The Freedom of Absence, or Absent Freedom: Mazvita's Struggles in the City

Valerie Braman '00.5, English 119, Brown University

There is little to remember in a face with which no intimacy has been shared, to which there is no kinship. There is nothing to lose between strangers, absolutely no risk of being contaminated by another's emotion; there are no histories shared, no promises made, no hopes conjured and affirmed. Only faces offered, in improbable disguises, promising freedom. [P. 11]

Mazvita did not have to know anyone. Not herself, not anyone. Knowing was a hindrance. It pinned you down. After that you started recognizing people. Recognizing yourself. That was danger. It was best to remain anonymous. Some things you just can't figure out. Harari was like that. To be here was not to be here at all, that's what made being here. It was special. The absence filled you up. It didn't creep up on you, try to surprise you, gently and anonymouslyÉ.. Its undoubted ability for harm. People liked that about absence. They had tired of being here, choking on every thought. Thinking was dangerous. Absence more so. They chose the greater danger, arriving unprotected, ready to be injured. This is how naïve they were about freedom. [P. 45]

In Yvonne Vera's powerfully disturbing novel, Without A Name, Mazvita's "naïve" journey into the city illuminates her desperate need to leave her past, her life, her memories, and herself behind. Mazvita believes that the city, and the city alone, can create for her the anonymity and the context of strangers that she deems necessary to her survival. However, the freedom that Mazvita seeks remains a far away dream for her throughout the novel, and her thwarted attempts to find both new beginning and endings lead her around in a painful, self-destructive circle.

Given the violent and severe events that Mazvita has experienced, as either observer or participant, from the burning of her home to her rape by a strange soldier, the reader cannot help but agree that knowledge and memory ("recognizing yourself") are dangerous. Repeatedly, the reader is told that Mazvita has forgotten her name, or that she is unable to remember details of conversations, situations, and even the faces of those who have played significant roles in her life. At times, she is removed not only from her own consciousness, but also from her own body, as she speaks of detatched limbs and head. She cannot force herself to consider the possibilities of her baby's paternity; and when she does try to clear her head of the mists to assess her situation, it seems to be only because she is overtaken by her memories, and not because she is controlling them. Apparently, the freedom for which Mazvita longs involves not only the absence of recognition by others, but also, by herself, as she had to become "a stranger to herself" as well as to others.

It was hard for her to establish disguises that would permit her to be unrecognizable to her world, so that she could follow it successfully. It meant becoming a stranger to herself, first of all. Her eyes, therefore, were vital to her survival. [P. 68]

Mazvita's notions of freedom are inextricably tied to those of anonymity, specifically, that which is to be found in the busy, crowded city. However, although the people she encounters in the city may take no notice of her, may serve as strangers and allow her to serve the same function for them, Mazvita is not always capable of maintaining the same sense of estrangement from herself, Mazvita's past, although clouded over with the mists of her pain, remains an unwelcome and known companion to her throughout her journeys towards freedom. Though she forgets her name, she soon remembers it, well enough to sing it to her baby, and though she feels she must leave her home, she also feels drawn to return to it. Her self-strangeness apparently cannot be absolute.

If often difficult to follow, both because of the nonlinear story line, the complex images and symbols, and the missing details, the novel's themes of "strangeness," absence, and loss of identity are heightened and made all the more present to the reader in a tangible way through Vera's techniques of narrative. We, as readers, are left longing for the information and events needed to fill in the absences that characterize Without A Name. We are left to feel that absence is both too present and not present enough throughout the novel, in terms of our own needs and those of Mazvita, and in this way, we are brought to a sense of understanding of this tortured character. What is Vera trying to tell us about the roles and relationships of strangeness, absence, and freedom to each other as they relate to the fate of this woman, and to her countrymen? Is absence of memory necessary for those who have suffered atrocities, so that they may move on with their lives and experience some sort of freedom? Or, is absence actually a hindrance to freedom, both personal and political, and are memory and knowledge essential to a truly functional future?

Postcolonial Web Zimbabwe OV SYvonne Vera Overview