Sketches of a High Density Life
Title: Sketches of a High Density Life
Author: Wonder Guchu
Publisher: Weaver Press, 2005. Harare
Box A1922, Avondale, Harare.
Distributed in the UK by African Book Collective Ltd
The Jam Factory, 27 Park End Street
Oxford. OX1 1HU
Price: £6. 95
Short short stories have been described as peeping through a key hole. Only a fragment of a scene inside is visible. Like a glance, but you get the sense, an ambience. The image lingers, persists suspended in the mind like a jig-saw piece. How does it fit – in the mind or in the picture it is a part of? Wonder Guchu’s sketches or short short are not rough. They are like a reflection in a fragment of a broken mirror: each piece is true and fully formed.
Zimbabwe is not a happy place at present, and has not been for sometime. With fourteen key holes to look through, nine show images of death. The first one [243rd Street] is only about five hundred words long. It starts by presenting something very familiar. Foot steps in the dark outside tell us something is going on out there. We feel safe where we are, inside ourselves, inside our house. We try not to get involved, at least until it feels safe. What is safer than the company of other people in broad day light? In broad daylight we are curious and step outside, or press out from within ourselves, we explore. What do we find? An anonymous dead person, everyman. We are not surprised but we are shocked, saddened. It could be anyone, one of us, a friend, a relative an acquaintance: the brutality of it. It’s shocking. He, however, is anonymous; we don’t know how we are connected to him. We must gather our life and go on, not get involved, not turn our shock into anger and outrage. The police must gather him, or his remains. Not us. We don’t expect more of them. In fact we suspect them. They don’t try to do better. As everyone disperses to meet the remains of the day, all that is left is blood on the ground, justice betrayed. In five hundred words, a few strokes of the brush an image is created of life lived, and lost. All we can do is cover it up with pious words of the sanctity of life.
If you live in town you expect always to be cheated. One always blames oneself for appearing to be foolish enough to be cheated. But when one is trying to help, a decent enough human feeling of compassion for others, then ending up the victim of a trick is galling. Such stories are often told in ways that are humorous. Guchu’s stories are told in anger, ‘I felt bad.’ He says. ‘Harare had once again taken me for a ride.’ It does not leave room to engender feelings of compassion in future. The feeling of being wounded is raw. This depth of feeling is like the persistence of vision, scanning us into every flash story. Don’t expect to read the slim volume and put it down and think that it’s over.
I was disappointed that there were only fourteen stories. Wonder Guchu is reputed to have written hundreds of stories. For someone of his obvious skill, this is but a morsel.
Short – short stories have been likened to poems. The very tight structure, every word highly selected and the profundity or force of its rendering. It has also been compared to a joke. From the moment of its telling we anticipate the punch-line. Most of the success of a joke is in the unexpectedness of the punch line, the surprise. It is to the point and flashes rather like a thought, or like a camera arresting an action. Wonder Guchu’s punch lines are memorable, not in their surprise, but in the way they underline or emphasize how ordinary we make our lives, even faced with life changing events. WH Auden made much the same point in Musee des Beaux Arts:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone is else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along
We want suffering to mean something, to result in some change, to be significant, to be a mile stone. Actually suffering is everyday. It only becomes meaningful when we give it a meaning, like making it a life changing experience. Guchu’s flashes of life seem so grim because everyone is suffering on their own. Whether it is ‘Lunchtime in the Park’ or ‘Fading like a Flower’ or ‘Ward B4’. People do not connect with each other; they do not share their suffering or have a shared meaning of that suffering. So they cannot act together.
Very short – stories have been with us for as long as there have been stories. As a written genre they have tended to be overshadowed by the classical short story or the novel. Stories of less than about fifteen hundred words can be read during a short train or bus journey without feeling interrupted. The internet and the brief attention span of a busy life are well suited to this style. It may just promote reading among those who find the novel a task and poetry impenetrable. For me, these stories brought back the unadulterated reality of living in Harare – in a flash!
for The Zimbabwean
9 -15 September 2005.