NOT TO BE MISSED
"Question de pouvoirs", a novel by Bessie HEAD
Carouge-Genève: Editions Zoë, 1995. (262p.).
Translated into French by Daisy Perrin. Original title: "A Question of power" .
Ce compte rendu en français
A Question of power by Bessie Head was published to great acclaim in 1974. It is indeed a challenging and unique contribution to the world of African letters. "Unique", because it echoes the very personal experience of an author, born in a strongly segregated South Africa to a white mother "locked up in a 'loony bin' to save the family name", and a black father who she never met. "Challenging", because the main character's search for meaning is taking place in the confines of overwhelming hallucinations, paranoia and delusions that bring her to the brink of suicide. But this gruelling journey on the other side of rationality raises many issues that remain beyond reason: the essential nature of men and gods, and the ill-defined nexus of madness and reason that "reveals the distinction between what men are and what they pretend to be" .
In a letter dated July 1972, the author mentioned that A Question of power was "written at two levels" , one driven by earthly preoccupations and the other by conflicts of the mind. The narration moves freely between the two as it follows the narrator's fluctuating state of mind. At the first level, it tells the story of Elizabeth, a South-African woman victimised by apartheid rhetoric and ruthless discrimination; one who spent her childhood in foster care and orphanages; who had to leave South-Africa with her young son for political reasons, and became a stateless person in neighbouring Botswana; one who is and feels, neither black nor white, and finds it impossible to fit into artificially segregated societies. The internal turmoil engendered by "an abiding sense of alienation and aloneness"  that constitutes the second level of writing, pushes her to the brink of madness, but it does not prevent her from moving forward as best she can, and to "long for some sane normal routines".
Upon arriving in Botswana, Elizabeth works as a primary-school teacher in the remote village of Motabeng, but the school lets her go after a 'temper' outburst leads her to a brief hospitalisation. Eugene, a South African exile like her, comes to the rescue. He is in charge of Motabeng's secondary school and beside his teaching duties, he is passionate about "spreading out the network of his educational programme to include elementary-school leavers with no future. They formed the youth-development work-groups of the school and acquired skills in building, carpentry, electricity, printing, shoe-making, farming and textile work" (p.68). He has a thousand and one things going on at the same time, and when he invites Elizabeth to join in one of his projects in communal gardening, he is indeed throwing a life-line to a lost soul.
Contrary to common stereotypes misrepresenting his occupation and Boer origins, Eugene "blurred the dividing line between the elite who had the means for education and the illiterate who had none. Education was for all. He always turned up something for everyone", thus the narrator comments: "In this respect, he was an African, not a white man, and the subtlety of it spread to his conduct in every-day life" (p.72). Providing some form of assistance to Elizabeth was not born of ethnic or class solidarity, but of a sense of communal duty.
Kenosi is of the same mind when she invites Elizabeth to resume work in the communal gardens, allowing her to escape the deadly embrace of ghoulish characters tormenting her. Kenosi is "the sort of woman who simply ate up all the work in front of her, with a deep silence and concentration [...] " (p.88), but she is also one who looks beyond work itself to forge vital links with others. It is she who brings Elizabeth back to the world of the living when the end seems drawing nigh; thus the narrator saying: "Elizabeth clung to the woman. There seemed to be no other justification for her continued existence, so near to death was she" (p.89).
Elizabeth's survival is due to the support of Kenosi and other neighbours who live around her: people who have no clear understanding of the metaphysical issues tormenting her, but a sense of organic solidarity that gives meaning to their life in the context of harsh and unforgiving circumstances. In their collective approach, they emphasise an integrative approach to human deviance that subsumes idiosyncratic visions of otherness and rigid social expectations. Botswana was not South Africa.
Like Eugene, Gunner, Birgette, Tom and many other characters, Kenosi is "impossibly God-like" (p.80) in her expression of human sorority and brotherhood. "God is people. There is nothing up there. It's all down here" (p.109), the narrator says, and the march towards a bettering of the local community's living conditions that emerges from her depiction of Motabeng gives credence to this pronouncement. New means of production, new ventures and new opportunities for all are extending traditional knowledge and impacting on every-day social interaction.
As the author wrote in her July 1972 letter, "The people I work with come in and keep moving steadily and sanely through the book, just as beautiful as they are in real life" . But below this smooth surface of human virtue lies a world of "horrific cruelties and perversions", the kingdom of the mind that harbours the darkest drives of humankind. In these oppressive places where everything is dominated by deception and manipulation, the voices roiling in her mind keep reminding her that Goodness always carries the seed of Evil. Man is God, but he is also Satan. Both are inseparable and it is delusive, they argue, to think that because "there are so many magnificent people alive, [...] mankind will awaken to the wonder in their own souls" (p.191). Men are beasts; self-proclaimed prophets are frauds; benevolent spirits are always outdone by ferocious ones; and both evil and goodness are avatars of elusive forces fighting for supremacy under the gaze of indifferent gods.
