Early on in This Mournable Body, a skimpily dressed woman in ‘sky-high heels’ falls backwards onto muddy ground while trying to climb into a crowded Harare minibus. Nobody comes to her aid. Instead, she’s jeered at. Her offence is hubris, or what the crowd takes to be hubris: ‘Who does she think she is? Let her have it.’ Objects are thrown, misogynistic insults shouted; the dress is ripped from her body. In the middle of the attack, the woman spots Tambudzai – Tambu – the novel’s central character, who lives in the same rundown hostel as her and from whose perspective the events are being described. She pleads for help, but Tambu looks away. It’s left to the driver to come to the rescue. The most Tambu does is drop the stone she was preparing to throw.
There are reasons for Tambu’s strange behaviour. She is unemployed, having resigned from a prestigious advertising agency. She’s resentful of the other women at the hostel because they’re younger than she is and make a point of taunting her. She’s just missed an opportunity to move to better accommodation. Still, the scene subverts the convention that novels should create sympathy for their protagonist. If you are looking for a loveable heroine, or for an inspiring story of feminist solidarity, forget it. This is no portrait of the happy African, a cliché Tsitsi Dangarembga wishes to retire: ‘If someone smiles at you it does not mean they’re happy. It just means “I think that if I smile I might get out of this alive!”’ Tambu is a complex figure with a talent for self-destructive behaviour, a woman who betrays friends, alienates family and – out of envy or misjudgment – sabotages her own best interests.
Later in the novel, Tambu has a disagreement with her cousin Nyasha, to whom she was close as a teenager and whose biography (early years in the UK, return to Zimbabwe, film school in Germany, Zimbabwe again) bears some resemblance to Dangarembga’s. When one of her children is beaten at school, Nyasha is horrified, whereas Tambu has ‘no desire to expend energy on sympathy for a minor matter of corporal punishment. Women in Zimbabwe are undaunted by such things… They go to war. They drug patients in order to get ahead. They get on with it.’ It’s not just that Tambu thinks her cousin has been enfeebled by liberal European ideas. She has her own experience as a teacher to defend, one which came to a premature and disastrous end when she lost her temper with a pupil and beat her so badly about the head that the girl lost her hearing. Over time, she comes to regret this and goes to the girl’s family to apologise. She even considers paying an ENT surgeon to repair the damage, but ends up spending the money on beauty treatments. Tambu isn’t easy to admire, but that’s the point. She’s a product of her education, the war of independence and the injustice she experiences because of her colour and her gender. At times she triumphs over adversity, on other occasions she loses. Strength and success alternate with victimhood and defeatism.
This Mournable Body is the latest of three novels charting Tambu’s up-and-down trajectory. The first, Nervous Conditions (1988), described Tambu’s childhood and early adolescence, as she overcomes the confinement and poverty of village life with the help of her uncle, who offers her a place at the mission school he runs. The second, The Book of Not (2006), covered her late adolescence at a convent school, where she’s part of the 5 per cent quota of black girls, and a job, in her early twenties, as an advertising copywriter. The trilogy – written over thirty years and covering the period from 1968 to 1999 – deserves to be better known. Nervous Conditions has had many admirers, including Chinua Achebe, Alice Walker and Doris Lessing, who called it ‘the novel we have all been waiting for’. The first sentence is irresistible: ‘I was not sorry when my brother died.’ But Dangarembga spent four years trying to find a publisher for it and succeeded only by looking beyond Zimbabwe. And it’s only thanks to the efforts of a small imprint, Ayebia Clarke Publishing, that Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not are currently available in the UK.
Dangarembga knows about struggle, not least against colonialism and its legacy. Nervous Conditions takes its title from Sartre’s introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (‘The status of “native” is a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler among colonised people with their consent’). The title of this latest novel alludes to Teju Cole’s essay ‘Unmournable Bodies’, written in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, which contrasts mournable Western deaths with unmourned deaths in the Third World. Though Tambu frees herself from rural penury through an anglophone education, she still suffers oppression and discrimination. At the Young Ladies College of the Sacred Heart, the prize for best O-level results goes to a white girl, though Tambu’s marks are better. And at the ad agency where she works, she writes the copy for a campaign that wins prizes, but a middle-aged white man takes the credit. Her fierce competitiveness and pursuit of material success aren’t endearing. But how else is she to avoid remaining one of the wretched of the earth? How else can she ‘step away from the flies, the smells, the fields and the rags; from stomachs which were seldom full, from dirt and disease’? In Tambu’s battle to overcome ‘the poverty of blackness on one side, and the weight of womanhood on the other’, the reader is firmly on her side. Both Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not are narrated in the first person. We see the world through her ‘I’.
