Harare North: the story tellers task

George Orwell and Graham Green both saw the role of the writer as one who questions and critiques the establishment, the State etc – something which Robert McCrum [writing in the Guardian] fears has been lost to mediocrity and market leaving Britain in a state of “creative bankruptcy.

The storyteller’s task, Greene declared, was “to act as the devil’s advocate”. Born in 1904, the son of a headmaster, Greene was a child of his generation. He distrusted authority, loathed the state and nurtured a visceral hatred of officialdom. His veneration of disloyalty was unique to his psyche, but it was shared by his contemporary, George Orwell. In Why I Write, Orwell declared: “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie I want to expose.”

Orwell was more of an artist than he liked to let on, but both he and Greene — not alone in the last century — saw the writer’s vocation to be a protestant in a catholic society; to see the virtues of the communist in a capitalist state, and vice versa; above all, to elicit sympathy and understanding for those who lie outside the boundaries of conventional approval. The writer’s duty, said Greene, was to be “a piece of grit in the state machinery”. This vital contrarian instinct has deep roots in the English intellectual tradition. Tom Paine once wrote: “We must guard even our enemies against injustice.”

I fear it is not only Britain which is failing in “exposing the lie” or unpacking the truth. Harare North” by Brian Chikwava is the second of the last two books that seek to “expose the lies”. Arriving in London from Zimbabwe, the unnamed “native African” speaks the magic words “asylum” and thus he begins his life as one of Britain’s millions of “illegals” from across the world. Those who live in daily fear of “break[ing] your disguise”, deportation, humiliation at failing to send the hard earned graft back home. The one’s who service the country’s towns and cities as cleaners, dishwashers, daily labourers, factory workers exploited for £2.45 an hour graft before tax – many earn less.

The narrator, an ex member of Mugabe’s brute squad, the Green Bombers, [which he constantly tries unsuccessfully to justify] is purposeful in his task which is simple enough, to earn the money to settle his debts at home – $5,000 and settle his late mother’s spirit. He initially stays with his cousin and wife before moving to Brixton to live along with several other Zimbabweans, his childhood friend Shingi. Daily life consists of negotiating the underworld of those who live in hiding which requires a creativity way beyond those of us who have red passports or green ones with the right stamps. Jobs come and go, money comes and disappears, fear of opening doors, fear of police on the streets, heads down and combing supermarket dustbins for food past its sell by date all of which is underpinned by racism.

There is much despair and wretchedness but Chikwava makes the book readable by introducing a character who is full of wit and optimism, a survivor rather than a victim. The narrator cleverly explains his cousin’s wife disdain for his arrival in Harare North [London].

“But that’s how all them people from home behave when they is in Harare North; sometimes you talk to them on the phone asking if they don’t mind if you come and live with them and they don’t say ‘no’ because they don’t want you to think that they is selfish. They always say ‘…..OK, just get visa and come…..’ when they know that the visa is where everyone hit the wall because the British High Commission don’t just give visa to any native who thinks he can flag down a jet plane, jump on it and fly off to Harare North, especially when they notice that people get them visitors visa and then on landing in London they do this style of claim asylum……”

Chikwava uses the street English of Harare mixed with south London slang which adds layers to the thought process of the narration full of pathos, mischief and sometimes very threatening and crude often running in parallel. One minute you have empathy for the character the next disgust for his callousness. But ultimately this is a life of hustlers trying to survive poverty and racism as well as a precarious status. One must do what has to be done, he is careful not to break the law, and pray you make it back home instead of ending in a morgue forever forgotten. There is a price and Chikwava exposes the lies which surround the under employed, those living on the extreme margins of society. At the same time he exposes the unpleasant truth of the Green Bombers and life in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe – all are shades of grey.

“Harare North is a big con. We have already put many Mars bars inside people’s pockets, and now look…. Does anyone have any question? Them migrants fidget and grind they teeth; the foreman have hit they heads and get them out of gear and they is not able to say anything”

UPDATE: Interview with Brian Chikwava via Cassava Republic