Memories of a Killing, Visions of a Haunting
On the Violence of Dambudzo Marechera's SCRAPIRON BLUES
The following appears in the current issue of The Scofield.
When I was 12 years old I saw a young man get beaten to death. I don’t know how old he was, maybe 16, 17. I didn’t know his name and had no idea why he was killed. I don’t remember what he looked like. I didn’t even know he was dead until later, much later, when the local evening news ran the story. I recognized the scene. The killing happened on a street just a few blocks from my junior high. Virgil I. Grissom. P.S. 226. Rockaway Boulevard. Queens, New York. I was on my way home from school.
What I do remember: I was walking with my headphones on, probably listening to The Cure. I was obsessed. I remember brittle orange leaves on the sidewalk. I remember walking by a bus stop and a bodega. I walked toward the corner, graffiti, fire escapes, and the great brick wall of stores and apartments on my left.
The young man came running past me. Was he Hispanic? I think so. The neighborhood and school was mostly Hispanic. I’m half-Hispanic (my mother is Chilean), but no one believed me because I spoke no Spanish and had the pale skin of a shaved piglet. He swept by me so fast (I remember immaculate white sneakers) I was made electrically aware that something was wrong. He was in trouble. He was not chasing. He was being chased. He quickly disappeared around the corner. I remember a wave of tension rippling through the other pedestrians. We all locked on each other, and then turned to see a group of young men following, the chasers running full speed. I remember no weapons. I remember thinking this guy’s about to get his ass kicked. I remember running to the corner—we all ran to the corner—my backpack bouncing, headphones dangling from my neck.
When I turned the corner he was there, on his knees, he hadn’t gotten far, and the other young men—in my mind it was three, but maybe it was four, maybe five; memory is ruthlessly fickle—they were holding him down and encircling him so he couldn’t escape, as someone repeatedly slammed his head against the wall. There came an explosion of sirens. The chasers froze, and then let the young man’s body slump and fall. They ran. I remember his body on the floor, head fleshy and broken. I remember blood on the wall. I found out later he was dead.
I hadn’t thought about that for years. I had simply, easily forgotten. It’s not like I was traumatized. It wasn’t even especially unique. New York in the 1980s was a violent place. A few incidents immediately come to mind: When I was 13, there was the Howard Beach killing of 23-year-old Michael Griffith, a black man not welcome in a very white neighborhood, and the several young men who were beaten after that death, in retaliation by other teenagers chanting Howard Beach, Howard Beach… I was chased, too, that summer, and hopped fences. I took refuge in convenience stores. When I was 15, one of my close friends, a girl I’d grown up with, was viciously beaten to death not five blocks from my home. When I was 16, the guy who sat next to me in homeroom was stabbed to death in a fight right outside of school. As a class, we watched the action from levered reinforced windows a few floors up. Newtown High School. Elmhurst, Queens. That one never made the news, and memory mostly, usually spares me. I forget.
Not so, lately. Such memories have been sparked, ignited, fired because of yet more US mass shootings, blood spilled on public streets, in churches, and schools, during traffic stops, at a holiday office party, and because I’ve been reading Dambudzo Marechera’s Scrapiron Blues, the last collection of his posthumously published work. It’s a book drenched with blood, nearly always violent, glaringly preoccupied with “walls,” walls stained with blood, and all this by a writer obsessed with and haunted by memory. The connection is not forced. When I first read “Dreams Wash Walls,” the second piece in the collection, and came across the following line: “Tony is trying to wash all the blood from the inside walls of his flat,” I swear I fell back in time to 1985 and saw that young man’s body on the sidewalk. I hadn’t thought of him in years and Marechera will not let me soon again forget. Tony is “scrubbing loyally away the blood and gore of history,” “trying to wash invisible blood from perfectly clean walls,” and “scrubbing and washing the blood from the dead skin of time.” I call “Dreams Wash Walls” a “piece” because it doesn’t exactly work like a story, per se; most of the pieces in the collection do not. Instead, they work by accumulation. They acquire meaning in tandem, as Scrapiron Blues is comprised of fragments, dreams, poems, anecdotes that seem transcribed from last night’s wadded up bar napkins, unfinished pieces, a novella, short plays, “stories for children” accompanied by drawings done by a six-year old boy, and the occasional “proper” story. It’s terrifying, bewildering, surreal, rough-edged, seductive, cynical, and powerful. Scraps of iron.
The collection largely centers on a small cast of recurring characters and one writer—let’s call him Marechera. They talk in bars, apartments, and restaurants, but mostly bars. Sometimes, Marechera seeks them out. From “Decline and Fall”:
With each mind-wrenching day I could not tell illusion from reality. More than ever I sought out Fred and Jill night and day and, with them, I roamed the town in search of stories and drunken oblivion.
Sometimes the meetings are purely happenstance, and Marechera complains of patrons demanding they teach them how to write. From “A Description of the Universe”:
The guys want to talk to me about books, about how they can write their own. They all want to know the “tricks.” They think there is a formula floating about in the jacaranda-scented air and that I have the key to it.
I usually say, “You got to have a plot see? And the plot has got to have situations. Circumstances. And the situations have got to have characters. And the characters have got to be bound up in a theme. See?”
“What’s a plot?”
“A plot is what happens. But it can also be about itself, see?”
“You mean a plot about a plot?”
“Ad infinitum, yes.”
“What about the situations, the circumstances?”
“Sort of moods, atmospheres. In the head or outside there.”
“I don’t get it.”
“That makes two of us. Like Tony over there,” I point.
“There’s nobody over there.”
I look squinting. This is no one there.
“That’s what a character is.”
“Okay. What about the theme?”
“That’s a sort of current that sweeps everything along, like a river in a flood.”
“Waiter, another round of draught, please.”
The brief scene makes for a good lens through which to read the whole collection, as it too is filled with booze, and writers, non-writers wanting to be writers, barroom storytellers, and fictional characters that magically live both within story and without, confusing any dependable sense of reality. Not to mention Marechera’s work does to some extent follow these instructions, but also ignores them in favor of a language that rushes and breaks from its prescribed banks, like a flooding river. Which brings us back to theme and the blood-drenched walls of this strange book.
Marechera’a life was marked by violent personal loss and the violent military history of Zimbabwe, most recently for him The Rhodesian Bush War, or as it’s locally known “The Second Chimurenga,” which was finished by 1980. His novels House of Hunger and Black Sunlight unflinchingly portray a brutal daily existence in a war-torn country, and formally reflect that fractured existence in their style. His third novel, posthumously published, Mindblast; or the Definitive Buddy goes even further with an explicitly fragmented style and more unorthodox format, comprised of plays, long narratives, short narratives, poems, and a diary. Perhaps this was due to his state of mind while writing, I can’t say for sure. Though he was exhibiting increasingly erratic behavior, was told he might have been schizophrenic, and openly admitted to his paranoiac tendencies. I can say this: Scrapiron Blues, while essentially a ragged hodge-podge of literary B-sides, incomplete projects, and unpublished work, a kind of literary Rauschenbergian combine, it seems uncannily the logical next step after Mindblast. It feels (almost) whole—definitely due to Flora Veit-Wild, the book’s compiler and editor, who also provides a helpful introduction—and it makes for a formally daring “novel,” but is also the splintered document of a mad and terrified mind. By the time of this writing he was living in a dying body (an AIDS-related illness would kill him soon at 35), recovering from waves of paranoia, isolation, and homelessness in a city ravaged by apartheid and civil war. For Marechera, it was a landscape haunted, its walls bursting with invisible blood.
In “The Power” we find out Tony works out his muscles every morning so he will be strong enough to wash those walls:
Tony does not look at the walls when he wakes up. Tony does not see the walls when he does his exercises. The walls—or at least the horrible gore—does not exists when Tony is eating his eggs and toast. And when he is working, the walls might never have existed… The gory detail of the walls hits him. He clutches his chest. The ants are scurrying about, nibbling bits of the inside of his chest. The size of the task confronting him from all the inside walls of the flat seizes his brain. He hurries into the bathroom for his stiff brush, the soap and bucket.
He washes the walls all morning.
For lunch he grills two sausages and three strips of bacon. He smoothes it all down with yoghurt. Then it is back to his work. The walls are his lifetime’s epic. His Iliad. His Paradise Lost. His Age of Reason. It is a superhuman task, trying to wash away all that blood.
That blood of course is imagined.
In the short play The Alley, two vagrant war veterans, Rhodes and Robin, discuss the metaphysical properties of a wall:
Rhodes: …When I have to slink out into the street and heaven’s people stare right through me as if I wasn’t there. All those hundreds of people staring through me. And I begin to question my own existence, like maybe I’d faded away during my sleep. I mean if they can all look right through me, who am I to insist that I’m still there—something solid in their direct line of vision? Don’t they say only a lunatic insists on his sanity when everyone else has confirmed he’s bonkers, conked out, round the bend, mentally kaput, ironed out his thoughts, greased out of his imagination… Oh quit it Robin, there’s nothing there. Just a wall.
Later, after Robin strikes that wall with his fists, even shoots it with a gun, and stains it with his own blood, Rhodes announces:
I am your wall, and you are my wall. And the game we tried during the war of mounting each other like dogs in severe heat has not yet been settled. Maybe that is the matter of what is going on in your mind.
The wall is a rich and revisited image for Marechera. Two more related examples—from The House of Hunger:
A doorway yawned blankly into me: it led to a smaller room: numb, dark and also utterly empty. I could not bring myself to touch the walls to prove that they were really there… For some reason I began to wonder if I was really in there; perhaps I was a mere creation of the rooms themselves. Another doorway brooded just ahead of me.
And from the end of his unnerving poem “Amelia”:
…Gatling guns’ white-hot bullets
Still tear night’s writhing veil to shred.
And my Amelia in luminous white nightdress
Her small fists pounding my bared chest,
Gasps, lies still. The walls shake to the rhythm of my
The “wall,” for Marechera, is porous, but a veil of reality, just seemingly surface. It is bi-dimensional, wholly liminal, within and without. It is the wall; it is the hand that strikes the wall; and it is the bone and blood within the striking hand. It is the ghost of violence, and all the world, every surface, is haunted.
There is a fascinating pseudo-scientific theory called Stone Tape Theory that claims “ghosts” and “hauntings” are in fact not supernatural at all, but merely replays. Visual echoes. Events, especially highly dramatic and violent events are recorded, stored, and sometimes made visibly accessible. Some say the events are recorded in light, some say magnetic fields, some say “energy.” Some say don’t be ridiculous. I have never seen a ghost, but I have been to places that felt scarred. I have stood on the train tracks where my friend was murdered in 1985, shuddered, and left soon after. Later that week, I was trying to write a story about her, and while I was writing, I had an eerie feeling someone was in the room. I was being watched. I looked up and saw my friend’s face on the television news. Her smiling class photo. The case was being reopened. My eyes pooled. I thought I was losing my mind. In retrospect, I can’t help but feel like I had somehow conversed with the memory of the physical world. I asked questions of that particular dirt, of those rails, and to my shock, the dirt spoke back. I had never experienced anything like it before and I have not experienced anything quite like it again. It remains a singular moment of my life.
While reading Marechera, I became convinced he was someone who daily experienced that sort of metaphysical traffic. He saw ghosts. The walls and stones cried out. More, Marachera’s ghosts are not content with talk. They take. The ghost of a suicide in “Black Damascus Road,” takes “to the grave with him [the] more sentimental pictures of humanity,” and the two ghosts of “Killwatch,” another short play, want to kill you. Marechera’s Zimbabwe is predatorily haunted place.
