‘Nothing less than a firestarter’ – The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

pgtbomIn an increasingly small world, Eurocentrism endures. From Dar-es-Salaam to Manila and Mumbai, young hearts are just as likely to be captivated by a cultural import – be that Manchester United or Miley Cyrus’s twerking behind – than by something/someone local. That this exchange is, well…not an exchange, means that for those few artefacts travelling in the opposite direction, the dominant reference point will likely be their ‘otherness’. And whether they then be seen as exotic or informative or even dangerous, that filter can obscure the underlying art.

Petina Gappah is a Zambia-born and Zimbabwe-raised lawyer, with degrees from Cambridge University, Graz University in Austria and the University of Zimbabwe. The Book of Memory, her debut full length work, introduces her as a novelist – one of the highest calibre. The story – of an Albino woman on death-row in a Zimbabwean prison, for the alleged murder of a white man with whom she lived – is nothing less than a firestarter. And as the first-person narration unfolds, switching between the retelling of her life’s story to the present-day, it sets up a classic cliffhanger: will she get reprieved, or will she “…swing from a rope and hang until my neck lengthens to breaking point or it snaps and my bowels open and my life is extinct and I am given a pauper’s funeral and an unmarked grave.”

The above excerpt illustrates the understated nature of the narration: in lacking a dramatic ‘voice’, Gappah has tempered her protagonist to contrast the drama inherent in the story. It’s the perfect strategy – one which Gappah executes impeccably.

But despite Gappah’s on-the-record objection to being labelled the ‘Voice of Zimbabwe’, an undeniable strength of the book – from the perspective of a British reader – will be the insight (or perceived insight) it gives into that country. Gappah knows this and indeed plays on this, sharing a hidden world with her ‘international’ audience. On her Albino condition, the narrator tells us:

“..I am a black woman who is imbued not with the whiteness … of privilege, but of … ridicule and fakery. A ghastly whiteness..”

The crime committed; the path the protagonist’s life took in leading her to the now dead man’s door. Even her fellow female inmates, which include someone who defrauded the International Olympic Committee and another who defrauded a European embassy – for the uninitiated, the temptation will be to take everything as some precious clue about an authentic Zimbabwe:

“..there is apparently no easier way to raise money from donors than to present a child, female and barefoot, with a plea for money to ward off all the dreadful things that could happen to it … It was an easy fraud to pull off. All that the embassy required of grant recipients was a quarterly report of how the money was spent, and these she provided, complete with glowing pictures of Girl Children smiling for the cameras..”

Any Cop?: For the first-world reader, The Book of Memory is an irresistible open-sesame onto the unknown. And why not… There is nothing shameful or laudatory about this per se, save to note that the book’s other merits – of which there are a veritable army – become vulnerable to being obscured by this one dominating asset.  But conversely, decrying the ‘Voice of Zimbabwe’ tag whilst peddling the country’s dirty laundry, is a dangerous game to play. Though perhaps the issue would never arise, were Gappah not the only gig in town. But that’s Eurocentrism for you…

Tamim Sadikali


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