African Stories, p.1Doris Lessing
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The Black Madonna
The Trinket Box
The Old Chief Mshlanga
A Sunrise on the Veld
No Witchcraft for Sale
The Second Hut
The De Wets Come to Kloof Grange
Old John’s Place
Winter in July
A Home for the Highland Cattle
The Words He Said
A Mild Attack of Locusts
Flavours of Exile
Getting Off the Altitude
A Road to the Big City
Plants and Girls
The Sun Between Their Feet
A Letter from Home
The New Man
The Story of Two Dogs
The Story of a Non-marrying Man
Spies I Have Known
Reading Group Guide
About Doris Lessing
Most of these stories come from earlier collections. Some have been out of print a long time; others have never appeared in America at all. I am happy to have them around again.
The stories an author likes are not necessarily those chosen by other people. This happens to every writer. Because I was brought up in Southern Africa (Southern Rhodesia) a part of my work has been set there, and the salience of the colour clash has made it inevitable that those aspects which reflect “the colour problem” should have overshadowed the rest. When my first novel, The Grass Is Singing, came out, there were few novels about Africa. That book, and my second, This Was the Old Chiefs Country, were described by reviewers as about the colour problem . . . which is not how I see, or saw, them. But then, a decade ago, manifestations of race prejudice in Africa, terribly familiar to those of us who had to live with them, were still a surprise, apparently, to Britain. Or, to put it as cynically as some people feel it, indignation about the colour bar in Africa had not yet become part of the furniture of the progressive conscience. If people had been prepared to listen, two decades earlier, to the small, but shrill-enough, voices crying out for the world’s attention, perhaps the present suffering in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia could have been prevented. Britain, who is responsible, became conscious of her responsibility too late; and now the tragedy must play itself slowly out. Meanwhile there are dozens of novels, stories, plays about what one happy reviewer called “the colour bore.”
Writers brought up in Africa have many advantages—being at the centre of a modern battlefield; part of a society in rapid, dramatic change. But in a long run it can also be a handicap: to wake up every morning with one’s eyes on a fresh evidence of inhumanity; to be reminded twenty times a day of injustice, and always the same brand of it, can be limiting. There are other things in living besides injustice, even for the victims of it. I know an African short-story writer whose gift is for satirical comedy, and he says that he has to remind himself, when he sits down to write, that “as a human being he has the right to laugh.” Not only have white sympathizers criticised him for “making comedy out of oppression,” his compatriots do too. Yet I am sure that one day out of Africa will come a great comic novel to make the angels laugh, pressed as miraculously from the bitter savageries of the atrophy as was Dead Souls.
And while the cruelties of the white man towards the black man are among the heaviest counts in the indictment against humanity, colour prejudice is not our original fault, but only one aspect of the atrophy of the imagination that prevents us from seeing ourselves in every creature that breathes under the sun.
I believe that the chief gift from Africa to writers, white and black, is the continent itself, its presence which for some people is like an old fever, latent always in their blood; or like an old wound throbbing in the bones as the air changes. That is not a place to visit unless one chooses to be an exile ever afterwards from an inexplicable majestic silence lying just over the border of memory or of thought. Africa gives you the knowledge that man is a small creature, among other creatures, in a large landscape.
My favourites in This Was the Old Chiefs Country are not necessarily those that have been most translated, which are Little Tembi, The Old Chief Mshlanga, and No Witchcraft for Sale. A Sunrise on the Veld, for instance, and Winter in July are both larger stories than the directly social ones.
All these stories have in common that they are set in Africa, but that is all they have in common. For one thing, while the Old Chief was a collection of real short stories, Five is five long stories, almost short novels. A most enjoyable form this, to write, the long story, although of course there is no way of getting them printed out of book form. There is space in them to take one’s time, to think aloud, to follow, for a paragraph or two, on a side-trail—none of which is possible in a real short story.
Of the four long stories printed here, Hunger is the failure and, it seems, the most liked.
It came to be written like this. I was in Moscow with a delegation of writers, back in 1952. It was striking that while the members of the British team differed very much politically, we agreed with each other on certain assumptions about literature—in brief, that writing had to be a product of the individual conscience, or soul. Whereas the Russians did not agree at all—not at all. Our debates, many and long, were on this theme.
