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Development Arrested

Dan A O’Brien
This Mournable Body: A Novel, by Tsitsi Dangarembga, Graywolf Press, 284 pp, $16.00, ISBN 978-1555978129 In her 2007 Nobel Prize speech, the British author Doris Lessing, who spent her formative years in the African colony of Southern Rhodesia, wrote of returning to the country ‑ now named Zimbabwe ‑ after independence in 1980: People [here] want to read the same kinds of books that we in Europe want to read ‑ novels of all kinds, science fiction, poetry, detective stories, plays, and do-it-yourself books, like how to open a bank account. All of Shakespeare too … Animal Farm, for obvious reasons, is the most popular of all novels. However, as one villager tells Lessing, it was becoming harder and harder to get printed material: “They taught us to read but we have no books.” Lessing feared that this growing absence would impede the literary potential of Zimbabwe: “Writing, writers, do not come out of houses without books.” And yet, over the last forty years, writers have sprung up regardless. The greatest of all post-independence Zimbabwean novelists remains Tsitsi Dangarembga, whose 1988 novel Nervous Conditions explored the complexities of female black adolescence during the 1960s as her character Tambudzai navigates the patriarchal village and colonial school. Her new novel, This Mournable Body, revisits Tambu a quarter-century on. If the first novel is a coming of age story, then this new book is the tale of arrested development. Like her nation, Tambu has not fulfilled her early promise, but instead scrabbles for survival under the tyranny of Robert Mugabe, referred to here simply as “the Old Fossil”. Nervous Conditions begins unforgettably with Tambu reflecting on her fortuitous access to education following her brother’s death, “I was not sorry when my brother died” ‑ which Lessing adjudged to be “as challenging a first sentence as I can remember in a novel”. The opening of This Mournable Body is no less striking: “There is a fish in the mirror.” Tambu is approaching forty (in a country where average life expectancy for women is sixty), but it is not her looks that preoccupy her. Throughout the book, creatures such as fish, ants and hyenas crawl across her vision, representing Tambu’s sense of dissociation from her society and self. This distance is further emphasised by Dangarembga’s use of second person narration: “the fish stares back at you out of purplish eye sockets, its mouth gaping, cheeks drooping as though under the weight of…



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