Listener – October 15, 2005
UNFEELING by Ian Holding (Scribner)
While reading Unfeeling, a debut novel by 27-year-old white Zimbabwean Ian Holding, I imagined Robert Mugabe at his residence, sited over the fence from the Harare Sports Club where New Zealand’s apolitical Black Caps recently thrashed Zimbabwe’s national cricket team. Mugabe isn’t named in Holding’s brave book, but the rogue President and patron of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union is omnipresent in it and, given the ruthless way he is implementing his country’s land redistribution polices, I hope that Holding is keeping his head down.
Unfeeling is a convincing and largely sympathetic portrait of Zimbabwe’s white farming families (“true happiness is a farm in Africa”), but Holding’s sketches of rural blacks left me feeling uneasy. They include lazy workers, faithful servants, a drunk, witch doctors and bloodthirsty militiamen led by a distasteful black woman.
The one educated man of colour is presented as a misguided character.
Sixteen-year-old Davey Baker carries the novel’s load. He is orphaned after the militiamen murder his parents. His dream of inheriting the family farm (named “Edenfields” by his great-grandfather when it was “the size of a small country”) is shattered with brutal efficiency. The crops are burnt and the black woman moves into the master bedroom.
Unfeeling, which loops back and forth in time, begins after the attack. Davey, who discovered his parents’ axe-hacked bodies, has been taken in by family friends Mike and Marsha, who farm a neighbouring property. They pragmatically decide that it is in Davey’s best interests that he return to his exclusive boarding school, where he drinks to excess and kills one of the school’s pets. (Holding teaches at a school in Harare. He said in an interview that “Zimbabweans will do anything to cover up depression and anxiety with a stiff upper lip, so they the farmers’ children were pushed on in the classroom and played cricket and rugby and were encouraged to forget all about the violence”.)
Davey’s anger cannot be quelled. He sets off one night for Edenfields, seeking revenge. He rides in a freight wagon with poor blacks and is befriended by a drunk who eventually rejects him; he witnesses a man chop chunks of meat from a live cow’s rump and drop them into a black sizzling pot; he is given water by an old black man, an ex-headmaster who lives in a shack, passing his days reading Dickens and Jane Austen, naively believing that one day he will be given “a handsome plot of land”; and he is picked up by a working-class white couple and told “those bloody farmer bastards they have it good one day it’s all going to be pulled from under their feet”.
Davey (“a boy walking across Africa”) makes it back to Edenfields, where he carries out a meaningless act of retribution, which leaves him feeling empty. Unfeeling has been getting rave reviews in the British press, and, I agree, it is an impressive first novel. But I feel that, apart from Mugabe’s shadow, there is a character missing a reasoned black perspective to contradict these chaps: “ if they take the farms, they’ll stuff themselves up. Who’s going to feed them then?”
“Ja, those bastards don’t know a good thing when they see it. If it wasn’t for us whites coming here in the first place, they’d all still be running around in bloody straw skirts, warrior stripes painted on their faces.”
“F*ing right. Worst thing we ever did was hand them independence ”