Stalin was still alive. One day we were taken to see a building full of presents for Stalin, rooms full of every kind of object—pictures, photographs, carpets, clothes, etc., all gifts from his grateful subjects and exhibited by the State to show other subjects and visitors from abroad. It was a hot day. I left the others touring the stuffy building, and sat outside to rest. I was thinking about what Russians were demanding in literature—greater simplicity, simple judgments of right and wrong. We, the British, had argued against it, and we felt we were right and the Russians wrong. But after all, there was Dickens, and such a short time ago, and his characters were all good or bad—unbelievably Good, monstrously Bad, but that didn’t stop him from being a great writer. Well, there I was, with my years in Southern Africa behind me, a society as startlingly unjust as Dickens’s England. Why, then, could I not write a story of simple good and bad, with clear-cut choices, set in Africa? The plot? Only one possible plot—that a poor black boy or girl should come from a village to the white man’s rich town and . . . there he would encounter, as occurs in life, good and bad, and after much trouble and many tears he would follow the path of . . .
I tried, but it failed. It wasn’t true. Sometimes one writes things that don’t come off, and feels more affectionate towards them than towards those that worked.
The Black Madonna and Traitors, from Winter’s Tales and Argosy respectively, escaped the nets of earlier volumes. I am addicted to The Black Madonna, which is full of the bile that in fact I feel for the “white” society in Southern Rhodesia as I knew and hated it.
The Pig and The Trinket Box are two of my earliest. I see them as two forks of a road. The second—intense, careful, self-conscious, mannered—could have led to the kind of writing usually described as “feminine.” The style of The Pig is straight, broad, direct; is much less beguiling, but is the highway to the kind of writing tha
I hope these stories will be read with as much pleasure as I had in . . . but I mean it. I enjoy writing short stories very much, although fewer and fewer magazines print them, and for every twenty novel readers there is one who likes short stories.
Some writers I know have stopped writing short stories because, as they say, “there is no market for them.” Others like myself, the addicts, go on, and I suspect would go on even if there really wasn’t any home for them but a private drawer.
The Black Madonna
THERE are some countries in which the arts, let alone Art, cannot be said to flourish. Why this should be so it is hard to say, although of course we all have our theories about it. For sometimes it is the most barren soil that sends up gardens of those flowers which we all agree are the crown and justification of life, and it is this fact which makes it hard to say, finally, why the soil of Zambesia should produce such reluctant plants.
Zambesia is a tough, sunburnt, virile, positive country contemptuous of subtleties and sensibility : yet there have been States with these qualities which have produced art, though perhaps with the left hand. Zambesia is, to put it mildly, unsympathetic to those ideas so long taken for granted in other parts of the world, to do with liberty, fraternity and the rest. Yet there are those, and some of the finest souls among them, who maintain that art is impossible without a minority whose leisure is guaranteed by a hardworking majority. And whatever Zambesia’s comfortable minority may lack, it is not leisure.
Zambesia—but enough; out of respect for ourselves and for scientific accuracy, we should refrain from jumping to conclusions. Particularly when one remembers the almost wistful respect Zambesians show when an artist does appear in their midst.
Consider, for instance, the case of Michele.
He came out of the internment camp at the time when Italy was made a sort of honorary ally, during the Second World War. It was a time of strain for the authorities, because it is one thing to be responsible for thousands of prisoners of war whom one must treat according to certain recognized standards; it is another to be faced, and from one day to the next, with these same thousands transformed by some international legerdemain into comrades in arms. Some of the thousands stayed where they were in the camps; they were fed and housed there at least. Others went as farm labourers, though not many; for while the farmers were as always short of labour, they did not know how to handle farm labourers who were also white men: such a phenomenon had never happened in Zambesia before. Some did odd jobs around the towns, keeping a sharp eye out for the trade unions, who would neither admit them as members nor agree to their working.
Hard, hard, the lot of these men, but fortunately not for long, for soon the war ended and they were able to go home.
Hard, too, the lot of the authorities, as has been pointed out; and for that reason they were doubly willing to take what advantages they could from the situation; and that Michele was such an advantage there could be no doubt.
His talents were first discovered when he was still a prisoner of war. A church was built in the camp, and Michele decorated its interior. It became a show-place, that little tin-roofed church in the prisoners’ camp, with its whitewashed walls covered all over with frescoes depicting swarthy peasants gathering grapes for the vintage, beautiful Italian girls dancing, plump dark-eyed children. Amid crowded scenes of Italian life, appeared the Virgin and her Child, smiling and beneficent, happy to move familiarly among her people.
Culture-loving ladies who had bribed the authorities to be taken inside the camp would say, “Poor thing, how homesick he must be.” And they would beg to be allowed to leave half a crown for the artist. Some were indignant. He was a prisoner, after all, captured in the very act of fighting against justice and democracy, and what right had he to protest?—for they felt these paintings as a sort of protest. What was there in Italy that we did not have right here in Westonville, which was the capital and hub of Zambesia? Were there not sunshine and mountains and fat babies and pretty girls here? Did we not grow—if not grapes, at least lemons and oranges and flowers in plenty?
