SEPTEMBER 14, 2018
NOT ALL SUFFERING is equally visible from the Western vantage. “We may not be able to attend to each outrage in every corner of the world,” wrote Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole in “Unmournable Bodies,” a 2015 New Yorker essay on the widespread grief over the killings of journalists at the Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo, “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.”
Tsitsi Dangarembga has claimed and inverted Cole’s title for her new novel, This Mournable Body. The book demands that its readers witness the personhood behind the experience of postcolonial violence in Dangarembga’s native Zimbabwe, one corner of the world that often goes unconsidered. Deformed by British colonial rule, ravaged by its liberation struggle, the country was briefly buoyed by a prosperous independence that began in 1980. Then, in the 1990s, Zimbabwe’s liberator-president Robert Mugabe set about brutalizing his opponents and blasting the national economy with land reform, patronage, and hyperinflationist policies.
Into this upheaval comes Tambudzai Sigauke, the protagonist of Dangarembga’s first novel, Nervous Conditions (1988). A classic of African fiction, that book chronicles the anxiety the Shona peoples of Zimbabwe experienced when receiving a colonial education during the 1960s. In This Mournable Body, the author’s uncompromising second-person voice insists that you, the reader, identify with Zimbabwe’s plight at the turn of the millennium. Tambu observes routine patriarchal violence that “fills you with an emptiness that hurts.” Her memories of the war “open up a void, out of which troop your own wounded and dead.” She hasn’t measured up to her individualist rubric: “You have failed to make anything at all of yourself.” Through Tambu and her compatriots, Dangarembga investigates the ironic psychological demands of global capitalism on a country whose citizens have been fractured by that system. Complex and flawed, they are more than symbols. This Mournable Body makes their struggles visible.
Dangarembga’s Zimbabwe is a catalog of cruelties, and Tambu is their passive witness. Her own anguish is mostly the psychic kind: “You are concerned you will start thinking of ending it all, having nothing to carry on for: no home, no job, no sustaining family bonds. Thinking this induces a morass of guilt.”
She has squandered her English education and its advantages. She has left an advertising job and lives in poverty at a hostel in Harare, the country’s capital. Lacking a role in the liberation struggle that took her sister’s leg and hardened the “war-women” from her village, she also lacks their sense of solidarity. She represses guilty thoughts of her “destitute” homestead where her mother is “entombed.”
Tambu’s central resentment springs from a position of relative privilege: she has missed her rightful place among what Jean-Paul Sartre, in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961), called the “colonized bourgeoisie.” The European colonizer, wrote Sartre, established rigid social strata during colonial rule, in part through institutions such as mission schools. It was one piece of the strategy to divide and subordinate the populace. In failing to live up to her status, Tambu is divided not just from her people but also from herself.
Perhaps because of this, she watches Zimbabwe’s worst treatment of women from a strange remove. In the Woolfian slow motion of the novel’s opening, a builder sexually assaults her hostelmate on a public bus. Tambu escapes the hostel and rents a room from a widow whose grasping sons slash her with a broken bottle in a battle over the family’s property. Among the widow’s boarders is a serial womanizer who forces himself on another tenant. “He enjoyed himself behind me,” the woman sobs to Tambu. “And I thought only let him finish.” None of this moves Tambu to action. “[T]here is nothing you can do or say since it is already done,” she thinks. Tambu’s seeming indifference is frustrating. But no one else acts either.
As in Nervous Conditions, Dangarembga treats supreme cruelty with sublime reserve. She often writes the harshest scenes so obliquely that I had to reread them two or three times to decipher what unfolded. At first, this seemed like a flaw. But as I found the book’s rhythm, its effectiveness became clear: the subtlety forces our attention onto outrages — especially instances of violence against women — that we’d rather overlook.
Finally, Tambu becomes a perpetrator herself. When she takes a teaching job at a girls’ school, she quickly comes to resent her students, whom she both envies for being “Rhodes scholar material” and judges for cavorting with wealthy, middle-aged men. She suffers a breakdown and assaults a young woman in her classroom: “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.”
A terrible irony of the postcolonial world is that the systems replacing colonial rule often continue to recommend its brutal tactics. Western values of transaction and domination still stir in the gut of Zimbabwe, and in Tambu Dangarembga has created a complicated and frustrating figure. It’s bizarre, for example, that she views the widow’s repellent sons as part of her survival strategy, “a stepping stone to another life you crave.” It’s sickening that she enforces the postcolonial patriarchy by harming her students. Yet it yields an understanding of the country’s ambient dread and disempowerment.
