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 monstrous scales. You cannot look at yourself.”
Unable to countenance working any longer as a copy writer for an advertising agency where her ideas are unceremoniously pilfered by white male colleagues, Tambu has quit and now finds herself in a hostel, guarding her scant savings against extravagance and rising inflation. She is treated with condescension by the other women there, all intent on finding a rich man to sustain them, and who commiserate with Tambu’s “great antiquity”. She gains revenge on one when, while waiting for a taxi combo, the younger woman’s tight dress bursts, leaving her naked. In an extraordinary scene, the crowd quickly becomes a mob, first mocking then attacking her. Far from stopping them, Tambu instead joins in, joyous as objects are hurled at the transgressor:
The bottle’s arc exerts a magnetic force. The power picks you up. You are triumphant. You reach the crest of the missile’s trajectory as you would the summit of a mountain. The crowd at the Market Square ascends, moaning, to that high place with you. It is a miracle that has brought everyone together.
The second person narration uncomfortably implicates the reader in the actions of the mob. It becomes apparent that, in the transition from white rule to black, little has changed for women, controlled both by men and by other women who have internalised their inferior place in society. As the Nigerian literary critic Molara Ogundipe-Leslie writes, “[African w]omen are shackled by their own negative self-image, by centuries of the interiorization of the ideologies of patriarchy and gender hierarchy.” In This Mournable Body, women turn on one another, fighting for scant resources and for men, who are regarded as the only guarantors of survival and advancement.
Like a bloated corpse, the bus stop attack resurfaces again and again in Tambu’s mind as the story progresses and she bears witness to pervasive misogynist violence, yet each time she blames the victim and not the perpetrator. When she leaves the hostel for a shared house, her housemate is sexually assaulted while she cleans the toilet. The attacker faces no sanction, and when a woman he has jilted is driven mad and strips herself naked in their front garden, the other women merely ridicule her. Tambu’s landlady tells her, “getting a man to marry isn’t a game. It’s as bad as war.” Her words are not flippant. Zimbabweans know all about war.
The brutalities of the War of Liberation (1964-80), which cost over twenty thousand lives in a population of about six million people, did not end with the collapse of white rule. Rather, it continued through the 1980s and ’90s as thousands of minority Ndebele and other perceived dissidents were killed by Mugabe’s North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, in an action named gukurahundi, which loosely translates as “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains”. War and violence hang over Dangarembga’s novel like thunderous clouds. The sacrifices of independence (Tambu’s freedom fighter aunt loses her leg, while Tambu and many others lose their minds) have not brought the expected rewards of justice and prosperity. Instead, the new state rots and its citizens continue to suffer.
Determined to survive, Tambu takes up a position as a chemistry teacher, even though she lacks qualifications in science or education. Her principal is happy to have her:
With this solid second-class degree of yours … it is good you are still here and not in South Africa or Europe … All of it is happening within living memory, a couple of decades after our independence.
Denied the chance to vote in meaningful elections, Zimbabweans vote with their feet, fleeing corruption, poverty and the false pieties of independence. Why has Tambu stayed, the principal wonders: “Are we to commend your patriotism or deplore a certain lack of initiative?” It is a question the reader must ponder as well, as Tambu becomes further warped by the hypocrisies of her society. In the classroom, she is quickly intoxicated by power, and shocked by what she sees as the lax discipline of post-independence education so different from her own strict colonial-era schooling. She spends her free time taking down the registration numbers of rich men who hang around outside the school gates to pick up her young students. The purpose, however, is not to expose these potential abusers but to punish the students for flouting female decorum.
Driven mad by one particular defiant student, Tambu strikes out not at her but at the smartest girl in the class, who also happens to be the weakest:
Your chest rises and falls. Sweat runs down your face. It slithers into your eyes. It gushes out of your armpits mingled with antiperspirant. You have seen how they do not want a qualification in biology, you say; in which case your pupils will receive a qualification in violence. Two or three young women pull at you. it has no effect. Instead, you escape yourself into an unbearable radiance.