People were upset—the desperation of nostalgia came from the painted white walls of that simple church, and affected everyone according to his temperament.
But when Michele was free, his talent was remembered. He was spoken of as “that Italian artist.” As a matter of fact, he was a bricklayer. And the virtues of those frescoes might very well have been exaggerated. It is possible they would have been overlooked altogether in a country where picture-covered walls were more common.
When one of the visiting ladies came rushing out to the camp in her own car, to ask him to paint her children, he said he was not qualified to do so. But at last he agreed. He took a room in the town and made some nice likenesses of the children. Then he painted the children of a great number of the first lady’s friends. He charged ten shillings a time. Then one of the ladies wanted a portrait of herself. He asked ten pounds for it; it had taken him a month to do. She was annoyed, but paid.
And Michele went off to his room with a friend and stayed there drinking red wine from the Cape and talking about home. While the money lasted he could not be persuaded to do any more portraits.
There was a good deal of talk among the ladies about the dignity of labour, a subject in which they were well versed; and one felt they might almost go so far as to compare a white man with a kaffir, who did not understand the dignity of labour either.
He was felt to lack gratitude. One of the ladies tracked him down, found him lying on a camp-bed under a tree with a bottle of wine, and spoke to him severely about the barbarity of Mussolini and the fecklessness of the Italian temperament. Then she demanded that he should instantly paint a picture of herself in her new evening dress. He refused, and she went home very angry.
It happened that she was the wife of one of our most important citizens, a General or something of that kind, who was at that time engaged in planning a military tattoo or show for the benefit of the civilian population. The whole of Westonville had been discussing this show for weeks. We were all bored to extinction by dances, fancy-dress balls, fairs, lotteries and other charitable entertainments. It is not too much to say that while some were dying for freedom, others were dancing for it. There comes a limit to everything. Though, of course, when the end of the war actually came and the thousands of troops stationed in the country had to go home—in short, when enjoying ourselves would no longer be a duty, many were heard to exclaim that life would never be the same again.
In the meantime, the Tattoo would make a nice change for us all. The military gentlemen responsible for the idea did not think of it in these terms. They thought to improve morale by giving us some idea of what war was really like. Headlines in the newspaper were not enough. And in order to bring it all home to us, they planned to destroy a village by shell-fire before our very eyes.
First, the village had to be built.
It appears that the General and his subordinates stood around in the red dust of the parade-ground under a burning sun for the whole of one day, surrounded by building materials, while hordes of African labourers ran around with boards and nails, trying to make something that looked like a village. It became evident that they would have to build a proper village in order to destroy it; and this would cost more than was allowed for the whole entertainment. The General went home in a bad temper, and his wife said what they needed was an artist, they needed Michele. This was not because she wanted to do Michele a good turn; she could not endure the thought of him lying around singing while there was work to be done. She refused to undertake any delicate diplomatic missions when her husband said he would be damned if he would ask favours of any little Wop. She solved the problem for him in her own way: a certain Captain Stocker was sent out to fetch him.
The Captain found him on the same camp-bed under the same tree, in rolled-up trousers, and an uncollared shirt; unshave
“Piselli!” he said sharply.
Michele turned his head and looked at the Captain from the horizontal. “Good morning,” he said affably.
“You are wanted,” said the Captain.
“Who?” said Michele. He sat up, a fattish, olive-skinned little man. His eyes were resentful.
“The war is over?”
The Captain, who was already stiff and shiny enough in his laundered khaki, jerked his head back frowning, chin out. He was a large man, blond, and wherever his flesh showed, it was brick-red. His eyes were small and blue and angry. His red hands, covered all over with fine yellow bristles, clenched by his side. Then he saw the disappointment in Michele’s eyes, and the hands unclenched. “No it is not over,” he said. “Your assistance is required.”
“For the war?”
“For the war effort. I take it you are interested in defeating the Germans?”
Michele looked at the Captain. The little dark-eyed artisan looked at the great blond officer with his cold blue eyes, his narrow mouth, his hands like bristle-covered steaks. He looked and said: “I am very interested in the end of the war.”
“Well?” said the Captain between his teeth.
“The pay?” said Michele.
“You will be paid.”
Michele stood up. He lifted the bottle against the sun, then took a gulp. He rinsed his mouth out with wine and spat. Then he poured what was left on to the red earth, where it made a bubbling purple stain.
African Stories by Doris Lessing / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes