“Rotten Row” is the nickname given to the bustling street in Harare that is home to the criminal division of the Magistrates Court. In this collection of interconnected stories, Petina Gappah takes these courts as her subject and through the prism of its legal system paints a vivid portrait of contemporary Zimbabwe.
While at times ranging further afield – to England, Sierra Leone, and to various regions within Zimbabwe – all of these stories concern conflicts that as Gappah puts it “end up finding their only resolution at the courts”. This means many of them involve deaths and violent crimes. A “kombi tout” accused of stealing a phone is beaten to death by a crowd, a hairdresser is killed by her boyfriend, a victim of political violence in a regional village apparently haunts the villagers. But this is not a cheerless work. Gappah is a very funny writer, with a good ear for the wit of local vernacular and a keen eye for the absurdities and ironies of Zimbabwean life.
The stylistic and formal range of these stories is impressive. Among more conventional stories are stories in the form of legal proceedings, post-mortem reports and threads on online forums. Far from being gimmicky, these narratives illuminate the complicated and uneasy ways traditional customs and beliefs interact with the law in postcolonial Zimbabwe.
Gappah is strong on the subtleties of status and on the social implications of things such as hairstyles, perfume, skin colour and accents. She moves through all levels of Zimbabwean society with equal ease, from street life to boarding schools to human rights organisations, elucidating class, race and sexual politics everywhere she goes.
Because these stories are interconnected, there is great pleasure in being reacquainted with characters in new contexts. There is a young woman, Pepukai, who appears in several stories, and whose similar name, law degrees and experience as a Zimbabwean now living in England, suggests she is something of a stand-in for Gappah herself. “What is it about us that these are our lives?” she asks when critical theory and historical context are not enough to explain away all the injustice and bloodshed.
Beyond the colourful characters and the absurdity of some of their concerns, this powerful collection is a reckoning with this kind of anguish; the love, despair and shame one feels for their country; the unremitting “weight of pain”. SH
Faber, 352pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 3, 2016 as "Petina Gappah, Rotten Row". Subscribe here.