An Introduction to John Eppel's The Holy Innocents

Professor Rosemary Gray, University of Pretoria

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

John Eppel's shockingly scurrilous sequel to The Curse of the Ripe Tomato (2001) -- whose Honey Swanepoel's ingenious lecture title, 'The Clitoris as Synecdoche'(36), might have given impetus to a subtitle to this latest novella: 'The ARSE as synecdoche' or 'an ontology of the between'. Once again, Eppel's writing provides a refreshing change from the sombrely polished productions of a Mungoshi, Hove or Nyamfufudza - -relieved occasionally by a Vera's magical or mystical realism -- that seem to be the norm in Central African prose, echoing instead the incisive satire of a Marechera.

This extremely funny book rips into the patriarchal, postcolonial society of post-independence Zimbabwe in a parade of characters at once peculiar to the Eppel oeuvre and more broadly recognizable to society in Africa. In mock-heroic language replete with allusions to the Bible and Chaucer, Eppel mounts an attack on entrepreneurial corruption in the church (a sectarian outfit called the Holy Innocents), the medical fraternity, the pharmaceutical industry, the comprador bourgeoisie and, most of all, the local population, remnants of colonial society, whose wealth, inertia and drunkenness allow self-seeking to flourish unchecked.

Time-warp and stasis define this 'dislodged community of belonging' (9) which gathers daily at an old and respected club: the Association of Rhodesian Sports Enthusiasts or ARSE. These "Rhodies" are ardent habitués of the ARSE bar where their civil service mentality compels them to congregate at 4 o'clock sharp every afternoon to socialise and to drink themselves insensible. Bringing life down to earth in typical carnivaleque mode, Eppel gives these characters names drawn from domesticated farm animal life -- largely from the feathered fowl family -- perhaps because they were too chicken to run or because of physiological features that either define or caricature them.

Principal among these are John 'Bouncer' Leghorn (the narrator), Clive 'Bully' Dorper, Rob 'Shova' Hereford, Greg 'Beefmaster' Aylesbury, Angus 'Large White' Horn and Cheryl 'Boobs' Australorp, a sexagenarian female with a 'desiccated face' (7), the only woman in the bar group because she can imbibe as much alcohol as the men folk and because she chooses to ignore their uncouth remarks and rude chauvinism. Their community of spirit is awakened because one of their number, Duiker 'Hotpants' Berry (of DGG BERRY's The Great North Road fame [1989; 1992]) has, at the close of The Curse of the Ripe Tomato, married his partner in crime, or rather, in 'curse', erstwhile 'nanny' to the Berry children. This woman, Nothando, is old enough to be Duiker's mother but is a repository of much erudition and instinctive common sense, which serves to highlight the dearth of intelligence in this God-forsaken, ex-colonial society.

The characters are literally 'dislodged' both by their separation from their European origins and more recently by Independence. Figuratively, their dislodgement is synonymous with subverted theology and ignorance that masks amoral behaviour.

The salacious doctor, one Lucius Pudding, alias Uhlakaniphile, came to Zimbabwe from England on an Independence aid package and now prospers in private enterprise. As a sideline, he has founded the sect of the Holy Innocents in partnership with the local traditional healer, Umsilalobi, who has connections in high places. This, likewise, is a flourishing business, thanks to its lucrative trade with those in power in human body parts. The sect requires these for its rituals and for potions for Pudding's female patients who, concerned about the ravages of the blazing African sun, will consume whatever skin care products the doctor prescribes, especially those which contain the supposedly regenerative cells of the young (cf. the 'BABY'S BOTTOM PRODUCTS' [114]), a newer version of the Umdidi Perfumed Air products of Eppel's earlier novels. However, this time, the vulgar/scatological elements know no bounds; and, illustrative of the resultant Rabelaisian imagery, is the consumption of pureed preserved foetus mixed with strawberry yoghurt (a supposed elixir of youth) as a sandwich spread!

The plot concerns the planned abduction of a young male child for a Holy Innocents' ceremony, in which he will be sacrificed and his body parts used for medication and/or sold to politicians (making the sacrifice doubly significant as a 'muti-murder' and, in line with Reformation tenets, as that which leads to joy in Heaven from the repentance which must follow the sin of sacrifice). The child selected is the obnoxious Bobby Hereford, first-born son of Shova and his brainless, narcissistic wife, Mini, her of foetal consumption fame. Reminiscent of the fetishist in The Giraffe Man (1994), little Bobby devotes himself to the slaughter and ritual burial of neighbourhood pets. None the less, his disappearance arouses the outrage of the community and they unite to restore him forcefully to his parents.

