The Use of Names in Zulus

“Race is a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content.”

So it is with a name. Names carry with them enormous power though, like race, they don’t possess any substantive content. A name like “Julius Caesar” carries with it a host of different associations: Rome, Italy, Europe, war, barbarians, Egypt, and so on, but none of these things are representative of the name “Julius Caesar.” There is nothing in the essence of the person we know as Julius Caesar that suggests that this person is named “Julius Caesar”; rather, it’s the name he was given upon birth and has been passed down to us through history. Likewise, when we see the name of someone we know, we immediately conjure in our minds many things that we associate with that person, their voice, body, some history with them, and so on. So names are both not real and have a dramatic and obvious effect on the world, just as race does.

Titles like “Mr.,” and “Mrs.,” are also names which carry a great deal of meaning behind them, as they denote social status. We can be sure that a “Mr. Johnson” is a male whose surname is Johnson, that a “Mrs. Kim” is certainly a married woman whose surname is Kim. One’s social status is even more clearly displayed when honorific titles like “Sir” or “Lord” are used; both conveying a sense of elevation. Other titles, such as the epithets commonly attached to names in the Iliad and Odyssey, e.g. “resourceful Odysseus” and “swift-footed Achilles” largely exist for the sake of metre, but they nevertheless remind us of basic characteristics of who they’re attached to. In Zulus we also see such epithets used; Alice Acitophel is typically “fat”, Theodore Theodore is “tiny”, and Lucinda Knotes is “perfect.” Due to the nature of the novel not following any kind of metre to necessitate these epithets, it stands to reason that they have been put in to serve some other sort of purpose.

What then is the use of epithets and names in Zulus? The answer is: it isn’t at all clear. Lucinda Knotes’ name, for example, invites the reader to “note” something, or to think that Lucinda is the one “noting” something, but what exactly is being noted or by whom isn’t clear at all. Is the reader supposed to “note” Lucinda, in that we ought to pay careful attention to her, as she’s gradually revealed to be far in character away from her epithet “perfect”? Or is there something else? Why is Theodore Theodore’s name the way it is; what does the repetition imply in the context of the novel? In Fortune’s Bones we see a repetition in Fortune being named and re-named as his true name is forgotten and lost, and a clear connection is made between the loss of individual enslaved persons’ histories and Fortune’s name being lost, but in Zulus the connections are far less obvious and, unfortunately, rarely elaborated on. Perhaps the only place in the novel where names are given any kind of overt importance is in Alice’s debate with herself over the ethics of taking on the dead Esther’s name, but this is brief and seems to lack relation with the rest of the book. Even an overt reference to a name, like “June Imhotep” lacks clear relation to the rest of the story. Imhotep was a doctor; Alice was intended to be sterilized by the state, and to be taken advantage of by doctors by the rebels; June Imhotep herself was a patient in a hospital. “Imhotep” means “I come in peace” and, even if we allow the pun that Alice met June through her job collecting and carrying pee, what greater meaning does it have, if any?

Horace’s quotation in the book, “mutate nomine”—fully, “change only the name and the story is about you”—might be thought to provide some clue as to the use of names in Zulus, but it isn’t clear if that is at all the case. Rather, the use of the quotation in the book seems most closely linked to the theme of self-determination shown by Alice. Her quest to find meaning in her life is something that everyone can relate to, and the many obvious metaphors of entering and exiting caves and vaginal canals and of giving birth to herself make this clear. At the very least, we can understand Alice’s surname, “Achitophel” as a Biblical relation to the wise man who advised David, and we might imagine that Alice is “wise” because she is so bent on defining herself rather than letting those around her act upon her in that way, again echoing the main theme of the book. Theodore Theodore’s name, meaning “God’s gift,” might reflect Alice’s initial attitude towards him in the book as someone who is practically a saint to her, and one whom she falls in love with very quickly. Lucinda, meaning “light”, and relating to the roman goddess of childbirth Lucene, might suggest that Lucinda will be (or will try to be) responsible for the birth of Alice’s supposed daughter. Thus, perhaps, we’re supposed to “note” her first name and are given some foreshadowing for her later efforts to forcefully take Alice back to the camp to be used as a cow. But all of this is very unclear and I’m not sure, which is probably playing right into Everett’s hands with the amount of misdirection and teasing he does in Zulus.

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