Tambu’s foray into the role of social disciplinarian nearly breaks her. (It’s here in the narrative that she begins to hallucinate the maniacal “laugh-howl” of a hyena — never a good sign!) But it also reunites her with her cousin Nyasha, who presents a more hopeful vision of Zimbabwean womanhood. Nyasha raises children in squalor with a gentle German academic, and she takes Tambu into her hybrid family.
Some of the book’s best moments arise from the tension between the cousins. Under Tambu’s withering gaze, Nyasha holds workshops peddling an idealistic mission: “[Y]oung women discover their own greatness, not in the cinema or in a boyfriend, but buried in themselves by means of telling their own stories.”
Nyasha’s mission, in a sense, is to recognize Zimbabwe’s mournable bodies, which the larger world has chosen to ignore. Tambu finds this inexplicable: “You grow increasingly galled by your cousin and her assumption that everyone has the luxury she has of surviving without being obsessed with one’s own person.”
Underwriting Zimbabwe’s ills — and Tambu’s worldview — is the unsubtle force of global capitalism. Tambu catches the break she seeks when Tracey Stevenson, her former boss from the advertising agency, hires her for a new ecotourism venture. A Getaway Safari leads European clients on tours of Tracey’s family farmland, while a so-called Ghetto Getaway offers visitors “low-budget excursions into high-density suburbs.” Dangarembga hints at the usual alchemy of capital interests — an “Amsterdam partner” and others — by which Western powers still extract profit from Zimbabwe.
Then Mugabe’s government enacts a policy of land reform that involves reclaiming white-owned farms by force. (Fanon called this kind of move “nationalizing the theft of the nation.”) The Stevenson plot gets plundered. “Africa,” says Tracey woefully to Tambu. “How’re we going to add value to a bloody continent?” The truth is that Tracey, a holdover of the colonialist bourgeoisie, knows exactly what value Tambu can add. Tambu, eager to prove herself, designs a tour of her own home village. Returned at last to her homestead, she enlists her mother and the village women’s club in a devil’s bargain they’re desperate to make.
Nervous Conditions took its name from Sartre’s preface to Fanon. A truncated line serves as the book’s epigraph: “The condition of native is a nervous condition.” But the full quote, in the most recent translation of The Wretched of the Earth, contains further nuance: “The status of ‘native’ is a neurosis introduced and maintained by the colonist in the colonized with their consent.”
How exactly might a colonized people “consent” to maintain their oppressed condition? The answer to this question is complicated in Nervous Conditions, which is set during the decades when the colonizers used force to subjugate Zimbabwe. Nyasha’s father, for example, reproduced his English education in the village, which gave permission to the colonial project of linguistic and cultural domination. But what choice did he truly have?
This Mournable Body, set in the neocolonial milieu, brings the issue of consent into lurid relief. Tambu’s individualism forms its emblem. Given a taste of middle-class success — the car, the cottage — she rationalizes her betrayal. “After all,” she thinks, “you have brought jobs, activity, and innovation to your village following decades of devastating peasanthood.”
What will become of the bodies that stand in Tambu’s path? She wastes little time considering them. The outcome is a predictable disaster of degradation for her family and her people.
In these final pages, the warmth with which Dangarembga depicts the homestead grates against Tambu’s willingness to sell it out for her own profit:
You smell the wood smoke from the kitchen fire more intensely in the silence that follows. Forgotten odours that cling to the years mix with the smoke — the light must of dung from the floor, people once known, their sweat, odd bits of waste, moist onion and tomato skins charring slowly.
These intimacies — her mother’s ceaseless chatter, disappointments mixed with domestic comforts, the ghosts of war — gave me chills. Dangarembga is doing something sly and layered here. She romanticizes her country for a Western reader even as she makes an example of Tambu for doing the same. The book makes you, the reader, complicit too.
“The colonialist bourgeoisie,” wrote Fanon, “hammered into the colonized mind the notion of a society of individuals where each is locked in his subjectivity.”
In This Mournable Body, the colonized subjectivity remains saturated with blood and trauma. We in the West avert our gaze, loath to acknowledge the violence that upholds our prosperity. And it takes Tambu the whole book to see it for herself. Yet even someone of Tambu’s position, Fanon thought, could locate the potential for change through solidarity. “[T]he colonized intellectual,” forced to mix with her people, would discover “the strength of the village assemblies, the power of the people’s commissions.” That development has been less forthcoming than Fanon imagined.
Dangarembga forces our perspective toward both violence and its humane alternatives. She closes the book — a bit too neatly — with an epilogue that returns Tambu to work alongside the people of her community. As Tambu realizes, “there is more war in your country’s way of peace than any of you had expected.” Once she has seen the truth, she can’t turn away. The rest of us would do well to pause and bear witness.