The human drama is underscored by the behaviour of the natural world in which the narrative is set. For example, a foul-mouthed grey parrot, a domestic pet, meets its end at the hands of little Bobby Hereford, who 'flattened [it] with a tennis racquet' (114), much as one would swat a fly. Foregrounding the novel's grotesque realism, the bird's dying words, 'Fuck my cat!' (114) function as a postscript or the sting in the tail to this tale.

Structure and setting conjoin to evoke an 'ontology of the between'. Like a double whammy sandwich, the novella begins and ends in the ARSE; while the second and penultimate chapters shift to the shrine of the Holy Innocents, a faerie circle of stones deep in the Hillside dam bush, featuring a dead lonchocarpus capassa, or ring-barked and so 'murdered' rain tree, within its barrenness. This is guarded by 'a large blue-headed lizard' and a predatory 'fiscal shrike' (13), presumably surrogate dragon and carnivorous pterodactyl of lore, respectively.

In 'Discourse in the Novel' (1921), Mikhail Bakhtin distinguishes between two stylistic poles, the 'linear' and the 'pictural', which undergo multiple transformations over time. As Tzvetzan Todorov (1981: 76) notes, the medieval romance, the Baroque novel, the sentimental novel of the eighteenth century, belong to the first pole; the fabliau, the picaresque and the comic novel belong to the second. Bakhtin believes that in every epoch, there is a dialogue between these styles, based on heterology:

The primary characteristic [of the first tradition] is that it is monolingual and stylistically monolithic (in a more or less consistent fashion); heterology remains outside the novel; nonetheless it determines it, acting as a dialogical background to which the language and the world of the novel react polemically and apologeticallyŠ. The second lineage, to which belong the greatest representatives of the novel as a genre (its greatest subgenres as well as the greatest individual works) injects social heteroglossia into the body of the novel and leaves to it the orchestration of its meaning, frequently giving up altogether any pure and unmediated authorial discourse (1921:186).

This opposition implicitly defines the dynamics of Eppel's novella's ³becoming². The Holy Innocents is essentially a polyphonic text in which individual consciousness can be understood only within the context of relationships with other consciousnesses (including the reader's) rather than independent of them, or within what Buber (Thou and I, 1923) has termed 'an ontology of the between' (Theunissen 271-272, http://www. chap2a.html). Such interdependent relationships reflect a neo-Kantian synthesis of Locke's belief that we can know the world only through our senses coupled with the Cartesian belief that logical inquiry is the sole path to knowable reality (Clark and Holquist, 58, ibid.). For Eppel, as for Buber and Bakhtin, such interdependent relationships are juxtaposed contrapuntally, that is, they operate among all the elements of novelistic structure.

It is perhaps not too much to claim that the recreation of the postcolonial social set-up in neo-colonial gu-Bulawayo some twenty years after independence and the not-so-subtle suggestions as to ways and means of healing such wounds via the material bodily principle constitute the dominant themes of Eppel's newest novel. Consider, for example, the extravagant juxtaposition of Today the park is not quite as popular as it used to be with the general public, but the elderly love to exercise their dogs, and the youth their genitalia, along the numerous dirt tracks and in the numerous granite receptacles of the park (13).

As this early example shows, the principle of the material body lies not within the biological individual, nor within the bourgeois ego, but in the people who are continually growing and being renewed. This is why all that is bodily becomes grandiose, exaggerated, immeasurable and, above all, degraded. In Bakhtinian terms (1984, Rabelais and his World), 'to degrade is to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth something more and better' ( AnS/english/English104W-15/bakhtin2.htm).

