New novel from the doyen of alienation

BY BRIAN CHIKWAVA
The title of the novel - Worm Head - announces that this is Bart Wolffe, actor, poet, and veteran Zimbabwean playwright. The Man In The Cupboard, Killing Rats, A Legacy of Stone, A Question Of Alienation, The Art Of Accidental Stains, Beast, Daughter Of Darkness, Easy Come Easy

Go, Two Men on A Bench etc; these are some of the many plays that Wolffe has penned and directed or appeared in. Wolffe’s plays stand out for their unflinching stare at issues of alienation and identity, and Worm Head is an apposite continuation of Wolffe’s exploration of being.
Worm Head is a story that can be read at two levels, one being that of the salvation, through love, of John Citizen, a schizophrenic Hararean who has been diagnosed as being ‘…possessed by a worm.’ As his psychiatrist says, this though ‘…is far beyond simple Freudian obsession, the complexity evidenced by the few scribbled images found on scraps of cigarette paper in his pocket….’
One has to agree with the psychiatrist that this is a tale that goes beyond possession by worms because at another level, Worm Head is an existential story that looks at the burden of whiteness in Zimbabwe: the angst and paranoia that has lodged itself at the core of the white identity. There is a pounding purposelessness about it, and Wolffe articulates it by gazing at the world through the troubled John’s eyes: “And what made Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe, anything special? The streets were filled with black ants, running round in random riot. Ants dressed in rags and colours. These ant-humans had no name, each face an echo of a tribe. He knew that the more they moved through the termitarium of the city, the more he was being spun into forgetfulness.” With John’s paranoid tendencies, one gets the impression, Wolffe is again magnifying and teasing out what probably resides in the heart of paranoid white Zimbabwean: for John, a stroll through the city can be a petrifying encounter with otherness – “…pedestrian faces in some strange game that pass him like undeclared enemies. That is, ones he has not yet identified. He does not know them and they do not know him, John, the citizen. Yet the challenges are there on strangers’ faces. Does he look that guilty, he wonders? Is it because he is white and this is black Africa?”
While the novel tackles angst and identity, albeit obliquely, the narrative thread that holds it together is that of John Citizen’s fragile relationship with Susan, a psychiatric nurse.
At the beginning of the novel, John is an institutionalised man struggling with his illness, but hope of any escape from his situation lies in Susan, who gradually becomes obsessed with him the more she continues to secretly read his diary. While her professional relationship with John becomes less and less of a straitjacket thing, it begins to change both patient and nurse. Susan has ethical issues to deal with: if she fails to live up to her obligation to uphold the patient-nurse relationship she will find herself on a slippery slope. On the other hand, John’s recovery clearly hangs on her tearing the rule book apart.
Wolffe’s novel, which clearly makes use of his playwright talents, is a fascinating treatise on alienation and a fitting addition to Zimbabwe’s literary tradition.

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