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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Chairman of Fools

Shimmer Chinodya

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To purchase Chairman of Fools

Title: Chairman of Fools
Author: Shimmer Chinodya
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 182 pages
Availability: Chairman of Fools - US
Chairman of Fools - UK
Chairman of Fools - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly well written, and an interesting glimpse at Zimbabwe, but feels almost too strongly autobiographical

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Chairman of Fools is a novel of crisis and resolution. It focusses on the successful author, Farai Chari, describing the time he spends in his native Zimbabwe between stays in the United States, where he teaches at an American university. He has come home, but there is a strong sense of displacement, manifesting itself most obviously in Farai's incredible restlessness.
       Farai seems closely based on author Chinodya, down to that fourth book that made him famous (Harvest of Thorns, one presumes). Farai -- or at least his name -- is widely recognised, and he keeps running into people familiar with his work, many having had to study it at school.
       Farai has returned to his wife and children, but from the first he's restless and uneasy, and apt to go on drinking binges. He hasn't returned to a safe, stable nest of domesticity either, finding at home: "disconnected phones, unpaid bills and tenants who are allowed to skip rents, fridges and pantries suddenly emptied". He sends his wife enough from abroad, but she also has a career of her own, and it is especially this independence that seems to trouble him.
       Early on he is described as:

He is a man waiting to be found; a confused being waiting to be rediscovered and restored to himself.
       There's supposed to be a film being made about him -- one way of capturing his being, he perhaps hopes -- but even that doesn't go right. And everything else goes disastrously: his aimless drinking binges lead to him wrecking his car, his wife disappears on him. He gets himself into a frenzy trying to get the car fixed, and then searching for his wife and children. In desperation he even looks for salvation in religion -- though in his state he's hardly able to turn to religion, desperately seeking only absolution and answers from the only source he thinks might be able to offer it:
     'Can you pray for me ?'
     'Before we can pray for you, we need to know what your problem is.'
     'My life.'
     'Your whole life ?'
     'My whole life ! I do not know where to go or what to do, or what is happening to me.'
       He finally reaches the breaking point, and finds himself institutionalized. It's the best thing for him -- and it's also presented as a fairly easy and painless solution. Yes, he's mentally ill, but a few days in hospital, a diagnosis of bipolar order, a few pills, and he's all set to go again.
       Chinodya's descriptions of Farai's frenzy, and then the off-beat relative calm of the psychiatric wing -- which is where Farai has his brief reign as 'chairman of fools' -- are quite compelling, and the brief descriptions of Farai's trips abroad and some of what he has encountered begin to give some insight into the character. The constant background music -- especially the singing of Thomas Mapfumo -- is particularly well-used. Much of the feel of the novel is, however, confessional -- and tentatively confessional at that. Chinodya doesn't present a particularly sympathetic character, his Farai not treating people very well and with a very short fuse, but what is presented of him is very focussed on the present, the richer background material only tantalizingly briefly displayed. And, for example, there's far too little about Farai's relationship with his wife (especially before these events) -- which seems to be central to many of his issues (so, at least, she thinks -- and she makes a fairly good case) --, as if that were something Chondya just couldn't bring himself to probe more deeply.
       Chairman of Fools is like a wary admission of mental illness and alcoholism, which the subject is very aware of and admits too, but doesn't want to think about too hard. So, for example, Farai's wife reads up on everything about his condition, while: "He picks up the books and flips through them", but can't really focus on them. Still, the story allows almost incidentally for an interesting glimpse of Zimbabwe (in the time before Mugabe completely ruined it), as well as into the mind and life of author Chinodya.
       Chairman of Fools is a book in which the author seems to be tough on himself, but while he's honest and revealing he's also too relentlessly focussed on himself. Still, a solid, occasionally uncomfortable read.

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Chairman of Fools: Reviews: Other books by Shimmer Chinodya under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and relating to Africa

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About the Author:

       Zimbabwean writer Shimmer Chinodya was born in 1957.

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© 2007-2021 the complete review

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