Oranges and Lemons is my first of several short stories to be reviewed and posted every Tuesday on this blog. Oranges and Lemons is from the anthology of short stories, Tales of Tenderness and Power, written by Bessie Head, one of Africa’s best known women writers who was born in South Africa in 1937. She died tragically early, in 1986, leaving behind her a fine collection of literary works. Tales of Tenderness and Power was the first of her works to be published in 1989 posthumously. Another anthology, A woman Alone has also been published. Her novels include A Question of Power, When Rain Clouds Gather and Maru.
Oranges and Lemons tells the story of two men, Old Ben, who was murdered and Jimmy Motsisi who came to ruin. Old Ben, a butcher, takes delight in serving the neighbourhood with meat every day, making the rounds to deliver special Sunday orders. sometimes, he is not paid, but he delivers all right, even if this kindness makes his pocket empty.
“It was a little more than that. the way he would come into the poky little houses as if the sun was entering the doorway. He would throw his back his head and neigh like a horse.” p 20
This goodness, however, does not prevent the neighbourhood young gangs from murdering Old Ben in cold blood, for the sake of proving their mettle and as a coming of age ceremony. This thugs ruled the townships and villages and “no mother could ever be sure that her young daughter could reach the age of eighteen without either being raped a thousand times or murdered, and murder was a daily affair” p 19.
Jimmy Motsisi, on the other hand, is a man highly respected by everyone for his deep love for his wife and six children. He is an exemplary husband and father in the true sense of the word. Goodness and honesty are not hard-won virtues in him but an intrinsic part of a personality pattern, ingrained in him from infancy by his parents. But just how ingrained are these virtues when Daphne Matsulaka sets her eyes on him and decides to break him and remove that ‘smugness’ from his face’? The process of seduction eventually destroys the sanctity of marriage and ruins Jimmy.
In telling the two separate stories, Bessie Head’s natural story telling flair comes to the fore and she is able to create a link between the two incidents, drawing on such everyday yet pervasive themes as greed, goodness, poverty, viciousness, infidelity, divorce and the potent power of the ‘other woman’ in destroying a home. The author does not moralise but rather points out in a dry manner that, the foibles of the human character can only be overcome through trials and errors of life, especially when rules can have a way of exploding in one’s face. Bessie Head also draws on her personal experiences in South Africa, while reflecting on her fascination with the people and their history and her identification with individuals and their conflicting emotions.
The language is simple and full of dry humour. The author gradually draws the reader into the story so that descriptions of sensitive nature do not assail the reader’s sensitivities. I enjoyed reading this nine page short story and would like to recommend the anthology to anyone interested in African Women Writers. I will be reviewing more of Bessie Head’s short stories, so be on the lookout.