Tsitsi Dangarembga, This mournable body (#BookReview)

Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This mournable body was my reading group’s February book. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it is Dangarembga’s third novel, and is a sequel to Nervous conditions (1988) and The book of not (2006), neither of which I’ve read. These novels are written in English, the language of Dangarembga’s schooling, though she also speaks Shona.

It is a remarkable book, for its subject matter, vivid writing and the complexity of its protagonist, Tambu (Tambudzai). Wikipedia’s article on Nervous conditions describes Tambu’s character, saying “her desire for an education and to improve herself seem strong enough to overcome just about anything. She is very hard on herself, and always strives to do her best and make the correct decisions”. This perfectly describes the character I met in This mournable body, except that by now Tambu is around 40 years old and disappointed that life has not worked out as she had hoped. Indeed, she is out of work and living in a boarding house, eking out her savings from her previous copy-writing job in order to survive. A sense of failure and an air of desperation surrounds her.

Interestingly, Dangarembga chose a second person voice to tell Tambu’s story. There are various reasons for choosing this voice. Madeleine Dickie chose it for her novel Red can origami (my review) to involve if not implicate the reader in the world she was describing. I don’t know why Dangarembga chose it, but my guess is to convey Tambu’s apparent dissociation from her self. Second person avoids both the objective insight that an omniscient third person voice can provide and the confessional immersion in a life that first person offers. Tambu is struggling; she is caught between her Western-education with its Western-style aspirations and her Zimbabwean family and culture. We see her pain, but second person keeps her and us a little remote from it, as if she and we are watching it, not fully comprehending what is happening.

The novel is set in troubled late 1990s Harare, on the cusp of the millennium. It has a three-part structure – Ebbing, Suspended, and Arriving – which chronicles the trajectory of this period in Tambu’s life. In Ebbing, we see Tambu’s hopes for a successful, secure life, ebb:

Fear, your recurrent dread that you have not made enough progress toward security and a decent living, prickles like pins and needles at the mention of “village.” You have dodged this fear for too long—all your conscious life.

We also learn some of the reasons for the state she’s in, despite having been plucked from her village by her uncle and given a good “white” education. These reasons include the fact that although having gained Independence, Zimbabwe remains a racist place where black Zimbabweans still suffer under the colonialism they “thought” they’d thrown off. Tambu had had a good job as a copywriter in an advertising agency:

you have no one but yourself to blame for leaving your copywriting position. You should have endured the white men who put their names to your taglines and rhyming couplets. You spend much time regretting digging your own grave over a matter of mere principle.

Late in Ebbing, Tambu manages to obtain a decent job as a teacher, but it doesn’t last long, largely because her insecurity – her jealousies and fears – result in her self-destructing.

Suspended starts with her having been suspended from this job and admitted to a psychiatric hospital where her life is effectively “suspended” as she struggles to regain her mental health and equanimity. This she does, with the help of her family, including cousin Nyasha who takes her in. Incomprehensibly to Western-focused Tambu, Nyasha had returned, with her German husband and two children, from an apparently successful life in Europe, to work for the community, and specifically to improve things for Zimbabwean youth.

In the final part, Arriving, Tambu finds herself working for Tracey, her white Zimbabwean nemesis who had been a schoolmate at the prestigious Young Ladies’ College of the Sacred Heart and then her boss at the copywriting agency. Tracey is setting up an eco-tourism business, Green Jacaranda, and sees potential in Tambu – and indeed, Tambu seems to start to find herself, both personally and professionally, but I will leave the plot here …

This mournable body, however, is more than just a story about Tambu. Dangarembga weaves Zimbabwean social and political history into her narrative. While Tambu hadn’t been involved in pre- and post-Independence violence, many in her family had. The impact of war – particularly on women – provides one of the running commentaries throughout the novel. One refrain concerns her sister Netsai’s loss of a leg, which works as a visible reminder of personal and national losses:

Sometimes I ask if people forgot that many people went to war. Because if they have not forgotten, these people in this country, what is going on with them? Why are they so foolish? Do they think we went for this? … This is not what we went for and stayed for without food and blankets, even clothes, without our parents or relatives. Some of us without legs. Yet now we are helpless and there is nothing we can do to remove the things we see that we didn’t go to fight for.

Independence, in other words, is not working out the way they expected. The interplay of race, gender and colonialism continues to impede the country’s growth. Through her characters, Dangarembga powerfully conveys that old mantra “the personal is the political” – even though Tambu, ironically, tries to avoid talking politics with Tracey. “I don’t believe in politics”, she naively tells Tracey.

This mournable body is a serious and often heartbreaking novel, but there is also humour, much of it in the form of irony and satire. Here’s Tracey on her new business, echoing, for different reasons, Tambu’s dislike of “village”:

Everything’s Green Jacaranda eco! And you can’t say village. … That kind of promise doesn’t work these days either. It’s got to sound like fun, not under-development, soil erosion and microfinance.”

Tracey is either oblivious to – or chooses to ignore – the truths of Zimbabwean culture, preferring to exoticise a generalised notion of “Africa” for her business. In one excruciating scene she asks Tambu to organise village women to dance bare-breasted for their tourists.

At the other end of the spectrum is Tambu’s landlady’s now late husband, a black Zimbabwean who had profited from Independence. He had experienced an horrific accident, but

His biggest blow was what happened to his BMW and his temporary relegation to a lowly Datsun Sunny. People admired the stoicism with which Manyanga put up with this.

Dangarembga’s Zimbabwe is a complex society that has been riven by internal and external conflicts over decades, conflicts that are, in part, personified in Tambu’s difficulty in separating out her own goals from the “white” ones she had been educated into. While Dangarembga provides no easy answers, she suggests there are paths of hope, paths that rest with individual people who have a firm grip on what they want for themselves and for their country. This mournable body is an excruciating read at times, but the insights and perspectives it offers, particularly to Westerners whose assumptions it questions, are worth the pain and challenge.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) was also impressed by this book.

Tsitsi Dangarembga
This mournable body
London: Faber & Faber, 2020 (orig. ed. 2018)
ISBN: 9780571355532 (Kindle ed.)