Tsitsi Dangarembga’s first novel, Nervous Conditions, set in 1960s’ British Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe], followed the bright young village girl Tambudzai’s determination to escape poverty and how, through extraordinary perseverance, she managed to get an education. The sequel, The Book of Not, told the story of Tambudzai, or Tambu, at a prestigious convent school, where she is one of the quota black girls. This Mournable Body is the third in the trilogy.
Nominated for the 2020 Booker Prize, This Mournable Body continues Tambu’s story into 1990s’ post-independence Zimbabwe. Now in her late 30s, Tambu is far from where she had once imagined herself to be. She is unemployed, unmarried and living in a shabby hostel, with nothing to show for her hard-fought education and youthful promise. How did she end up here?
The title of This Mournable Body is inspired by Teju Cole’s essay ‘Unmournable Bodies’, in which he points to the many violently killed black and brown people, asking which deaths (and lives) are worthy of our commiseration. Nervous Conditions, published in 1988 and considered a classic of African literature, took its title from Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to West Indian psychoanalyst and political philosopher Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth: “The status of the ‘native’ is a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler among colonised people with their consent.”
How can the colonised consent to their own oppression? As Dangarembga makes clear, ‘consent’ may be a survival instinct, but it warps the psyche. Estranged from the traditions and ties that sustained them, and trapped in a vicious zero-sum system, said Fanon, the colonised succumb to psychosis and turn on one another.
When the novel begins, Tambu is draining her meagre savings and facing eviction from the hostel. Her tenacity gets her lodging with a wealthy widow and a job teaching at a girls’ school, but neither provides the security she yearns for so deeply. At the boarding house where she lives, a predatory man assaults one of the women; meanwhile, the landlady is severely injured by her sons as they fight over property. Seeing her bleeding, Tambu panics, feeling “as though the snakes of your womb have opened their jaws and everything is plummeting out of you to the ground.” The young women at the school where she teaches, with their forthright gaze and entitled swagger, so different from her own adolescent self, “ignite a smouldering resentment.” Tambu breaks down, attacks one of her pupils and is hospitalised.
The Booker-nominated third novel in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s trilogy about growing up in Zimbabwe grapples with the idea of postcolonial personhood
Narrated in energetic second-person, the novel confronts readers with life in a country negotiating the harsh realities of the present and the legacies of colonialism. Dangarembga portrays the poverty of Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare, in vivid, striking prose: “The ground between the stalls is covered in banana peels and oily potato chip packets. Plastic sachets swell like drunkards’ bellies. Orange peels curl on broken paving. An urchin sucks at a sachet as at a mother’s nipple.”
In this new nation of betrayed promises, obsessed with flashy imported cars and sleek kitchens and absent a sense of community, violence becomes the only form of solidarity. In one scene, a young woman is attacked by a mob. In rich, rhythmic language, Dangarembga describes the intoxicating power of the mob, as “the crowd ripples and fidgets, hums and buzzes with amusement. Energy swirls out of this mirth. The crowd guffaws. You do too. As you do, you grow and grow until you believe you are much bigger than yourself and this is wonderful.”
Fanon said that, in reaction to colonialism’s habitual and brutal violence, alienation and anger become embedded in the body and psyche. Tambu’s education is no bulwark against the cruelties of contemporary Zimbabwe. Her self-alienation is evident from the beginning. Washing her face, she sees “a fish in the mirror.” Later, as her anxiety builds, “ants and spiders trek over her body” and she is haunted by a hyena’s laugh-howl.
Dangarembga’s depictions of violence are subtle and slanting: “the arguing rises and soars like a song, a happy one as though the quarrellers are elated at the opportunity to tear each other apart, to broadcast their rage.” In a world that pulsates with latent tension — Fanon’s “atmospheric violence” — violence provides personal and collective catharsis: “tension sprouts out of you and out of the crowd. Your laughter hangs above you. Up there where it is no one’s, it snaps and crackles like arcs of lightning.” Women bear the brunt of the violence but, in this Zimbabwe, they are also a fulcrum of strength and resilience. Tambu’s generative relationships, whether competitive or loving, are with women.
The construction of postcolonial personhood is central to this novel. Tambu is a wonderfully complicated character — indifferent, envious, even violent, but also determined to assert her dignity and claim the recognition that has been denied her. When Tambu wonders how she became “an ill-made person”, Dangarembga points to a destructive, racist system. At Tambu’s white convent school, she was introduced to her ‘blackness’; a “metamorphosis” took place which “ruined your heart”, where the “onset of your fading” began.
Tambu has always played by the rules, but has been met only with betrayal: she excelled at school, only to see the top prize be given to her white classmate; at the advertising agency where she is a copywriter, her white colleagues took credit for her work. Tambu is trapped: she will never be accorded membership in the white world, nor can she return to her village.
More than anything, Tambu seeks to distance herself from the sufferings of her world — from the poverty of her mother who is “entombed” in their village, from the blows and beatings inflicted upon women and from visions of Zimbabwe’s bloody independence: “Her words open up a void, out of which troop your own wounded and dead. You regard your memories from afar, and finally turn away from them.” Dangarembga shows that the awful memories haunting Tambu and Zimbabwe cannot be forgotten. Those bodies demand to be mourned. And so, during her hospitalisation, Tambu weeps uncontrollably, crying for the pain of all who have suffered.
Following her recovery, a chance encounter with a white former boss lands her an exciting new job at the boss’s eco-friendly tourist company. Tambu rediscovers her youthful exhilaration, but her exuberance is short-lived in the face of competition from a colleague who has introduced the profitable venture of “high-density suburb” — or slum — tourism. Pressured to “innovate”, Tambu is pushed to create a village safari that will give European tourists a vision of the “authentic” Africa they crave, of “cow-dung floors” and smiling, dancing natives. Does Tambu wish to inhabit a chic, prosperous Zimbabwe with its “welcome sense of security”? Or a precarious, impoverished Zimbabwe?
Faced with wretchedness, the exploitative, “value-adding” neocolonial enterprise seems like the only escape. It is a colossal betrayal of her family and her home, but Tambu forges ahead. With the emphatic, second-person “you” of the novel, Dangarembga is pointing a finger at all of us, wherever our location in the massive wreckage heap of colonialism. With our English-language education, postcolonial estrangement and fixation with neocolonial advancement, we, too, with Tambu, can wonder at what we have become.
In the aftermath of her betrayal, Tambu comes to see that there is a third road. Her cousin Nyasha and aunt Lucia show her a path guided by “Unhu”, her people’s ancient philosophy. Unhu’s “I am because we are” — a person is a person through other people — is a philosophy of the interconnected, communal nature of life based on mutual social responsibility.
This Mournable Body suggests that a careful recuperation of the past can heal the wounds of the present. In an idyllic scene at Nyasha’s workshop, where she trains young women to imagine their own stories, the “pale gold of mid-afternoon shimmers through the open space, carrying the warm blossom-sweetened scent of early November. Excited laughter peals ... They fling their arms here and there, and around each other, and Nyasha is lost in the heart of it.”
Another Zimbabwe is possible.
The reviewer is a freelance writer and editor focusing on the arts, culture and higher education
This Mournable Body
By Tsitsi Dangarembga
Faber and Faber, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 8th, 2020