Published by: Weaver Press, 2005
Distributed by: African Books Collective Ltd (www.africanbookscollective.com)
Set in Zimbabwe, Chinodya’s “Chairman of Fools” tells the story of a successful academic and writer returning home after an overseas teaching position. Returning to find his family changed, but his culture and traditions the same, Farai Chari slips into a dark and frightening paranoia. Reality and hallucinations intertwine for Farai, and Chinodya does an excellent job of weaving the two together. At the same time, the book raises important social issues, questioning the relationships between men and women, the expectations placed on men, how people with mental illnesses are treated and the changes Zimbabwe is going through,
“Chairman of Fools” presents an interesting story. Farai represents middle class male chauvinism, and that his story is one of unhappiness and illness makes for a narrative that is curious. Upon his immediate return Farai finds that his wife has become more and more involved in her church, and his children are distant. His professional success has made him materially comfortable, but hasn’t made him happy, and indeed, has trapped him into a life that he must work to continue sustaining. Tradition also binds him to his wife – his family and community would never allow for him to leave. His drinking problem, combined with his wife’s newfound religious zeal, make for a strain in their relationship, and even the intervention of numerous family members has little impact.
Farai slips deeper and deeper into a scene that includes alcohol and prostitutes, and finally spins out of control with a car accident. This is the beginning of his paranoia, which eventually lands him in a mental institution – everything Farai has gone through, and his alcoholic reaction, have aggravated a mental illness – he suffers from bipolar disorder. Suffering from mood exaggerated mood swings – mania and depression, Farai can no longer hide the fact that he is at times delusional. At the mental institution he meets a number of colorful patients, each battling their own afflictions. He is crowned “Chairman of Fools,” by them, and is put in charge of their complaints regarding the day to day running of the mental ward. But he is also introduced to people so different from himself, and from this, learns some important lessons.
The book ends quietly. Life slowly, simply returns to normal, with no big changes. Balancing out his illness with medication, he is deemed well enough to return to the US to teach. Farai and his wife reconcile softly, each admitting their shortfalls. While Farai wants his wife to be someone, something else to him, she will never be this woman who he can be freely himself with. Life continues – it doesn’t get better, or worse. Farai simply gets used to it.
While clearly representing an upper-middle class socio-economic status, Chinodya’s character is one that men in general can relate to. Masculinities in Zimbabwe, and indeed, around the globe, are such that men are often put into positions of expected power, success and responsibility. Should they not meet these expectations, their masculinity can be called into question, affecting not only their own identity and self-esteem, but the ways in which they relate to their families and communities. “Chairman of Fools” is a dark, and at times depressing representation of the despair that can consume, but also demonstrates the very real effects of the pressure often put on male heads of family.
* Reviewed by Karoline Kemp, a Commonwealth of Learning Young Professional Intern with Fahamu.