I like the idea of Stone Tape Theory, regardless of how “pseudo.” It’s poetic, dreamy, and moving. I like the notion of place and existence somehow inextricably bound, that memory can remain like an ethereal etching. One might even say literature depends on it. Without it we would certainly have no flâneur, and no W.G. Sebald, no Annie Dillard, no Marechera. It also might (almost…) literally be how memory works. Recent studies in psychology tell us that memory is in fact dependent on place. A process called “episodic memory formation” hypothesizes that the part of the brain known as the retrosplenial cortex specifically records and ties physical place to the more memorable events in our lives. Which means Stone Tape Theory has it at least conversely right. Place etches on us. Alas, we do not etch on it. According to science, anyway, but not for Marechera (and, if I’m honest, not for me). The stories in the second half of this collection display a more formal control but are no less disturbing and place-obsessed. Children are forced to navigate alone a world ruined by the nightmare of history and riddled with corpses. In “The Concentration Camp,” the longest piece in the collection, a young girl lives a “hard and harsh” life in “huts made of sticks and grass, plastered with mud to keep out the cold”:
Once there had been a big village with more than two hundred families; but the Rhodesian soldiers came with guns and bombs and most of the villagers were killed. The rest were taken to concentration camps many miles away… The guards at the gate had rifles. They were Africans. These guards always searched Rudo’s mother very carefully whenever she and Rudo were going or returning from the river. Rudo did not like it because the men would put their hands inside her mother’s dress. Though there was nothing she could do, Rudo was learning something important about the world in which she lived.
In the short play “The Breakdown Scrapiron Blues” the idea of family is rendered utterly meaningless in a morass of incest, adultery, and violence in a suburban sitting room.
In “Babel” the streets force Jane to remember “weird violence” and “queer dreams”:
These were not her dreams. These were other people’s dreams. When she stopped to buy a paper, the white newsvendor’s dream hit her squarely in the jaw. She reeled about to faint. Very high above her head, as she walked to the school, the brilliant blue morning burred softly with the dream of a Boeing 747 which was also carrying the dreams of the minds and passions inside it.
It was right, was it not, to live only your dream and no one else’s? It saved time, terror and trouble. There had been a time when everyone tried to live everyone else’s dream. The history textbooks called it the Struggle. Called the Chimurenga. It was death, living someone else’s dream. She had seen the pictures. The massacres. The atrocities. The dying sons and slogans. The vivid hatreds. Minds exchanging nightmares of blood and mutilation.
The streets always forced her to remember weird things like that. There was something terrible and tangible about such a past. It lurked in wait. It set its wire snares. It lay in ambush.
Marechera’s world is a hostile affront and history, memory, is a killer. He cannot escape and it’s driving him mad. Again, from “Dreams Wash Walls”:
I try not to listen. I try hard not to. Because I am trying to pounce on my own story too. I am trying to grasp the kind of story that will take in the swimming-pool skin of the Harare skies, the slightly mocking darkness that underlies sunset’s briefly glowing coals, before the hand of anxiety clenches its darkness around the city. In the mind the roof rattles. The plaster comes down.
And again from The Alley:
Robin: …Know what’s behind that wall? It’s something that wants me.Something that has always wanted me from the very beginning of human life. It’s there and it’s not there. Sometimes I took it for my own desires, my own needs…You said it yourself. It can be anything behind that wall. Do you think it’s a crematorium? Or one of those secret offices where germicidal decisions are made? A conspirator’s den, perhaps? There is a funny smell—can’t make it out.
Rhodes: …Thousands dies like animals to the slaughter during that war. You’ve seen the photographs of hundreds of skulls and ribs dug up from those mass graves. Did you use them for target shooting? Do you want to hear them? They are right behind that wall. You just strike the wall like last time and you’ll hear about reconciliation. Want to try?
