Wednesday, April 28, 2010

4. “The Sun Between Their Feet. Collected African Stories Volume 2” by Doris Lessing

Year of first publication: 1973
Genre: collection of short stories
Country: UK / Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)

When I first bought this book I was excited, but then I started to read the first story and I was somehow disappointed: there was little Africa in “Spies I have known”. Of course I was wrong: there is a lot of Africa in this collection, but it’s not the kind of Africa you’d expect. The Sun Between Their Feet, in fact, details the life of white settlers in Southern Africa. You can often detect some superiority towards white Rhodesians (and Colonials in general) in her stories: she seems to think that they are provincial and conventional. What I adored about this book, however, is the quality of the writing, in other words Lessing’s gift for storytelling, which is what every author should have. In one of the book’s endorsements (in the version published by Harper Collins) Jacky Gillott from The Times says something I agree with: “Doris Lessing can take what appears to be commonplace, mere passing anecdote and turn it deftly until its inner light is released: one feels that she has gazed upon the stories in her mind until that peculiar angle of vision, the angle that pierces obliquely but clean to the heart of a thing, has finally been found”.
The first story fits nicely into the author’s Communist phase (read below). The narrator tells about some spies he has met in his life, but the main bulk of the story is about a man working for the central post office of Salisbury, the capital of Rhodesia. He’s assigned to read the mail for the censorship, and he also attends some meetings of the Left Club. His boss asks him to spy on the communists, but he’s too honest and can’t cope with the fact of lying to anybody. His substitutes are Harry and Dick. Dick is un-intellectual and thinks that the people at the Left Club are “unRodhesian”. He asks them if they think that communism will be good in a country like theirs that has to cope with the “white man’s burden”. Dick thinks in fact that “the natives” should not be advanced too fast for their own good. The communists of Rhodesia think that the wealth should be shared among the whole population of the country, but this excludes the black majority. They are abhorred by the idea that they should mix with them. Dick eventually goes on with his political career and becomes a Member of Parliament, an authority especially regarding “the natives”. “Spies I have known” is Lessing at her best. She describes without exasperation or sentimentalism the racism of the white settlers in Africa (the story could easily be set in South Africa and/or written by Nadine Gordimer).
Some of the other stories deal with the loneliness of women on big farms in the middle of the African veld and with their attempts to adapt to the rough life they are forced to live (“Lucy Grange”, “The Trinket Box”, “A Mild Attack on Locusts”), which is something that Lessing herself experienced in her life. Some other stories, instead, deal with childhood or adolescence in a way reminiscent of Janet Frame’s short fiction (“Traitors”, “The Words he Said”, “Flavours of Exile”). One of the stories I liked the most is “The Black Madonna”, maybe because one of the main characters is an Italian, like me. In the story, Michele, an Italian artist and a former war prisoner, is asked to build a fake German village for a demonstration of shell-fire in a small community of white settlers in Zambesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia). Michele is friend with a British officer who’s married to a white girl whom he seldom visits. Instead, he sleeps with some native girls. Michele is compared to “the natives” for his laziness, but actually he’s only eager to enjoy life, something that the British settlers are not able to do. For example, Michele is not ashamed of crying out of nostalgia for his country, while the stiff British officer cannot do that, until after he’s had a nervous breakdown. As a matter of fact, Michele builds the fake German village and even includes a church. Inside the church he paints a black Madonna, which shocks the Captain. It’s the halo that unsettles him, but also the fact that the picture reminds him of his favourite native girl. Michele teaches the Captain to let off of his emotions and to come to terms with the fact that his marital wishes didn’t come true. “The Black Madonna” is one of those deeply psychological stories that you need to interpret and reflect upon.
“Hunger”, however, at novella-length is in my opinion the most interesting piece of the collection. The main character is a black African man, Jabavu, who’s always hungry, not only for food but also for the life of the white man. He taught himself to read and decides to leave his poor village to find a job in the white man’s town. He walks for many days and he’s almost recruited by some people who want him to work in the mines of Johannesburg, but finally he reaches his destination. He manages to get a permit to seek job in town but gets involved with a beautiful girl called Betty who’s in a gang. After having been warned by a certain Mrs Kambusi who runs a shebeen, he runs away from her and goes on to meet Mr Mizi, a leader of the revolutionary movement. Jabavu likes Mr Mizi and his people, whom Mrs Kambusi calls “the people of light”. He wants to be like them, but he keeps on switching from “the people of light” to the gang (he’s a gifted thief and finds out that he can make a lot of money in that way). Jerry, the leader of the gang, is jealous of Jabavu and forces him to steal in Mr Mizi’s house. Jabavu, however, awakes Mr Mizi to warn him about the robber. This reminds me of Dickens’s Oliver Twist, to the point that I think the story could be read as a sort of African version of the novel (which also deals with social issues). “Hunger”, however, ends in a different way: Jabavu is arrested and Mr Mizi won’t help him in the trial. He’s redeemed anyway, because he finally feels part of a “we” in a way that was not allowed to him in the village. In other words, he’s become a man and his hunger has eventually gone.
By the way, it's curious how much the metaphore of hunger is recurrent in literature and cinema (just recently, I came across it in Anita Desai's Fasting, Feasting, in Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali and in Deepa Mehta's Water).

About the author: Doris Lessing was born of British parents in Persia (now Iran) in 1919 and was taken to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when she was five. She spent her childhood on a large farm there and got her education in Salisbury (now Harare). She got married and divorced twice before going to England for the first time, in 1949. She brought with her the manuscript of her first novel, The Grass is Singing, which was published in 1950 with outstanding success. Since then her international reputation not only as a novelist but as a non-fiction and short-story writer has flourished. Back in Rhodesia she became involved with the Left Book Club, a communist book club. Because of her campaigning against nuclear arms and South African apartheid she was banned from that country and from Rhodesia for many years. Her fiction is usually divided in three phases: the Communist theme (1944-1956), when she was writing radically on social issues, the psychological theme (1956-1969) and finally the Sufi theme, which she explored in a science-fiction series. Her switch to sci-fi was not popular with the critics, though. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007.

1 comment:

  1. I am always glad to read something new from you. You really do enlighten me. Thanks