David Mungoshi’s novel, the National Art Merit Award winning “The Fading Sun” is about both living and dying. Very few novels from Zimbabwe will come close to when it comes to exploring a miscellany of human emotions and experiences in one breath.
The book is a melting pot of sadness, bottomless joy, puzzlement, memories, regrets, fear . . . and the whirlpool goes on. A woman in menopause stops in her tracks to take stock of her life. From the leeward side, Mary has more than her fair share of maladies. Mary’s skin is wrinkled.
Mary suffers from bouts of migraine and arthritis and she has had each of her three deliveries by caesarean section. Mary has lost one of her ovaries early in life. Mary has a thyroid problem which has led to thyroidechtomy and she lost one of her breasts through mastectomy and she wears the breast prosthesis.
Sadly, the surviving breast is also deteriorating and the pain is just unbearable. Mary’s sun is slowly fading.
She makes you realise that much of living, and dying too, go on inside of the individual. Towards the end, she becomes very mystical like that woman who charms and is charmed in return by the spider in “A Passage to India”.
You may contrast that with Mary’s belching middle class husband, Moth. Mary and the children nickname him Moth, an abbreviation for “Man of the house” and it is said “he wore his dubious title like an invisible dog collar”.
Mary thinks that Moth is a “heavily” stupid fellow.
You see him playing golf endlessly in serene terrains.
He spots trendy cross belts. He has too flat a tummy for a man his age and means and he has never seen the doctor in all his life! You may want to think that from Mary’s point, this story is a tragedy. But you may see that she has also had the best of times.
Mary has a solid countryside background.
She has roasted maize cobs by the fireside. She has heard the hyena laugh. She has bathed in rivers, among some of the most physically well-endowed African women. She is one of the very few first black Rhodesian women to pursue education up to university level.
Subsequently, she is the first woman to own and drive a car in her village. She ends up watching the sunsets from a verandah of her house in a posh suburb.
Above all, she feels deeply about who she is. Her mind wanders across the ages and if you want to reminisce, then she is your soul mate. Midway, you realise that this is a novel that you cannot take all in, with a one-off reading.
The layers are many: it navigates from history, geography, anthropology, to politics and so on.
This novel must have taken David Mungoshi lots of meditation (and fasting too, perhaps) that when such a script was finally released, he must have felt like collapsing from the sudden release.
In addition, David Mungoshi uses rigorous language and you may suggest that this story must be sung with the accompaniment of an instrument. This book pitches much higher than what Mungoshi achieved with his debut novel, “Stains on the wall” (1992).
It is the kind of English language with the rigor you can only associate with the other good non-English writers writing in English, like Joseph Conrad and Ayi-Kwei Armah. Maybe the more complex issues in this novel happen in the realm of the unsaid.
Mary is certain that her Moth is fast becoming indifferent and contentedly growing away from her. She (unconsciously) envies and subsequently, loathes her husband for not ageing as fast as her. Yes, a partner’s non-stop good health can be unsettling!
But is Moth to blame for being able to move through life, eating and drinking and carrying on like the devil’s machine? Should he be condemned for gradually losing passion for the woman who is now very different from the girl that he fell for many years before?
This novel leaves one with the question: How much married are all married people? The cover (designed by Ivor Hartmann) is multi dimensional.
As you meet it, you think it crawls to life! And the eyes (of a woman?) glance back into your soul from a faraway place, near the setting sun beneath which two elephants move together (or towards each other).
And you realise that nothing will ever beat an African countryside at sunset. Maybe that is why Mary thinks that “the world is most beautiful as you leave it.”
Indeed, this is much more than a cancer story.
David Mungoshi was born in Bulawayo in the enriching vicinity of some of the key exponents of township jazz music of Zimbabwe. Some of his major literary works are “Broken Dream and other Stories” and “Stains on the wall”.
His forthcoming novel is called “Catalogues”.