I have so struggled to put Maru (by Bessie Head, published 1971) into context that I even reread the short novel (130 pages) before I attempted to write my thoughts.
My second read solidified my perception that Maru is a type of warped fairy tale, one especially with no happily ever after. Although the prince-like Maru marries the despised and hated woman of the town of Dilepe, Margaret is no Cinderella, especially since she loves someone else and considers Maru her equal, not her superior. The two of them have become outcasts in their small African society, and we know from the first pages that both suffer from their fates.
Maru is the son of a chieftain, destined to become the next village chief, and is able to wield the power of his opinion in the town. Beyond that, he has the remarkable ability to see into people’s hearts, to view their dreams, and to give people the same dreams he has. When the orphaned Masawra woman Margaret enters the town, proud of her upbringing and training from a white missionary, Maru immediately sees his opportunity to teach the community the wrongness of prejudice.
“If I have a place,” he says to his sister. “it is to pull down the old structures and create the new” (page 68). His hope is that the rest of the town will learn from him:
They’d not know where to look because they spend their lives judging each other by things of no consequence. (page 70)
Maru is at the outset about prejudice and the need to overcome it. The Masawra, or bushmen, were the lowest class of people, literally listed next to the zebras as inhabitants of the bush.
Africans in Southern Africa could still smile—at least, they were not Bushmen.…There is no one [the Bushmen] can still turn round to and say “At least I am not a ____”(page 11)
Margaret’s Masawra mother had died on the outskirts of a town. The missionary’s wife adopted the infant girl and trained her to be a teacher and a leader, giving the orphan her own name and hoping to prove to the society that heredity is nothing, environment everything. Yet, maybe a little like the orphaned Cinderella, Margaret learns by experience that her place in society is quite different from the white woman’s hopes, since the world only sees her as an “it”: a Masawra.
Margaret is a complicated woman, and I felt that Ms Head’s writing fails to completely explain her, although maybe it is as it should be. Margaret is proud to be a Masawra and declines to hide behind a different label. (She has the same skin coloring as a “coloured” person, who has one African and one white parent, and could easily have “passed” as “coloured”.) Sometimes, we learn that Margaret believes “she was more than [Maru’s] equal” (page 64), but other times she seems paralyzed by the ridicule of the town, unable to avoid hiding in her lonely room.
Maru is likewise complicated, but I despised him, so I have a hard time believing his motives to be pure. He pursues and marries Margaret supposedly because he wanted to give the rest of the world a message, that prejudice is ridiculous, that Masawra are people too. In the first pages novel, which reveal the outcome of the rest of the novel as the bulk of the novel is a flashback, Ms Head writes the opinions of Maru’s servants, and their impressions seem full of scorn:
Every new and unacceptable idea had to be put abruptly into practice, making no allowance for prejudice. … The man [Maru] who slowly walked away from them was a king in their society. A day had come when he had decided that he did not need any kingship other than the kind of wife everybody would loathe from the bottom of their hearts. (page 6)
To the servants and to the rest of Dilepe, Maru is as good as dead. They no longer care for him. I too didn’t like Maru, not because he’s trying to overcome the traditional prejudice but because he does so in a manipulative way. Did Maru really love Margaret? This question seems to be the crux of the novel. In fact, I think Ms Head attempts to redeem Maru. (If that was her purpose, I don’t think she succeeded. I still dislike him.)
Another important aspect of the novel, then, is the question of love. What is sincere love? I have not even mentioned Moleka, the local man who had a reputation for sleeping around but who finally finds a magical, non-lustful love in the woman Margaret. This novel is a novel because of his presence. To me, it seemed that Moleka is the one who truly loves Margaret, and whom she too loves. Maru, on the other hand, attempts to influence society by his actions; he tricks Moleka and Margaret so that he gets the girl he wants in the end, so he can be the high moral individual who ignores prejudice. He seems to act not out of love but out of desire for his place in society, ironically being cast out from society even as he makes that choice.
The end (which is the beginning, since we know how it will end from page one), seems like a failed fairy tale. Yes, the “prince” married the lower class “Cinderella” figure. But the community still rejected them. This is a more realistic fairy tale, though. In what society is the Cinderella completely accepted?
Of course, the fairy tale analogy fails in many ways. Ms Head was not trying to write a realistic fairy tale; she was simply trying to show the complications of modern prejudice in an insular Botswana or South African community. Maru, who tries to overcome prejudice, still comes across as prejudiced, since he noticed Margaret simply because she was a Masawra. Maru wanted the challenge of conquering a person who doesn’t consider him important, and Margaret fit the description.
In the end, my favorite character in the novel was Dikeledi. She still had to learn to control her prejudice. Although she loved Margaret and was a true friend, even she sometimes found herself considering the difference between Margaret as a Masawra and the rest of the community. The prejudice was so deeply ingrained in her upbringing that she too had to overcome her prejudice. She was the one who said a line that seemed to be ironic in its import to the novel. The author Bessie Head must have wanted this to be true in the fictional village of Dilepe:
There’s no such thing as Masawra…There are only people. (page 65)