‘The Novel Citizen’

Very few people noticed him, or if they did, they simply didn’t care. Beggars and vagrants are

Ignatius Tirivangani Mabasa
Ignatius Tirivangani Mabasa

Harare’s landscape. I saw him sitting against a large pillar that supported the verandah of a shop downtown. The floor was dusty and littered with rubbish. His skin was unusually dark as if it had been smoked by tyre fumes. He was shivering. It was an unforgivingly cold day and yet all he wore was a pair of tight, blue, dirty shorts. He hugged himself closely, perhaps too closely, so that even I felt the pain of his cold taut body.

I took off my jacket and the chilly weather hit me with its calloused knuckles. I asked myself if what I’d done was not one of those impulsive, irrational actions that will be later regretted. But I felt pity for him. I walked over and greeted the vagrant, but all he did was mumble a reply. He had three fresh open wounds on his hunched back that looked like violent maul marks. They must have been painful because they were weeping silently. He looked young – perhaps thirty-five. His hair was unkempt and there were three unlit matchsticks poked into it.

He seemed oblivious to the goings-on around him.

‘Are you not very cold?’ Mine was a stupid question. It was very obvious that he was freezing. I was relieved when he didn’t answer.

‘You need something warm,’ I continued, ignoring the owlish expressions of the Saturday morning shoppers who cast passing glances at me that seemed to say, ‘You’re an idiot to talk to such a person!’ Generally, most people think vagrants are mad, violent and unpredictable.

‘Here, take this jacket. It’ll keep you warm,’ I said, offering him my sheepskin-lined corduroy jacket. ‘You can keep it.’

‘I don’t need one. I’m okay,’ he replied in an unnaturally guttural voice. I was surprised, not by his voice, but by his refusing a jacket when he was wearing so little and was clearly very cold.

‘Look here shamwari, you need something warm. See how you’re shivering. This cold is not good for you; you’ll get pneumonia.’

For the first time he raised his head and looked at me. There was a strange fear and sadness in his eyes, which were like those of a butchered cow, its tongue foolishly protruding.

‘Take the jacket. Please.’ I was beginning to feel stupid with my hands outstretched, offering up a garment that blew forlornly in the cold air between us.

‘No,’ he said in a decisive voice that made me realise he would never accept the gift, no matter how well intentioned. ‘Okay, shamwari, as you wish. But if I may ask, what are you doing out here in the open?’

‘I should be asking you why I’m here. Do I deserve to be here?’ His voice was spiced with anger. He was not looking at me but neither was he looking at anything in particular.

I didn’t know what to say. I realised I’d asked without thinking and my question was insensitive. To save face, I said, ‘You see, I think everybody must have a home, a family, friends, relatives. You cannot sit here forever in this cold weather. Where do you come from? Where are your people?’

‘I’m a character from a novel.’ His calm reply astonished me, making me wonder if all the quizzical looks I’d been receiving from passersby had been justified. This fellow must surely be nuts!

‘A novel? What novel? What do you mean? Whose novel?’ I swallowed as I tried to digest his dubious, seemingly ridiculous statement. ‘I come from a novel by Judas Zino called The Dead are not Dead.’

I knew all Judas Zino’s books, including his last one, which I had reviewed for a local newspaper, but the man was speaking of a title of which I’d never heard. I was not sure whether to continue with the conversation or conclude it before I was sucked into a treacherous vortex of vagrant mysteries. Yet, curiosity urged me to push the door to this man’s heart and soul a little wider.

‘I don’t understand. Do you mean that there’s a character based on your life in Zino’s novel?’ ‘No. I’ve escaped from the pages of the book itself.’

I was fascinated by his strange revelation. I needed time to process his words, yet there was a small inner voice whispering, ‘I’m warning you, leave this mad vagrant alone before you become entangled.’ I paid no attention to it though I felt ambivalent.

‘If you’re a character from …’ I hesitated a little. ‘…er this novel, as you say, then why are you here? How did you escape from the pages of the book into the real world?’

He looked at me witheringly as if to say, ‘Do you call this the real world? You must be joking!’ We eyed each other, then he asked, suddenly looking very serious, ‘Do you really want to hear my story?’

I nodded. It was the best I could do because my mouth was not ready to say the word ‘yes’ and volunteer myself to hearing this stranger’s story. Sometimes in life we commit ourselves to seemingly insignificant things such as listening to someone’s life history, only to end up casseroled in the plot pot.

‘Sit down!’ His voice was a command. I sat down next to him on the dirty verandah. The floor was so cold that I could feel my bottom preparing to sneeze! I wondered what my wife would say if she found me talking to this filthy vagrant. I did not sit too close to him. His body had a pungent, fishy smell and besides, people stampeding down the pavement in front of us were looking at me quizzically. Human eyes can sometimes bite.

Then he spoke, sounding like somebody reading from an invisible but sacred book. ‘Writers are merely brokers labelled geniuses and credited for meddling with our world. They pry into our lives and purport to create people, but when the characters become alive, like Frankenstein, they don’t know what to do. Why? Because the characters want their freedom while the writer wants to control.’ His sigh was very sad.

Then he continued, ‘Most writers are weak. They can’t stand being challenged by the characters they think they’ve created. They want control. There is no democracy in novels – we’re victims of the penwielding writer because through the pen the writer has the power to determine what you say, even if it is not what you wanted to say.’

‘You mean putting words in your mouth?’ I wanted to assure him that I was listening.

‘Yes, but it’s even more heinous than that.’ He looked at me with bayonet eyes. ‘Through the pen, Judas wanted to determine what I thought, but I strongly resisted. Then, he felt threatened because he said I was free-spirited and larger than life and so he resorted to murder to eliminate me.’

He sniffed before resuming. ‘There’s blood on the hands of writers. They kill characters without even giving them a decent burial or allowing the other characters to ask questions or give them a period to mourn their colleagues. I think writers should leave creation matters to God because through their so-called creativity, they are controlling what we say and do – even how we dress and when we must sin. That makes novels unexciting for us, the citizens of the novel. Take my case, for example. Judas was always setting me up, expecting me to be grateful for being included in his fiction, yet I am the person who helped him tell our story because, as I told him, we, the characters, have a better understanding of the world, which he is struggling to portray, because we live there. We are citizens of the novel – even when Judas retires to bed, we the characters continue talking and living our lives.

Life does not end in the writer’s full stop. A writer is merely a conduit. This is why I arranged for the others not to speak or do anything, and what was the result? Poor Judas was stuck. He told his friends and his editor that he was suffering from writer’s block. It was not a block, it was a strike by the citizens of the novel – some way of trying to make him listen to and respect us!’

About the Author

Ignatius Tirivangani Mabasa is a poet, novelist and storyteller who mainly writes in Shona. He has two published collections of poems in Shona: Tipeiwo Dariro (1993), and Muchinokoro Kunaka (2004) and a satirical novel, Mapenzi (1990) which was nominated one of Zimbabwe’s 75 Best Books of the 20th century by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. His second novel Ndafa Here? (2008) won the Zimbabwe Book Publishers’ Association award in 2008. In 2010, Mabasa was writer/storyteller in residence at the University of Manitoba in Canada where he was finalising his third Shona novel, Imbwa yemunhu, which was published in 2013.

Post published in: Arts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *