Saskam Express: A must-read

HARARE - Lillian Masitera has established herself as a story-teller of note in Zimbabwe.

Her biggest weapon is her ability to top carve real-life characters, who have their flaws and all.

The journey motif is not an unusual style in African fiction.

With its roots in the folktale where even the animal characters could travel to or from far away places, the journey motif has remained a success tool for most story-tellers.

With Masitera, the plot revolves around uninteresting journey peppered with wit and humour and replete with parallel themes about how the protagonist Laina and her niece respond to outrageous torture.

Masitera uses words which make her novel Saskam Express compelling reading.

The dialogue in particular is rich and refreshing as it enriches characterisation. The initial encounter between Laina and Zirazata is quite revealing about character as well as theme.

“I can’t thank you enough. We old needy citizens —” (p8) to which Zirazata responds: “ No! … You are not old, you are just needy. Everybody needs someone.” sounds both ironic and sincere.

Yes, one might argue, Laina is needy in the actual sense of the word but becomes heavily ironic when one considers Zirazata’s words. She is needy of love or “someone”.

Junior and Munya’s dialogue in the hospital tells a lot about character. “What about the man in the second bed on the left?”

She nodded in the direction of the patient. “Oh him” Munya talked while sorting out the food labels. He knew the case without looking up.

“You are looking at a man whose life and will to live is pouring out between his legs” (p13).

For example when Zira, the pimp, says to a young woman “June, why would a bright girl like you concern herself with such commonplace, tired issues? Marriage is about ordinary things, boring duties, work , squabbles, sorting out squabbles……”

Masitera tries to go back in times as Laina  is reminded of her pension that is pending.

The economic meltdown during the time of the story has swallowed up her pension.

Laina says of it: “I am sure your pension money is stuck there somewhere in these tall great buildings. If you really should sink, we go together seeing as I do I am leaning on you.  I always have.” (p18).

No one would want the painful reminders of 2008.  Masitera does it so vividly in Saskam Express where she portrays Laina as having worked all their lives in the teaching field but are yet to be paid their terminal benefits.

“I devoted my entire life to making the young love mathematics. Now when I am burnt out, they can’t leave me in the cold, groping in darkness. Why are they absolutely silent about my terminal benefits?”(p19).

It appeared a number of people are looking back and seeing a better life behind them as Zira also looks back at his days at the animal sanctuary.

His closeness to nature there made him feel the being in him.

Laina would want to “bake bread and cook stuff that will give my kitchen a solid country air. Uh, I want slaughter and joy not thugs urban rush, uncertainty, like walking on quicksand.” (p20).

Perhaps the power of Masitera’s description is what makes Saskam Express unique. It stands out as one of the distinguishing features of her narrative technique.

The description of the kombi in Chapter 3 is a typical example.

“With the conductor’s head sticking out of the window and the conductor swinging from the door, the vehicle resembles a snail with deformed antennae or an immense exotic tortoise.”

Again the inclusion of the kombi in the plot of the story reminds the reader that they are dealing with something extra-ordinary in terms of writing.

What Masitera does, and does so effectively is to portray characters who have emerged from a crippling hyper-inflation which is known to all and sundry. 

Somehow, the story becomes one of disillusionment and determination, courage and familial devotion.

Saskam Express is available at Book Cafe, Mambo Bond Street and Baroda bookshops and is a must-read for all book-lovers.

Masitera has also written Start With Me, The Trail, Now I Can Play and Militant Shadow, which are all in stock at Innov8.

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