This Mournable Body
(Graywolf Press, 2018)
Over in Zimbabwe, the news continues to be bad. The latest headlines concern riots in the capital, Harare, following what looks like another rigged election. The police response left at least three dead. Trouble like that, if not worse, has erupted all too often across the former “Rhodesia.” After 1980, Zimbabwe didn’t so much end colonial control as hack it away, leaving a bloody stump where basic services should be. Those monies instead went mostly into the pockets of Robert Mugabe and his cronies, thugs with the tenacity of Assad in Syria, outlasting even a couple rounds of civil war. The social fabric has often been in shreds, the worst toll often taken on the women: an ongoing catastrophe that provides the best background for appreciating the novels of Tsitsi Dangarembga.
This woman has weathered all the upheavals of her country’s last forty years, forging them into a teeming yet tragic feminist trilogy. This Mournable Body is the finale in the set, taking her complex protagonist Tambuzadi Sigauke well into middle age. The struggles the woman faces this time aren’t so life-and-death as in Dangarembga’s celebrated debut, Nervous Conditions (1988), or in the sequel that took her nearly twenty years, The Book of Not (2006). Both those novels showed “Tambu” contending with war and lawlessness, striving not just to get a decent education but also to stand on her own feet as a young woman. The virus of colonialism—the way it scrubs off native identity—linked with the sickness of aboriginal patriarchy, and together presented terrific obstacles. The protagonist came of age over the course of the twinned stories, but this element was but one of the dominant colors in the larger social portrait, and in the warnings raised. Not for nothing does her name begin with the sound of a tom-tom, the ancient African alarm system.
Less desperate challenges face the woman at the start of the third novel—unless having “no home, no job, no sustaining family bonds,” count as desperate. Worse, when Tambu stands at the mirror in her Harare hostel (temporary lodging subsidized by the state), she sees “a fish..., cheeks drooping like monstrous scales beneath purplish eye sockets.” Not that old, she appears nonetheless to have aged into a monstrosity, and such animistic metaphor provides much of what’s best about This Mournable Body. When Tambu winds up in a psych ward, she’s carried “on the back of a hyena. The treacherous creature dropped you from far above.” Elsewhere, when someone makes reference to the country’s recent hostilities:
. . . snakes that hold your womb inside you open their jaws at the mention of war. The contents of your abdomen slide . . . as though the snakes let everything loose . . .
Only a powerful spirit animal, after all, can rescue this woman from the low point at which this novel begins. The hard-earned triumphs of the preceding novels have left her just another penny-pinching rider packed into the city “combis.” Tambu wonders if she’ll have to return to the “destitute village” of her childhood: “How . . . do you come to be more needy than your mother? End up... so dashed down by life?” Finding answers leads her to the usual suspects, the stubborn hold of privilege. She quit a good job at an ad agency, she admits, because “white men . . . put their names to your taglines and rhyming couplets.” But insofar as the woman gets anywhere with her “newly hatched project of ending life’s downward spiral,” she does this by sliding back down its loops; she returns to the war-torn family and impoverished countryside she so long worked to escape.
The first uptick in Tambu’s fortunes comes with a visit from a niece, a strong-willed country girl who fought as a guerilla and prefers her tribal name to her English one. After that, Mournable Body offers nothing so simple as a Harare Horatio Alger. Tambu’s initial return to the workforce ends in a violent psychotic break, after which her best help comes from a white doctor (a woman, not insignificantly). But she leaves the hospital to move in with another relative, Nyasha; this cousin too is a prodigal come home, and she’s trying to share her European education with the “born frees,” the girls who never knew colonialism. From there the protagonist returns to her upward scramble, she even reaches the executive track, but the whole roller coaster of a novel reaches its richly textured climax—a tragic-comic mélange of European cluelessness and Zimbabwean outrage—back in Tambu’s home village, where she confronts her mother in native clothing, roaring like Caliban.
This return to roots also informs Dangarembga’s point of view, second person. First made a natural fit for her two bildungsromane (Nervous Conditions had a hard-to-shake opener: “I was not sorry when my brother died.”), but the shift to “you” creates an intimacy, a sense of sharing, especially useful when the lead is a knotty adult like Tambu. Her ugly side is exposed in the first big scene, when she erupts with resentment at a younger and prettier housemate, in the process putting the girl in danger. She’s not above underhanded dealing with the family, either. Her conversation often lapses into defensive silences, and more than once these are sins of omission.
Yet the novel’s pervading effect isn’t claustrophobic, because Dangarembga keeps getting her grumpy creation out into the world, wrangling with other wounded creatures. Mournable Body is more a picaresque, its episodes entertaining as much as disturbing, its humanity a crazy quilt. The knocking about can result, now and again, in bogging down. A few scenes use a neon highlighter to outline basic conflicts, and one or two do the same for male wickedness. But the occasional heavy-handedness isn’t so bad as to muddy the movement overall. The plot allows for just one coincidence, and this makes just the right difference for Tambu.
No chance encounter, however, takes a romantic turn. A grown woman, the protagonist certainly isn’t innocent about sex, and she’s got no lesbian yearnings either. The only time she makes mention of a lover—a fiancé—it’s a ruse. The few times she considers getting involved with a man, she’s Machiavellian, weighing how the relationship might help her get ahead. The final reconciliations with family do suggest the possibility of love, but only in the poetry of the closing lines. Otherwise, this woman’s closed heart looks like the worst legacy of colonialism and machismo—and the scariest discovery brought to light by this gifted author’s prolonged excavations of the contemporary African soul.
John Domini's latest book is MOVIEOLA!. In early 2019, he'll publish his fourth novel, The Color Inside a Melon.