The second level of Elizabeth's journey is thus a frightful and disturbing venture into her soul a hellish patch of sorrows populated by ghoulish characters fighting noisily about power, evil and the nature of God. Cut off from the power of mediation of "real" others when she closes her eyes, she is precipitated into an universe dominated by bullies and tyrants who subjugate her to their will. In sharp contrast to the "real" people of Botswana who come to her rescue when she feels down, these "disembodied people" inhabiting her mind give free rein to fear, anguish and destructive forces. They smash her ego and reopen old wounds associated with her mother's confinement to a psychiatric asylum, the evil of the South African government treating Black Africans "like dogs", and their contention that she does not even have the right to exist.
In the darkest hours of distress, no God comes to her rescue. People do. And it dawns on her that "the basic error seemed to be a relegation of all things holy to some unseen Being in the sky" (p.206). Thus her credo: "There is only one God and his name is Man" (p.206). But many people, misled by their ego, piety, enculturation, racist inheritance, envy and all kind of blinders, cannot see the numinous beauty of human life in its diversity. To them humanity does not mean togetherness, but segregation and oppression. And when "man is not holy to man, he can be tortured for his complexion, he can be misused, degraded and killed" (p.206). Man is God, yet coexists with Evil; he is the Supreme being who can sooth the pain and tyrannize others, the only one able to figure out the boundaries between wisdom and folly.
A Question of power is not a rational account of "madness in action", but a kind of dialogue between the destabilising voice of madness that settles in the narrator's mind at regular intervals, and the appeasing voice of reason that dominates her life when she manages to shake off the demons who haunt her nights. In so doing, the novel reconnects the sane and the insane, the two sides of the same coin that can only be understood in the context of their wholeness. In this matter, as in many others, the narrator suggests, fragmentation-like segregation obscures meaning and generates mental constructions that only serves the interest of a select few, keen to foist their power on others and to determine who is God-like and who is not; who has the right to inhabit the earth and who hasn't; who belongs to the mob and who does not.
This perceptive view of the physical-cum-mental tyranny of thoughts emphasises the malefic nature of power-worship and provides a common thread that runs throughout the novel. It explains both Elizabeth's torments and her indefatigable search for values benefiting everyone, irrespective of race, gender, mental health, beliefs and ideas: values such as universal education that turns up something for everyone, communal agriculture that feeds the population rather than sustains the profit of agribusiness, modesty that prevents "assumption of greatness [that] leads to a dog-eat-dog fight" (p.39); reliance on human rather than celestial powers. In this context, the last sentence of the novel encapsulates well Africa in the way she wanted it to be, open, equalitarian and welcoming to all: "She had fallen from the very beginning into the warm embrace of the brotherhood of man because, when a people wanted everyone to be ordinary, it was just another way of saying man loved man. As she fell asleep, she placed one soft hand over her land. It was a gesture of belonging" (p.206).
Like the dreams and nightmares that revisit one's life in a skewed and strange manner, Elizabeth's frightful foray beyond "normality" helps to better understand people's fundamental drives and metaphysical fears. It tells of their god-like nature, but also emphasises the dangers of their evil dispositions and endless pursuit of power. Forty years after the publication of the novel, South Africa is no longer the segregated country it once was, but new types of apartheid are emerging everywhere in the world, fuelled by a ruthless pursuit of supremacy based on cut-throat competition in every field of human endeavour, from food production to education. Mateship and ordinariness is not the order of the day while Prozac reigns supreme and the rich and powerful continue chasing new gods, increasingly unsympathetic to the masses and their environment.
1. "Letter to Randolph Vigne", June 4 1972. Randolph Vigne (Ed.). "A gesture of belonging. Letters from Bessie Head, 1965-1979". London: SA Writers, 1991. p. 164. This collection of 107 letters offers a fascinating insight into Bessie Head's life and literary activities. Among other things, they provide vital pieces of information on the writing and publishing contexts of "A Question of power".
2. Wikipedia's page about "Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason" by Michel Foucault (French original published in 1961). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madness_and_Civilization. [Sighted 3 February 2013].
3. "Letter to Randolph Vigne", July 21 1972. "A gesture...", p.165.
4. "Introduction". "A gesture...", p.6.
This review is based on the French translation of the novel, but quotes and page numbers are from the English original published by Heinemann in 1974.
Editor ([email protected])
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities