This debut short-story collection by Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah is a wonderful read. The tone of each one is perfect: the language is consistently beautiful but also completely natural. You get to know the characters very quickly, through small details artfully described, and are left at just the right moment to move on to the next tale.
The title gives a clue to what’s in store. “Elegy” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A song of lamentation, esp. a funeral song or lament for the dead”. This book feels like Petina Gappah’s lament for the Zimbabwe she grew up in, a Zimbabwe that has been scarred by political corruption, economic chaos and the scourge of AIDS. I can’t say whether she means to say that the Zimbabwe she knew is dead. Of course the country endures, the people endure, and that’s what these stories are about. Perhaps the lament is not so much for the country itself as for the people who have suffered so much. In any case, there’s a deep sadness underlying all these stories, and there’s a death or a funeral in most of the stories.
Yet the strange thing is that there’s also a lot of humour, and the humour often goes hand-in-hand with the sadness. There’s the old carpenter who is cheated out of his pension and wins a dancing contest, the diplomat who is new to email and loses thousands of euros to the old lottery scam, and the bizarre goings-on at the Hotel California. In many of the stories, the humour is very real and genuinely funny, and yet it feels like a thin veneer which Gappah deliberately lets slip every now and then, exposing the horror underneath.
My favourite story, though, has no real humour. It’s called ‘Something Nice from London’ and tells of a family waiting at the airport for the twice-weekly flight from London. The title refers to the hope that relatives in the UK will either return or send back money or gifts for their families. With the collapse of the economy, a few UK pounds is millions of Zimbabwe dollars, and can help a family to survive. But it gradually becomes clear that what this particular family is waiting for is the coffin of their son, Peter. And what follows is a tragic, drawn-out description of the anxious waiting for weeks and weeks, interspersed with explanations of what brought Peter and the family to this point, all the sacrifices and mistakes and disappointments. It’s important that the body returns because the whole extended family is staying at their house awaiting the funeral, and they literally can’t afford to feed them much longer.
It’s probably not a representative story to pick – the others, as I said, had more humour mixed in with the tragedy, and I think it’s that mixture that makes the book successful. But this particular story really got to me more than all the others. There’s just a real power to that image of the family waiting at the airport, surrounded by all the other people waiting for ‘Something nice from London’ while they are waiting for the coffin of their son.
Which brings me back to the tone. When describing suffering, and especially when interspersing it with humour, there are a lot of pitfalls to avoid: melodrama, tastelessness, didacticism and exploitation to name but a few. Gappah skips effortlessly through the minefield, achieving just the right tone in every story. It’s a tremendous achievement, and I look forward to reading more from her.