of Beasts and Beings
Of Beasts and Beings is the second novel by Zimbabwean writer Ian Holding. I was haunted by his debut a few years ago, Unfeeling, in which the protagonist, sixteen-year-old Davey Baker, witnesses the murder of his parents by Mugabe's followers who have come to 'reclaim' their farm. Davey is taken in by neighbours and then goes off to school but he escapes and sets off on a journey across Africa to return home to his family's farm. The prose style in Unfeeling was spare and yet evoked, contrary to the title, much feeling. Whilst there was undoubtedly sympathy for Davey, I also saw the arrogance of the white man, which left me feeling uneasy. It is an arrogance - perhaps the blind spot - that the second main character of Of Beasts and Beings possesses. It is arranged as a split narrative; two stories running parallel - it opens on an unnamed figure who is desperately searching for food when he is lassoed and taken captive. The journey that follows, where this figure is eventually kept as a slave by a man, two boys and a pregnant woman who the figure is tasked with pulling arduously on a makeshift cart, is akin to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It is a dystopic journey. Militia men who are looking to pump bullets are to be avoided as they sometimes have to find refuge in bushes as helicopters loom overhead or a jeep races by. Holding superbly conveys the relentlessness of the journey. He is a gifted writer. The range of descriptions needed in order not to fall into repetition in a story such as this is a huge task, one that he rises to impeccably. Apart from McCarthy I also likened it to a combination of J.M. Coetzee's The Life and Times of Michael K (who pushes a shopping trolley through a dystopic African landscape) and the relentless journey without hope of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The second narrative is that of a character named Ian, a teacher in his thirties who lives in his old family home. His family, parents and brothers have long since left their troubled country for London and Australia. Ian himself is serving out his resignation at a school for what seems to be privileged white boys. He is taking up a post at a school in South Africa - an attempt at staying within 'his' continent. Yet Ian too, whilst frustrated at being a white man in Mugabe's Zimbabwe and feeling the prejudice, also conveys the arrogance I mentioned. For instance, he has two servants, Sixpence and Tobias. The latter has served his family for the best part of forty years - before Ian was born. Yet when Tobias is bitten in the leg and it becomes infected and gradually worsens we have to endure the farce of Tobias having to beg for his employer to help him get it treated. Ian is impatient with the old man, palms him off with disprin. It is telling when, one day Tobias doesn't bring him his breakfast tea or other meals and he ventures to his separate accommodation to see where he is. It is the first time Ian has entered Tobias's accommodation. He is alarmed at the conditions in which his servants live on his property - an old hut by the sounds of it, with blackened walls. He chides Tobias, who is in bed, unable to move his leg, and tells him he must sort out his hut. He is eventually forced to take him to a clinic, where Tobias is again fobbed off - this time with a pack of Paracetamol - while Ian sits in his car listening to classical music. Tobias eventually leaves his employ to return to his 'homeland' and to seek out help for his leg from the traditional 'witch' doctors. Ian represents all that is wrong with the situation between blacks and whites in Zimbabwe. It is only when other narrative progresses towards the end of the book that the figure who has been taken hostage on the journey through hell is revealed and as Ian's narrative progresses there is an increased awareness. But is Ian's awareness of the culpability of the whites necessary to bring the novel to a more acceptable close? I'm thinking the story was chilling whilst Ian was unaware and unquestioning of his role as a white man and was a more powerful statement. Ian Holding is very talented and I look forward to many more of his books. I was surprised to learn that he is only 32. He still lives in Zimbabwe, in his home town of Harare.