1971; Heinemann, 1995

1971; Heinemann, 1995

Officially joining Kinna in A Celebration of Bessie Head July 6 – 12, 2013? ImageNations and Mary Okeke Reviews. And, unofficially, plenty more readers.

Readers meet Maru in the novel’s opening pages, but I love this description which comes later:

“He was a man who talked and walked slowly, with a languid grace, loosely swinging his long arms at his side. The people who surrounded him really merged into a background where there was little noise or upheaval.”

This is the kind of prose which reminds readers of the rhythm that words can hold. You can feel that languid grace, the swing of arms, the pattern of walking and talking in Maru’s particular way.

It is the kind of prose which reminds readers that what unfolds in the background, where there might be little noise or upheaval, can contain the seeds of revolution.

Certainly nobody expected the arrival of a young school-teacher in the remote, inland village of Dilepe to precipitate dramatic change. But the extraordinary is often cloaked in the ordinary.

But that’s disingenuous: Margaret Cadmore is not ordinary.

“The near perfect English accent and manners did not fit her looks. In fact, not one thing about her fitted another and she looked half like a Chinese and half like an African and half like God knows what.”

Margaret Cadmore could pass as the child of a white man, but she proclaims her identity clearly: “I am a Masarwa.” Though raised by a white woman, the young teacher is descended from the Masarwa, and even when others advise her to keep silent about this, even when others create a silence in which this lie could proliferate, the young teacher insists on her true identity.

And the price for her honesty?

“It was African. It was horrible. But wherever mankind had gathered itself together in a social order, the same things were happening. There was a mass of people with no humanity to whom another mass referred: Why, they are naturally like that. They like to live in such filth. They have been doing it for centuries.”

Maru owns the Masarwa as slaves, all of his 100,000 cattle and 50 cattle posts maintained by them.

“They sleep on the ground, near outdoor fires. Their only blanket is the fire. When the fire warms them on one side, they turn round and warm themselves on the other side. I have seen this with my own eyes. What will they do when they hear that a certain Masarwa in my village is treated as an equal of the Batswana and given a bed from my office?”

Maru recognizes the paper qualifications of this unusual woman, but he is unprepared for the change which her acceptance would herald. That noiseless background, that mass of people to whom another mass referred: there are expectations therein.

These expectations are embodied in other characters as well, but one can avoid all spoilers by referring to the description of the school principal, which also demonstrates Bessie Head’s succinct characterization and her way in which bold images are contained in the matter-of-fact style of her prose.

“The principal of the school belonged to that section of mankind which believed that a position demanded a number of exaggerated mannerisms. He kept his coat unbuttoned. He walked as if in a desperate hurry, which made his coat-tails fly out behind him. There might have been a time in his life when he had smiled naturally — say, when he was two years old. But he had a degree and a diploma and with it went an electric light smile. He switched it on and off.”

But the principal’s electric light smile is not enough to illuminate throughout the storms heralded in the novel’s opening paragraph.

“But throughout that hot, dry summer those black storm clouds clung in thick folds of brooding darkness along the low horizon. There seemed to be a secret in their activity, because each evening they broke the long, sullen silence of the day, and sent soft rumbles of thunder and flickering slicks of lightning across the empty sky. They were not promising rain. They were prisoners, pushed back, in trapped coils of boiling cloud.”

In their own way, the characters in this slim novel push back against those boiling clouds. Coercion and resistance, friends and rivals, tradition and revolution: the boundaries of politics, marriage, and class are examined and challenged in Maru.

Do you collect this series? Have you read any of Bessie Head’s works?