What I find so terrifying and desperately sad in Marechera’s vision is how alien it is to my experience. The walls of his Zimbabwe, a nation then rent by war, racism, fear, and bloodlust, hide an undying thirst for human violence. Marechera cannot forget. The land will not allow it. Regrettably, this is very un-American.
A few days after I finished Scrapiron Blues 14 people were killed in a mass shooting in Southern California. A tragedy. A disgrace. What I found so very frightening was how so many of us quickly displaced and forgot the more than 300 mass shootings of the very same year that preceded it. How so many of us forgot a significant portion of those shootings were perpetrated by white men, too often in support of radical extremist Christian values. How so many forgot that terror, as a method, does not discriminate. Muslims do it. Christians do it. Worst of all, by now, we have effectively forgotten it happened at all. No policy change or media coverage proves otherwise. We are a nation afraid. But we are not haunted. We conveniently ignore and forget about our ghosts.
I cannot help but wonder if this is partly due to the particular place we inhabit. The US is big, very big. Savannah, Georgia is haunted (I’m told). It is also small. The south is haunted, in part, and there are trees still standing from which hung and swayed the bodies of murdered black men, women, and children. But there are also Formula One Races, Kentucky Derbies, and Real Housewives (I, too, am a fan). We are distracted, and so we forget. San Bernardino is haunted. I’m sure Sandy Hook is still haunted. I wonder if one can say the same for Oklahoma City. Place names themselves become metonyms and stand for the violence committed on their grounds, but only for so long. There is no such memory, no such event, associated with the US as a nation, certainly not since The Civil War. Even 9/11 has escaped the traditional place-based-traumatic memory, as if to refuse geography and embrace time. Month. Year. And yet the slogan most associated with 9/11 is Never Forget. But we do forget. We have forgotten. War, xenophobia, and ignorance blossomed like choking weeds in those days, not just courage, nobility, and unity. Just days after, 9/12, or 9/13, I personally pulled a man, a regular at the bar where I poured drinks, away from a polite Sikh gentleman wearing a turban who was enjoying a tall lite beer. I tried to explain to the regular that Sikhs and Muslims do not share a religion even remotely similar. He said he should get a bomb, and “blow the towelhead up.” The police were called. Meanwhile, I read just today that a young woman wearing a head covering in a coffee shop in Texas was threatened and abused. She was driven to tears. When her friend arrived the manager was asked to explain his lack of action, and the others present were asked to please explain their silence and apathy. A patron then asked both women to go ahead already and leave the country.
I should also say, for all its nightmarish poetic power, Scrapiron Blues suggests a kind of ugly insulated aggression, an unquestioned misogynistic reflex, and a sort of self-obsessed personal mythmaking I find troublesome, but most terrifying of all is Marechera’s cynicism. Scrapiron Blues paints a beaten portrait of humanity, one that claims the only way out of violence is through violence—not ours, but theirs, the war-makers, and perpetrators, the killers. The land itself must fill with blood until the walls and stones cry out for vengeance. Only through that deathly fear might we remember what it is to be human.
I want to believe he is wrong.
I’m reminded of Roberto Bolaño, another writer haunted by memory and violence, and of a particularly haunting piece of his work, the infamously overwhelming and brutal novel-long section of his masterpiece, 2666, called “The Part About the Crimes.” There has been much debate over the purpose of those nearly 300 pages, based on real crimes, and Bolaño’s unflinching poetic reportage on the bloody murders of several hundred women. For me, at their core, those pages simply insist we remember, that we do not forget. Every ghost has a face, a family, and a name. They haunt.
I’m reminded of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.
I’m reminded of Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, all of these being gauntlets, and testimony, provocations that dare us to forget.
There are some 321 million Americans on some 3.8 million square miles of land. Talk about a lot “place.” Maybe there’s a book out there yet that will spare us from obscenely spilling enough blood to fill up all that acreage, a book that will etch on all of us, a book that will sufficiently haunt us, everyone.