Tambu has been infected by the new Zimbabwe’s disdain for the poor, weak and female, prejudices inherited from the colonial system. Just as at the bus stop, she not only gives in to these pressures, she revels in them. Yet her attack is not a sign of power, but rather of fragility. Her stalking madness finally catches its prey: “You listen to the girls. Then you laugh with them. You hear her but you cannot see this laughing woman. You keep listening to her gurgling like a hyena high at the back of her throat.”
Having beaten her student into deafness, Tambu is committed to a mental asylum. Eventually she is released into the care of her cousin, Nyasha, with whom she boarded at school and who has returned to Zimbabwe from Europe to set up a feminist help group, much to the contempt of Tambu: “I ask her who she thinks is interested in women’s issues. And I try to tell her nobody here is interested in any of these things that she thinks are important, not even the women. I explain to her, least of all the women.” The failure of such ideals in Zimbabwe is made apparent when Nyasha’s own cook is so badly thrashed by her husband that she miscarries. Women have been so well indoctrinated with ideas of their worthlessness, Tambu (and even the cook herself) barely reacts to this brutality.
Meeting an old white school colleague, Tracy, Tambu is hired for her new tourism venture, which seeks to give visitors a taste of a hidden Zimbabwe, with trips to her brother’s rural plantation along with “Ghetto Getaways” in the capital, Harare. When government-backed gangs begin reclaiming white estates, Tracy sends Tambu back to her home village to have it redesigned as an “authentic” tourist attraction. Returning after years of avoiding the poverty of her home place, her overbearing mother, and her violent father, Tambu finds in an old notebook a poem she wrote in school:
I do not
do not recall, not
in any way remember
the sombreness she speaks of …
do not recall
this density of distress she considers
that is thicker
than the livid cloud
dripping red bursts of sunset on mountain.
The poem movingly evokes the relationship between memory and repression, mother and daughter, and inhabitant and land. However, in the endless struggle for existence, Tambu’s childhood creativity has been crushed: “Impatient with the cryptic phrases, you drop the book back into the trunk and begin again to contemplate options for reaching your objective.” In Nervous Conditions, Tambu attempts to write her own story; in This Mournable Body it is barely possible to live it.
The depopulated village (many of Tambu’s relatives now live in Ireland and America), warily takes on the tourist project. Caught between prurient European investors and corrupt state officials, Tracy demands that Tambu enhance the tourist experience by having the village women perform a traditional dance naked. This causes consternation among the conservative villagers, particularly when the gathered tourists begin throwing dollars at them. Tambu’s mother rebels and confronts one of the tour guests, which precipitates Tambu’s firing. The novel closes with Tambu finding work with her veteran aunt’s new security service; business booms as the land acquisition of the early 2000s causes growing unrest.
This Mournable Body contains no comforting closing epiphany. Tambu does not experience a feminist awakening, and can only probe her own deeply unsettling violence towards women weaker than herself at great risk to her own sanity. There are no heroes here, only survivors, and that is what Tambu is. But she does not survive intact. As her childhood self writes prophetically in verse, “fear could disintegrate whole women”. Her complexities reflect those of Zimbabwe itself. In the end, in This Mournable Body Dangarembga uses the broken female body to explore the collapse of her country’s body politic.
When Nervous Conditions appeared in 1988, it was celebrated abroad and denounced at home by (mostly male) reviewers who accused Dangarembga of “fouling her own nest” ‑ that is betraying tribal secrets to foreign eyes. However, in her powerful testimony Dangarembga is just as capable of unmasking false Western perspectives as she of exposing uncomfortable African truths. While Nervous Conditions derived its name from the philosopher Frantz Fanon ‑ “The condition of a native is a nervous condition” ‑ This Mournable Body takes its title from Teju Cole’s 2015 essay “Unmournable Bodies”. In it, Cole argues,
We may not be able to attend to each outrage in every corner of the world, but we should at least pause to consider how it is that mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain violent deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than others.
Dangarembga shows us, to our shame, that African bodies are still less mournable than white ones, and the bodies of African women are least mournable of all ‑ even to themselves.
Dan A O’Brien is an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at University College Dublin, where he is currently completing his first book on the intertwining fiction of Philip Roth and Edna O’Brien. He is co-editor of two other books, Irish Questions and Jewish Questions: Crossovers in Culture (Syracuse University Press, 2018), and New Voices: Contemporary Jewish American Literature (Open Library of the Humanities, 2018).