrives in Zimbabwe to research Zimbabwe’s history for his dissertation. Full of adoration for the once-persecuted leader, Ben’s early conceptions of Mugabe, who now preaches reconciliation, is that he is “more forgiving than Mother Teresa, as single-minded as Martin Luther King or the Dalai Lama”.
Despite his hero-worship, Ben is struck in very early days by the excessive adoration given to Mugabe — his portrait lingers everywhere — in homes and hotel lobbies — and the supposedly fictional Herald newspaper ensures the prime minister is ubiquitous. “Whether Mugabe receives a delegation from the United Nations Headquarters or goes to the rural areas to pick ticks off sheep, his photo appears on page one.”
Encounters with white people and their often unfounded suspicions concerning the new government bring racism to the surface and only serve to harden Ben’s views that Mugabe is a peacemaker being sabotaged by remnants of the old order.
Ben’s idealism of who Mugabe is begins to wear off after a professor urges him to investigate Tichasara’s death. The excessive wealth of ministers and atrocities being carried out by the army’s Fifth Brigade in the southern parts of the country in the name of flushing out dissidents also set Ben into ways he had not intended for his original research.
Ben is involved romantically with a former freedom fighter Florence Matshaka. He also mingles with lay people including the man in a cheap café who says to him; “We are all Zimbabweans now” referring to the supposed equality Independence should have brought for all races and tribes.
As Ben is sucked deeper into the past, so problems arise for him. His focus on Tichasara’s death is met with hostility from various influences. A visit to the southern part of the country reveals atrocities by the army that Ben naively attempts to raise to the international world via various news media.
Two encounters with Mugabe unravel Ben’s earlier admiration of him. An emerging police state in the country Ben calls “land of forgiveness” questions the notion of freedom. Were Zimbabweans ever free even post-Independence? A quote from a history class conducted by Ben with former freedom fighters in a remote area says much more: “Freedom is not . . . permanent. It comes and goes. You have it for a while then someone steals it away. And you fight for it again. This is how history goes.”
Shona speakers may find a few incorrect spellings in the text irritating.
For the first-time learner of Zimbabwe’s post-Independence history, We are All Zimbabweans Now offers a simple yet engaging platform. But for the rest, as it does for Ben, there are more questions than answers. Were all races and tribes in Zimbabwe ever equal or were there others more Zimbabwean than others? Who was behind Tongogara’s death? Would Zimbabwe have turned out differently if he was alive? But again, the mystery of Tongogara’s death is as old as urban legend and this explains why Kilgore chose the Tichasara fantasy to free himself from having to provide satisfactory answers for the mystery.
Mawarire is a senior sub-editor at the Mail & Guardian