Eppel fights both 'vacuous sloganeering' and 'pseudo-intellectualism' (Dan Wylie, John Eppel: Selected Poems 1965-1995 [2001]), revelling rather in the festive pleasure of a world turned topsy-turvy as the sacrifice incident from the penultimate chapter of The Holy Innocents (chosen as the blurb to the novel) clearly shows:

And so Dr Lucius Pudding, in his role of the High Priest Uhlakaniphile, worked himself, his congregation, and the impressionable Constable Dube into a fervour, if not a frenzy, of religiousness. At the ripe moment Lucius nodded to one of his assistants who drew out a long, sharp-pointed knife. "Find his heart from the side," was his instruction, which the still clear-headed Constable Phiri heard and which decided him to intervene.

"Halt, in the name of the law!" he called out, at the same time scrambling from the gully with his truncheon in one hand and Dube's wrist in the other.

"Scatter!" shrieked the Englishman, and scatter the Holy Innocents did. In the darkness and the chaos, the intrepid policeman made not a single arrest; but they saved Brother Moral MacBraggert's life (108).

In contrast to the use of traditional lore to convey socialist messages, hypocritical Christian pieties such as Brother Moral MacBraggert's born-again Christians of the Blood of Jesus Temple vie with Zionists and Holy Innocents alike to convey the egotism and greed of wealthy capitalists. These religious groups sprout like mushrooms in the fertile ground of poverty and desperation; for them, material prosperity signals favour for the very prolixity of christian and traditional denominations points to their scavenging nature.

Here, too, the parodic juxtaposition of action parallels that of graphic counterpointed imagery at the outset of the narrative when 'Bouncer' Leghorn ('. . . nicknamed for [his] exploits on, not off, the cricket field' [5]) informs us that he notices 'a button missing from my safari-suit jacket, and urine splashes on my veldskoens' (5) or when Amaryllis Bantam and her best friend, Desiray Weaner, 'bored stupid' 'exercise freaks', in a different kind of crazed bingeing, begin their early morning constitutionals 'with a prayer, and end them with a hug' (20). The novella 'rejects the idea of perceiving the struggle of the African communities against colonialism [and neo-colonialism] as constituting the only historical experience that Africans know' (to borrow Maurice Vambe's [2000: 80] comment about Dambudzo Marechera's work).

Like Marechera before him, Eppel's is a bitingly honest and unencumbered voice. Every day is Mardi Gras because life is an all-embracing carnival, systematically placed outside politics and religiosity. Seemingly for him, as for Milan Kundera (1979; 1986:5), "intellectual" is an expletive: It designated a person who failed to understand life and was cut off from the people. All Communists hanged at the time [1946] by other Communists had that curse bestowed upon them. Unlike people with their feet planted firmly on the ground, they supposedly floated in air. In a sense, then, it was only fair they have the ground pulled out from under them once and for all and be left there hanging slightly above it.

In these terms, categorically anti-intellectual and even funnier than The Curse of the Ripe Tomato (2001), The Holy Innocents forces the reader to make a re-evaluation of the crazy neo-postmodernist world it features. This latest Eppel publication ends rather than concludes: its message and even its outcome may have been abundantly clear from the start. The link between its satirical subversive mode and its socio-political import is not too hard to detect: there is no way out, only a way on. There is a mercenary edge to this novel and this, sad to say, is not always traceable to an alien corrupt civilization. To borrow from Shakespeare, there is something rotten in the state of Zimbabwe!

Works cited

Mikhail Bakhtin, 1921. 'Discourse in the Novel'. In: Tzetzan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mikhail Bakhtin, 1984. Rabelais and his World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

J. Eppel, 1992. DGG BERRY's The Great North Road. Cape Town and Johannesburg: Carrefour Press.

J. Eppel, 1993. Hatchings. Cape Town: Carrefour Press.

J. Eppel, 1994. The Giraffe Man. SA: Quellerie Publishers.

J. Eppel, 2001. Selected Poems 1965-1995. Bulawayo: Childline.

J. Eppel, 2002. The Holy Innocents. Bulawayo: 'amabooks [P.O.Box 9160, Hillside, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe].

Milan Kundera, 1986. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Maurice Vambe, 2000. 'Dambudzo Marechera's Black Sunlight: Carnivalesque and the Subversion of Nationalist Discourse of Resistance in Zimbabwean Literature.' In: Journal of Literary Studies 16(3/4), pp. 89.

Theunissen 271-272, http://www. chap2a.html. Accessed 9/30/02.

Zimbabwe OV Literature [Politics] John Eppel

Last modified 2 June 2003