An Elegy for Easterly--Petina Gappah

I do not read books in translation nor books by authors outside the United States simply for the pleasure of being able to claim some sort of faux-eclecticism.  I read a book because something about it engages me, and Ms. Gappah's book of short stories certainly did that.  I've posted numerous excerpts from the book in the recent past, so you already have a sense of the quality and breadth of the writing.

An Elegy for Easterly is a book of short stories and it is an uneven book.  Some of the stories are superb--masterful, controlled, eminently entertaining.  Others seem to have lost their sense of purpose and it is at times difficult to make out what the author was trying to get at.  All of the stories have a very highly refined sense of place that allows one a better sense of a small portion of the African continent.

Let me start with the perceived flaws: at times it seems that Ms. Gappah wishes to limit her audience to those with a robust knowledge of the languages and systems of southern Africa.  There are chunks of undigested Zimbabwean language(s) here and there throughout the text that ultimately become frustrating--not because one cannot understand the story without them, but because they become like the long names in Russian novels--one pauses and puzzles over them so long that the thread of thought can be lost.   This is a choice she has made for a reason, but not, I think, a particularly meaningful or successful one--certainly not for this one reader.  The only other flaw is the unevenness of the stories.  Some stand out as brilliant: the title piece, "At the Sound of the Last Post," "Something Nice from London," "The Maid from Lalapanzi," "The Mupandawana Dancing Champion," "Our Man in Geneva Wins a Million Euros."  In each of these she has captured something--a moment, an understanding, an emotion or several emotions, so perfectly that one wonders if it is possible to do so better.  But there are other stories "Aunt Juliana's Indian" and "Midnight at the Hotel California" that do not seem to do so as well. Perhaps I merely need to revisit them, but my initial impression was that they did not seem rounded and complete: they seemed merely to stop somewhere along the way.  I was profoundly confused by the point of "Midnight at the Hotel California" and must revisit it.

While I've visited the flaws at length, in the context of the full work, they are minor and at very worst slight imperfections that do not detract from the strength of the majority of very strong stories.  And what is remarkable is their range. From the sharp sarcasm and irony of "At the Sound of the Last Post" to the subtle social horror of "The Cracked, Pink Lips of Rosie's Bridegroom," Ms. Gappah seems to be able to handle all sorts of themes.  Unlike other recent (and superb) books out of different parts of the African Continent (Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them and Maaza Mengiste's Beneath the Lion's Gaze) Gappah deals with smaller, more domestic horrors rather than the terror of entire societies torn apart by war and hatred.  Her horrors include life under inflation of three million percent, life under the spectre of AIDS with irresponsible men continuing to spread the contagion, and the life of horrible poverty and despair chronicled, at least obliquely in stories like "An Elegy for Easterly" and "The Mupandawan Dancing Champion"  (although this latter is, at times, laugh-out-loud funny, like many of the stories in the collection).

Ms. Gappah introduces us to the culture of Zimbabwe, a nation emerging from the oppression of Europeans into the oppression of Africans, but still vibrant, alive, active, interesting, and vital.  That is the miracle of these little stories--we are invited into a culture at once a little familiar and utterly foreign and given a glimpse of people at their best and their worst.  We're given insight into the destructive forces that tear a society apart, and the forces that help to glue it together.  Often in the same story.

Ms. Gappah's collection is a fine, nay, an excellent debut and I highly recommend that you become acquainted with this talented and nuanced writer.

****1/2

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