Can books satiate a hungry individual?

Tanaka Chidora Literature Today
One of the saddest parts of a novel that I read narrated a character’s dislocation from the physical and social world of human interaction and his attempt to stitch back together his existence by [re]locating himself in the world of books. This part comes from Tendai Huchu’s novel, “The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician” (2014). The character is the Maestro.

The Maestro’s hunger is captured thus: “The scary thing, the Maestro realised, was not the falling, but what happened after the fall. Nothing, not even the nothing of the darkness of night or the nothing of emptiness; those were something at least, those were nothings that could be measured by the absence of a particular thing, and so they had an essence on them, a core beyond the event horizon. Not this, this was an incomprehensible Nothing, the nothingness of non-existence, beyond consciousness, a Nothingness that was not something … This for the Maestro was the reason he read these books, to try to make sense of life … (p. 43). This lack of essence, in himself, in the world and in the people that surround him, makes him befriend books.

The Maestro’s intimate relationship with books is captured thus: “Almost without thinking, he ran his fingers along the cold spine of a book. Of late, he found himself preferring the company of his books to the companionship of people. Tatyana was virtually his only friend, if he could call her that.

“Everyone else has forgotten him or given up on him once he’d withdrawn, almost as though he’d quietly sunk into quicksand that no one else could see … There was something safe in the white pages of a book. A book could be opened and set aside. It could be read and reread, each time a new, deeper meaning deciphered. People, well, people were harder to read. So much was hidden in the twitch of the brow, a sweaty palm, the tenor of the voice, subtle gestures, and the things left unsaid. People were moving, dynamic, inconsistent in a million ways” (p. 44).

The irony is that the satiation that the Maestro is looking for finds momentary fulfilment, but soon, like the essence that he is looking for, it too eludes him so that one day, after discovering that these books were just a “jumble of words with which he had no connection”, he burned them and “curled up on the carpet and cried himself to sleep” (p. 173, 175). The Maestro fails to find a place for himself in books. They fail to stitch him back by giving him back the essence, the elixir that he is looking for.

Elsewhere, we have such characters who try to recover that essence by creating books or by reading the books that others have created. In “The House of Hunger” (Dambudzo Marechera, 1978) writing seems to be the only “stitches” available to put back together the fragments of a disintegrating individual and society.

Thus, the poems the narrator writes are symbolic stitches: “Afterwards they came to take out the stitches from the wound of it. And I was whole again. The stitches were published. The reviewers made obscene noises. It is now out of print. But those stitches, those poems …” (p. 53). A lot of his friends, however, fail to make anything out of the stitches, echoing Harry‘s words of hopelessness: “What else is there?” (p. 22).

Philip tries to write a lot of negritudinal poetry but instead ends up with a melancholic and suicidal mood: “There were 15 poems in all; his own. They expressed forms of discontent, disillusionment and outrage. Clarity, it seemed, had been sacrificed for ugly mood. Even the praises of ‘Blackness’ had a sour note in them.

“One felt live coals hissing in a sea of paranoia. Gloomy nights stitched by needles of existentialism. Black despair lit up by suicidal vision” (p. 74). It looks like the narrator is the only one who succeeds in stitching together some poems and short stories whose style is like a million flying fragments. The hunger remains still.

To assuage his hunger, the narrator dives headlong into the world of books. The physical world has failed to end his soul-hunger. There is no security at home. When the narrator’s mother smacks him for speaking to her in English, and the father completes the violent cacophony of fists with a tooth-shattering punishment, the narrator’s alienation becomes even more profound. There is no warmth in human relations or from fellow human beings.

In this respect, art becomes a way of stitching together a fragmented psyche. Marechera seems to have constructed art out of the chaos of life. “The House of Hunger” seems to be a product of the chaos of the colonial experience. But it is more than that. It is also a product of a hungry and angry artist. There is a Fanonian tinge in “The House of Hunger”.

Art is also some sort of escape from a maddening reality. Words clashing on the pages of the novella work like the storm that exorcised the narrator of the maddening assault of the ghosts who constituted the narrator’s nervous breakdown:

“When Harry and I returned to the dormitories we went to the showers and there the miracle happened — I almost cried with glee. They had gone! I could feel it. They had erased themselves into the invisible airs of the storm. The demon had been exorcised and gone into the Gadarene swine. For the first time in my life I felt completely alone. Totally on my own. It is as if a storm should rage in one’s mind …” (pp. 47-48). It is, however, unclear whether the exorcism is permanent, just like the Maestro’s transient [re]location in the world of books.

An analysis of the style of the novella verifies this purging function of Marechera’s art. The syntax is disconnected and sometimes incomplete as if to represent the disconnectedness of the black Rhodesians in the colonial time-space they find themselves in.

I find myself feeling empty too. I find myself taking down cobwebbed and dusty scripts and tearing them apart in anger. Sometimes I find myself obsessed with the books that I read; other times I find myself wanting to run away from them. I try not to be a stranger to this world. I really do try . . .

Source :

The Herald

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