Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 5, 2019

House of Stone, by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

It took longer than it should have to read House of Stone by Zimbabwean author Novuyo Rosa Tshuma.  Weird, confusing, but fascinating too, it seems to be grounded in an oral storytelling tradition with a narrator who’s pulling the strings in an anarchic sort of way.  Zamani is definitely in charge of the narrative, breaking in every now and again to confide in the reader that he is orchestrating events in the present while extracting from unwilling witnesses their stories of the past.  But he is also manipulating the reader in order to gain sympathy for himself…

The story begins with the disappearance of 19 year-old Bhokasi.  His parents, Abed and Agnes are distraught (as any parents would be in the chaos of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe) so they are vulnerable to Zamani’s upbeat assurances that all will be well, even though he knows full well that Bhokasi was hauled into a police van during a demo.  He doesn’t tell them that because he is scheming to become their adopted son…

According to the Bantu philosophy of Ubuntu, the belief in a universal bond of sharing involves a communal pedigree.  Each person, Zamani tells us, needs a hi-story, and must be able to trace his lineage through two generations, to a grandfather.  And as the would-be revolutionary Thandi explains to her would-be lover, their stories should be told:

“And now, the valour of our people and the glory of the Mthwakazi Nation lives on not in any history book, or in any official account, where we are nothing but savages without culture, without history or glory or anything worth mentioning or passing on,” she said, pressing her hand to her chest.  “I heard the stories from my father, passed down to him by his father, my grandfather, and which I shall one day pass down to my children.” (p.53)

But Zamani does not know his lineage.  He was brought up by Uncle Fani after the death of his mother, and the imposed collective silence about the atrocity in which she died means that he does not even know how she died, or more ominously, who his father was.  Abed does not know who his father was either, and the suggestion that it might be a neighbouring white farmer sends him into alcoholic rages and violence against his wife Agnes.  These people are emblematic of the way Zimbabwe’s violent pre- and post-colonial history is at odds with its ancient tribal traditions.

The past was an overwhelming presence, too present and not past, as it should have been, cannibalising our present, mutating our future. (p.321)

Zamani’s scheme to become part of the Mlambo family means that he has to learn their long-suppressed secrets. (And keep his own).  Wangling his way in as a lodger, he lurks like a spider spinning a web in his room, plotting and planning ways of persuading or bullying or tricking Abed and Agnes into revealing their traumatic memories.  Tech-savvy, he stores their information on his Mac and in a Red Album; cunning as the leaders he despises, he blackmails almost everyone into giving him what he wants.

It was hard work reading this novel, especially since it also has scenes of confronting violence and appalling cruelty.  It’s not the light-hearted book implied by its opening pages. Yet I liked the cheeky upbeat voice of the narrator even though he was up to no good, and I felt for him each time he uncovered some of the ghastly events in his surrogate family’s history.  He succeeds in generating the reader’s sympathy because he has no family, and he so desperately wants to be part of one.  Representing the uncountable number of peoples around the world who have been left isolated and adrift by war and armed conflict, Zamani does not know how to make a new family and his society has no process for reintegrating people like him, who do not belong to anyone, anywhere.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who keeps up with events in post-colonial Africa that Tshuma is caustic about contemporary Zimbabwe: through her intemperate and hyperbolic narrator, she excoriates government corruption and thuggery, shambolic services, enduring poverty and the sanitising of the past.  This trenchant criticism seems rather brave to me because even though Mugabe has at last been replaced, the new President Emmerson Mnangagwa had some involvement in the Gukurahundi genocide which is referenced repeatedly in the novel.

House of Stone is a stunning book which deserves to be widely read.

PS 5/1/19 By coincidence RN’s Big Ideas broadcast today a Reith lecture which included discussion about how hard it is for countries to reconcile after civil war.

Author: Novuyo Rosa Tshuma
Title: House of Stone
Publisher: Atlantic Books, 2018, 374 pages
ISBN: 9781786493620
Source: Bayside Library


Responses

  1. Sounds interesting Lisa I know what you mean about taken time to read sometime it’s just a rhythm in the writing slows you down

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well THERE’S a question! How long SHOULD any book take to read?

    Seriously though, sounds interesting – i like the sound of the voice perhaps counterpointing the content. And, I love the cover.

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    • Well, it wouldn’t normally take me six days to read a novel of 374 pages, that’s only an average 60 pages a day. The trouble was, it was so confusing – and probably intentionally so – because of the identity issues… he doesn’t know who people are and nor do we. And two characters have the same name, born 18 years apart but it takes a while before he finds that out.
      Plus it took all my self-control not to get out of bed and google some of the historical events and people because I didn’t know or understand much of Zimbabwean history.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That sounds like a tough read – and I followed your link to the massacre – but it also makes clear why we need literature from oppressed peoples, not just about them, worthy as that might be. Perhaps you can’t begin to understand a people until you’ve been exposed to their black humour (pun unintended!).

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    • I’ve certainly learned a lot from this book, I’m really glad I read it. And I hope I haven’t given the impression that I was going to give up on it. That was never something I contemplated.

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  4. i haven’t read any book from Zimbabwe and this one looks interesting.
    its amazing that the first thing child is told to memorize his lineage which means remembering your 30 grandfathers name but also with this knowledge you are told which tribes you should be wary of.
    i feel Tribalism is what makes African society more adept to calamities and survive but also one of the reasons what keeps African countries unstable for long term development.
    i really love reading your blogs Lisa

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  5. […] Review:  Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers […]

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  6. […] Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, House of Stone, see my review […]

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