The new novel is a radical departure. Second-person narration takes over and the ‘you’ pronoun presses the reader into service as Tambu’s double: ‘You drop your gaze,’ goes the passage where she refuses to help the woman during the minibus episode, ‘but do not walk off because on the one hand you are hemmed in by the crowd. On the other, if you return to solitude, you will fall back inside yourself where there is no place to hide.’ Where Tambu’s ‘I’ is inviting, her ‘you’ is coercive. We’re hemmed in, unable to deny the qualities we share with her, even when she’s inhumane. It’s an oppressive narrative method – apt for a novel about oppression. The second person also hints at Tambu’s detachment from the person she used to be, her fractured and faltering sense of identity. Her determination to get an education (so strong that, aged eight, she plants a field of maize in order to raise the money for school fees) separates her from her parents, siblings and fellow villagers. At boarding school, she’s not allowed to use the same toilets as the white girls. And then there’s the disjunction between her circumscribed life at the convent, swotting for exams, and the violence in the country at large. During the war of independence she is busy translating passages from Latin (‘The soldiers have laid waste the city, and the women and children are weeping’) while her younger sister loses a leg when a bomb explodes at a guerrilla meeting. The Rhodesian newspapers Tambu comes across make depressing reading: ‘A person was a nanny, a cook, a boy gardener, boy messenger, boy driver, a member of the African community, until this nanny, cook or boy became a terrorist. Then the person achieved a name.’ Tambu would like to make a better name for herself but to do so means impressing her teachers and bosses, who are white. She dreads being seen with her peasant mother and one-legged sister.
Though Tambu’s divided loyalties and unmet aspirations are apparent throughout the first two novels, This Mournable Body finds her at a new low. She has no friends and is suspicious of anyone who warms to her. She’d like to be married, if only for security, but isn’t resourceful, pretty or young enough to attract suitors. She also lacks sexual experience: ‘You believe you are still a virgin, although there are a few incidents you are not sure of: does it count if, overtaken by circumstances, you had inserted a tampon to make sure you did not get pregnant.’ On a rare outing, she gets drunk at a disco, is ejected after arguing with a woman she mistakes for her former agency boss, Tracey, and wakes up the next morning on the pavement. Then comes the teaching job, the corporal punishment disaster and a spell on a psychiatric ward. In time she’s thought to have recovered. Tambu herself, haunted by the image of a hyena, is not so sure: ‘It has slunk once more as close to you as your skin, ready to drag away the last scraps of certainty.’
The hyena isn’t the only animal image in the book – there are the ants that crawl over Tambu’s body and a description of her mother as a snake – but it’s the most prophetic. When it appears, two thirds of the way through the novel, Tambu’s luck appears to turn. A chance meeting with Tracey, who has now left the ad agency to set up a company offering environmentally friendly safaris, leads to a well-paid job, a driver’s licence and a house in a gated community. Initially all goes well: ‘You welcome the rebirth of your youthful exhilaration … As tour supervisor at Green Jacaranda, you are still Zimbabwean enough, which is to say African enough, to be interesting to tourists, but not so strange as to be threatening. They communicate comfortably with your anglicised accent, and you reproduce it assiduously, although you still mutilate some of the diphthongs.’ But soon enough Tambu is under pressure: her co-worker Pedzi pioneers ‘Ghetto Getaway’, an alternative to rural safaris that offers tourists a chance to sample ‘high-density’ living in urban Harare. Tracey expects Tambu to show equal initiative. She sets up ‘Village Eco Transit’, a scheme which takes her back to her homestead, where money is ploughed in to remake the place so that tourists can enjoy an authentic experience of unspoilt, olde worlde Africa, with ‘fresh thatch, cow dung floors and new wood, all the beams treated with boric acid not creosote, in line with your company’s corporate identity’. The highlight for the first batch of tourists will be a ceremonial dance with bare-breasted village women.
If the satirical portrayal of an exploitative neo-colonialist venture isn’t sufficient warning that things could go wrong, there’s also the fact that the dance will be led by Tambu’s mother, whose hostility to whites is well established and who has never forgiven her daughter for getting an education and leaving home. By this point, the novel’s ‘you’ pact has collapsed; Tambu has become an unreliable narrator. It’s not just that she underestimates her mother’s strength and nous, she’s also paying the price for having ‘never … been concerned with politics. You understand that people like you, who are clawing their way forward, do not have time for it.’ The collusive ‘you’ has ceased to function, except ironically. The hyena laugh is on Tambu and the reader joins in.
The novel’s ending points the way forward, to a life where she’ll be less compromised. In due course, perhaps, the trilogy will become a quartet; Tambu is too interesting a character to be laid to rest in her thirties. As for her unreliability, however subtle the pressure on the reader to overlook it (because she’s a black, female, Zimbabwean ‘you’), the signs are there even in the first two volumes. While her fight to get an education is admirable, her belief in its transformative power seems naive. Learning English may seem like a good investment but the cost is isolation from her Shona-speaking family. And books may be a source of enlightenment but not when her O-level syllabus is so narrowly focused. It’s both comic and tragic that Tambu can’t see this. In The Book of Not, she noticed Nyasha reading Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat. The novel would have plenty to teach Tambu, but she assumes from the title that it’s a book about agriculture ‘by someone like poor Bongo in the Congo, a starving Kenyan author’. She dismisses it as a text from ‘the inferior African syllabus … beneath the standard of those we possessed at Sacred Heart’.