Masimba Musodza - Yesterday's Dog
They came at the crack of dawn.
Stanley is on his way to Harare when, close to dozing off, he sees a hitchhiker on the road he thinks he recognises. He picks up the man and memories, mostly unwanted, come flooding back. The hitchhiker is a demon from his past, a man involved with the Rhodesian Security Forces during the conflicts that led, eventually, and after much bloodshed, to the independence of Zimbabwe.
Masimba Musodza, a Zimbabwean writer, slides us easily into Yesterday's Dog. Its beginning follows a well-known trope, that of a returning character creating memories within the protagonist, forcing him to relive a terrible, or joyful time. It's a variation on “the stranger comes to town”, though in this case, set inside a car.
The stranger-who-isn't stirs unpleasant memories. Stanley remembers back to when he was young and full of promise. He was the sort of man where the girls, “always quick to recognise a man with a future beyond the local shopping centre, were throwing themselves at his feet.”
Stanley has won a scholarship to Europe, and this has helped to catch the eyes of the local women. But then the father of a spurned girl turns him into the police, declaring him a part of the magandanga, the nationalist guerillas. Soldiers come at dawn, they knock his door in and take him away. He pleads innocence; they don't care.
The people, his people, were like animals; they had lost their humanity to another people. A people whose right to so dehumanise them was that they had guns and a whole ideology apparatus, which said that they were right to do so because they were white and Stanley's people were not. They were to be herded, rounded up, confined to certain places and sustained only for whatever use they had been designated.
Later, one of the soldiers says,
”It's you educated ones that give us the problems!” one of the soldiers was saying. “You think we like to do this to you, we look on you as our little brother. But we have to, it's our job.”
Ah, they have to. It's their job. A defence turned over legally since the Nuremberg Trials, and morally, surely before then. And yet in every conflict, on every side, people do things because they have to. In every instance, if every soldier stood up and said no, then atrocities would not occur. But that hasn't, and won't, ever happen, and thus men and women, both good and bad, suffer. Clean hands or no, terrible things occur.
They broke three of his teeth, three of his ribs, a leg, and several fingers. They fried his genitals with electricity, and tested the water retention of his lungs by pouring the liquid down his throat with a teapot. In between, they took turns to beat him with sticks. It didn't matter that on the second day, Stanley confessed to being a terrorist. On the third day, he begged them through a broken mouth to kill him.
While reliving these memories, Stanley's anger grows. It is the anger of righteousness, of justification, of a man who can look inside himself and so no reason not to reciprocate the torture of his young adulthood with the murder of one of the principle soldiers who committed it. Pages into the story, and pages into descriptions like the one above, and though we may not condone it, we can agree with it. We feel for Stanley, and we ride along with his anger.
However. This particular soldier is old and worn, his life over and his best years, such as they were, behind him. Time has chewed him up and wrung him dry, and what's left of him isn't much. But not only that – Stanley can't do it. He wanted revenge, but the desire came from the shock of seeing a man he thought he would never meet again. Instead of killing him, they share a beer, and then Stanley quietly confesses that he had been tortured by the man years ago. The hitchhiker replies,
“My brother, how I can even begin to ask for forgiveness? We had to do it, it was the war! Please, look at me, I am a mere grave! Do you see a man who has been favourably rewarded for his deeds?”
Stanley drops the man off in Harare, and then goes to work. Revenge was avoided, and Stanley feels good about it. So far, Musodza has taken the story down a familiar path, which is to say we can see the end from the opening sentences of the beginning. This is effective, and the stark descriptions of brutality and violence greatly enhance the impact. Musodza's writing makes the helplessness of the tortured come alive, but he's able to reign in the anger enough to pull off the quiet parts, too. Musodza picks his style early and plays it straight for almost the entirety of the story.
Almost all? Yes. Yesterday's Dog, in its final pages, goes far beyond its initial conceit and treads into dark and unfamiliar territory. Musodza knows the value of creating a cyclical story, but he also understands that themes and time can be cyclical, too. The sense of release felt by Stanley when he chooses not to kill his former torturer is transformed into the unsettling realisation by the reader that things will not change, and that the sickness of men continues unto every generation.
The malaise of the past becomes the terror of the present, and good men easily become bad when the situation demands. Musodza's skill is to foster empathy within the reader for Stanley, but also for the hitchhiker, and then to demolish the feelings for both. In the end, there are no winners, and yesterday's dog is tomorrow's master. And of course he wants his own dog, too.
Yesterday's Dog by Masimba Musodza is a short story from StoryTime's publication, African Roar (edited by Emmanuel Sigauke and Ivor W. Hartmann). This review is part of a series intending to examine each story from the collection, in an effort to broaden awareness of both the project itself, and the excellent array of authors contained within.
Reviews of other short stories from the African Roar Series