Eppel uses the bawdy and obscene to subvert social pomposity

Anthony Chennells, Professor of English, University of Zimbabwe

This material has been provided by Professor Brian Jones, founder of 'amabooks [GPL].

WHAT Zimbabwean poet and novelist has won South Africa's M-Net Book Prize for fiction and the Ingrid Jonker Poetry Prize? Whose third novel was launched in Bulawayo by André Brink, professor of English literature at the University of Cape Town and one of the handful of South African novelists with international reputations? Which Zimbabwean writer has entries in all the recent encyclopaedias and guides to African literature but whose books are impossi-ble to find in Zimbabwe? Who is the Zimbabwean writer whose novels, when they are borrowed or stolen from a lucky owner, seem never to be returned whether they are proclaimed as brilliant satires or as near pornography fit only for a pit latrine?

The answer is John Eppel, the Bulawayo writer whose history with publishers could have provided the model for one of his own characters labouring under a curse. Eppel's publishers go broke, lose his manuscripts or the enthusiasts in a firm, who wanted to promote his work, move off leaving contracts gathering dust.

This neglect of one of our writers has been partly redressed with the publication earlier last year of a selection of Eppel's poems and now a new novel, The Curse of the Ripe Tomato, published by amabooks of Bulawayo. Readers of his earlier novels will find fa-miliar characters. Duiker Berry Nothando Sibanda, Chappy Popadam and Honey Swanepoel from DGG Berry's The Great North Road. Here too, if only in a letter from Australia, is Brother Moral Mac. Braggert from Hatchings who made a fortune from those whites who discovered religion when they "lost their reason for being when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe."

For the first time, however, Eppel has not used Bulawayo and Matabeleland as his principal setting. The new novel is set in England and our first view of England is from a perspective many young Zimbabweans have commanded: that of a security guard in a factory on the outskirts of London. Many of the clichés that cluster around our perception of England are here; vile food, incomprehnsible English humour and dingy lodgings presided over by grotesque landladies combine to give the impression of a nation whose only characteristic is joylessness.

But Eppel never allows cliché and prejudice to shape his own perceptions. His Zimbabweans are as bad as the English. Provincial and complacent in their provincialism, when they affect intellectual sophisticatLon. as Honey Swanepoel does, their theory is so pure that it engages with nothing experienced either in life or literature. Duiker Berry's favourite garment is a sky-blue safari suit which has earned him the sobriquet of "Hot-Pants" in the factory. Having overcome an addiction to Castle, he is now hooked on the dill-flavoured brine of Carmel pickles that are unobtainable to England. Honey on the other hand has immersed herself in every theorist from Althusser, through Marx to Derrida but her only strongly-held conviction is the need to defecate in public in Cambridge as a protest against FR Leavis who has been dead for thiry years and use the pages of his Great Tradition as toilet paper.

The Third World innocent in the metropole has been dealt with often enough before. Eppel's structural twist to the theme is to use a parody of an Enid Blyton story to discuss issues of Zimbabwean identity. This is not the Enid Blyton of Noddy and Big Ears but rather those groups of children -- the Famous Five were one -- in an England of perpetual summer holidays from boarding schools, in houses rented for the summer and who solved crimes that were completely beyond the capacity of the local police. Mother was preoccupied with telling Cook what to do and Father appeared only sporadically, his time being spent making money to pay for it all. Several generations of southern African children must have derived their image of English life from Blyton's books and this provides Eppel with his opportunity. Blytons children cycle around a countryside of sun and unspoiled lanes. Eppel's middle-aged counterparts, on their hired bicycles, take three days to find how to leave London and whenever they attempt to stop, the police move them on, confidently identifying them as vagrants. A perpetual drizzle replaces the sun-filled countryside and unidentifiable crops grow in the fields.

If Blyton's world is as irrecoverable as the landscape of any romance, Honey's theories are at constant odds with her instincts as a reactionary colonial. As with all good Blyton stories, there are adventures. Honey is on the run from Chappy Popadam. His principal source of self-respect is that he is always in command of his sexual attraction to white women. Honey, however, proves too much for him. When he is with her he ejaculates, and this he takes as evidence of her power over him. She is now an abomination whom the Book of Deuteronomy, the source of all his religious understanding, orders him to kill.

Like Swift, Eppel's satire uses the obscene and the bawdy and the merely disgusting to subvert intellectual pretensions and deflate social pomposity by reminding us of our often sordid physicality. The Curse of the Ripe Tomato is an astonishing novel. Oppositions are proposed in order to be recon-ciled: black and white, dominant male and subordinate female, age and youth, theory and practice. Throughout the novel, the voice that is constantly urging reconciliation is that of Nothando, former guerrilla fighter. Her inspiration for reconciliation is William. Blake and she quotes him appositely throughout the novel. If Honey attacks as Idiotic any theory she no longer holds, Nothando claims reconciliation as the basis of all development. She quotes Blake's remark that "without contraries is no progression." By using schoolboy humour, obscure and more accessible liter-ary references, by giving clichés the familiarity of novelty by putting them into entirely unfa-miliar contexts, Eppel's novel argues that the value of diversity be acknowledged and danger of fundamentalism and enforced conformity, whether it is religious or political, be understood.

Nothando and Duiker realise that the only place they can confidently claim as theirs is Zimbabwe and they determine to come home. It is typical of Eppel's humour that the final image of reconciliation is Duiker, who once refused to recognise the birth of Zimbabwe, sharing a bath with Nothando, the guerrilla who is almost old enough to be his mother.


Eppel, John. The Curse of the Ripe Tomato. Bulawayo, Zimbabwe: 'amabooks [P.O.Box 9160, Hillside, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe], 2001. ISBN 0-7974 2349-4

Zimbabwe OV Literature [Politics] John Eppel

Last modified 2 June 2003