Eppel's funny, unforgiving, unappeasing and, above all, unapologetic kitchen farce

Professor Rosemary Gray, University of Pretoria

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

The Curse of the Ripe Tomato (Eppel 2001) is funny, unforgiving, unappeasing and, above all, unapologetic. John Eppel's recent publication is essentially what might be termed a kitchen farce. For Eppel addicts, this book makes Hatchings (Eppel 1993) -- with what Khombe Mangwanda insightfully (2000) perceives as its opposition between positive or sacred space, on the one hand, and negative space, on the other -- seem, by comparison, like over-processed fast food, rather than the whole grain roughage that is the case or the curse 'of the ripe tomato'. Gone is the epiphanic moment inherent in such incidents as the hatching of the Asil Khan's egg, which ushers in a new moral order. In its place, is an overripe Israeli tomato, the voodoo-like qualities of which -- through ironic twists and turns -- bring about a 'new' culture. And so, paradoxically, the end product is the same as Eppel's other novels: a purgation of prejudice and a comfortable feeling (albeit one that belies the ugly truth of the situation) that all is well in post-independence Zimbabwe.

In place of the dichotomy between good and evil, then, in a 'hatching', one of the key characters, 'Nottie', suggests the dynamic progression of events in The Curse of the Ripe Tomato by insisting that the principle of life is inherent in William Blake's notion that 'without contraries is no progression' (98). The polarities, here, have to do with age, gender, race, erudition and even beauty rather than with the more customary contrasts in the Eppel oeuvre; nor are these binaries rooted in the soil. Moreover, the differences are systematically erased as the narrative progresses. This is perhaps because the story is set in wet, wet England as opposed to drought-stricken Matabeleland, the climate of which is so graphically expressed in 'Matabele Dry' (Eppel Selected Poems 2001:15) as the opening stanza shows:

The water table drops,
boreholes cave in, crops
tighten. Our cactus sighs
like a puncture and dies.

None the less, the flair for the frequent use of startling similes and fresh unexpected analogies -- evident in this extract -- remain in The Curse of the Ripe Tomato. As Dan Wylie sagely notes in his Foreword to Eppel's most recent anthology of poetry (2001:5):

John Eppel is a craftsman of high order; a poet and a novelist who savages complacency with deft ironies; and a man who is faithful to the complexities of his rootedness. In Southern Africa we struggle with the narrow-eyed exigencies of local politics at cross-purposes with the daffy and half-understood pressures of global postmodernism. The former produces vacuous sloganeering masquerading as poetry. The latter produces vacuous 'free verse' masquerading as intellectual liberation. The former produces sad mimicry from new minorities manipulating outdated notions of "the people." The latter introduces a sad individualism from other minorities courting obscurity as a means of escaping "the crowd." The former is hostile to the strangeness of other voices; the latter is hostile to the study of tradition and craft.

In The Curse of the Ripe Tomato, Eppel cuts a swathe through racial stereotypes, sometimes with what amounts to black humour. His is a refreshingly honest and original voice. This satirical short novel features several characters, most of whom have appeared in previous novels and who reappear in his most recent novel The Holy Innocents (2002), which is arguably more savagely satirical but no less funny. Many of the issues, too, reappear in the later work, and are at once peculiar to postcolonial Zimbabwe/Rhodesia and recognisable in the wider African world. The characters' colonial attitudes, evangelical religion, and pretentious literary academia are the chief butts of the mockery. Chappy Popadam, the South African Indian owner of the 'Boutique' and his customer, Honey Swanepoel, a pretentious, foul-mouthed English academic, provide much of the impetus to incident. Chappy hates women -- they are an abomination because (wittingly or unwittingly) they raise his puritanical sexual consciousness; and he supports this hatred by an idiosyncratic, literal reading of 'Deuteronomy'. His frottage sessions with his female customers are part of his religious expression, and Honey's role in these sessions arouses more than just his hatred! His plan is to take revenge by hunting down and murdering the principal cause of his arousal -- Honey.

The action records Honey's flight from Chappy's wrath to England where she meets up again with her long lost school friend/sweetheart, Duiker (Hotpants) Berry and the latter's new belle, Nothando -- former live-in consort to the Berry's male factotum back in Bulawayo and de facto childhood 'nanny' ('Nottie') to Duiker.

Throughout the narrative, Eppel sustains the contrast between Honey's superficial, vacuous, academic scholarship in literary theory (Lacanian-Derridean-Barthesian -- to the exclusion of original, creative writers) and the African housekeeper, Nothando's genuine and instinctive understanding and love of literature derived largely from the Bible and the Everyman edition of William Blake. Nothando constantly and consistently applies her reading to expand her experience of life, while Honey is guided by prevailing trends -- bourgeois Shakespeare coupled with structuralist/poststructuralist theories of reading; and so, not unexpectedly, a second-hand copy of FR Leavis's Great Tradition is purchased to serve as lavatory paper!

London low-life provides the supporting cast for the three Zimbabweans. Nothando's former husband, one Fred Grommet, is an out of work Englishman, clad habitually in a dingy vest, tracksuit bottoms and slippers. He fries kippers in his English bed sit and passes the day by sitting inert in front of the television. Duiker's landlady, Mrs Effie Grub, drinks Spanish sherry from a cup and vomits copiously -- out of the window, upon those who seek accommodation in her establishment. The 'curse of the ripe tomato' is the linear thread that braids the various incidents together, finally uniting all the characters in neat, if bizarre, romantic liaisons via a hilariously funny bicycle tour in England's inclement weather, which ends in the English country cottage of the now exceedingly aged Aunty Frances, erstwhile mistress to Lobengula, King of the Matabele. The novel comes full circle and closes with Duiker -- Eppel's spokesman against what made him 'nostalgic for his childhood' and simultaneously 'disgusted' and shame him about 'the society that raised him' (1995: 'Writers at Work' Southern African Review of Books) -- back in Bulawayo drinking to a united Zimbabwe and confiding in Police Inspector Jenkins Ndhlovu about his planned proposal of marriage before passing out, dead drunk, on a makeshift bed in the pub. Ultimately, 'Things Come Right at Last' (96) with Nothando's return to administer a figurative enema, thus providing '... the key to a contented life [via] regular bowels' (Eppel D.G.G. Berry's "The Great North Road" [1992]). The Curse of the Ripe Tomato responds to the function of a literary work as expressed by the scholar, Amina Mama:

It is clear that the act of writing is a complex and multifaceted process, a process that in and of itself has neither a beginning nor an end, that is in fact a way of being in the world, no less. (www.agenda.org.za)

And so, to deflect such a 'curse', for we cannot put an end to it, purchase The Curse of the Ripe Tomato, curl up in a comfortable chair, and savour this delightful read.


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