Vivian and A Mouth Full of Earth
Vivian und Ein Mund voll Erde
München: Langen Müller, 2001
(Original paperback edition)
"A Mouth Full of Earth" is the first African novel of the best seller author Stefanie Zweig. It was published since 1980 and received many literary awards. The novel is preceded with "Vivian", an autobiographical introduction in which the author in approximately 50 pages describes her personal relation to the maiden's image in her first novel. Vivian is an orphan and lives with her father alone in Kenya.
Nevertheless there are many similarities to Stefanie Zwieg's biography. The author confirms among others that she herself is also bound by a close childhood friendship and infantile love with a young kikuyu, as implied in "A Mouth Full of Earth". The friendship ends abruptly as the circumcision and initiation of the 14 years coincides with the departure of the family to Germany: Jogona passes his last night before the close of the initiation with Vivian and disappears without a trace.
In the autobiographical part of the book "Vivian", Zweig confirms, that the separation was not only difficult to overcome by the young Kenyan but also herself. In a retrospective view she describes how she, in a totally strange "native country" Germany, for a long time felt a similar nostalgia like her father in Kenya, after the flight of a Jewish family from Germany. The German maiden who grew up in Africa doesn't feel at home in Germany but in Kenya; and in the autobiographical part of the text the author herself acknowledges that not only her literary figure but also she herself as a seven years old maiden had prayed that the great kikuyu- god Mungu should allow her "to become black and make her a respectable kikuyu lady with a big hut and four daughters".
The title of the book, "A Mouth Full of Earth", acts upon the covenant friendship of both children and the kikuyu custom through which the honesty of an oath is strengthened by swallowing earth - an attached coughing stimulus is a sign that the one taking the oath is not speaking the truth.
Stefanie Zweig: Vivian und Ein Mund voll Erde
(Vivian and A Mouth Full of Earth)
The childhood friendship between Vivian and the young kikuyu Jogona is the focus of the novel. It reflects the gradual assimilation of Vivian and offers an interesting insight into cultural differences and learn-processes. Jogona teaches Vivian colourful kikuyu expression, the evening story telling around the fire and also many laws and rules of conduct about the relation between boys and girls, men and women in everyday life.
From the perspective of her kikuyu friend, Vivian is always described as "stupid" eventhough capable of learning while on the other hand her German father tries to bring her up the German way and is constantly criticising her strange African behaviour. In this way the reader can gradually understand her progress in learning. Vivian learns African languages like kisuaheli, later kikuyu and Nandi but she also masters the "art of silence". She consciously uses words and repetitions and contracts an indirect way of speaking which always drives her father to despair. Vivian on the contrary exercises childish critic on her father who unlike his daughter lacks patience and sensibility to understand and realize these particularities.
With this presentation the reader gains gradually an insight into cultural differences between Africa and Europe, Kenya and Germany. Altogether the high cultural sensibility of the German main character goes never the less to the disadvantage of the African characters who rather serve as "suppliers" and basis of comparison to ensure the increasing "Africanisation" of the German maiden.
Like in many of Stephanie Zweig's books the African background also serves in "Vivian and A Mouth Full of Earth" above all as exotic scene for the development of the German main character.