This Mournable Body: A Reviewby Tsitsi Dangarembga Published by Faber & Faber, London, 2020.
This book is a sequel to the authors first acclaimed novel, Nervous Conditions, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1989. Dangaremba explores the theme of race, gender and colonialism in Zimbabwe.
This Mournable Body continues the journey of Tambu (Tambudzai Sigauke) who has left her job at an advertising agency and is living in a girl’s hostel.
She left on the pretence that she was getting married, unhappy at the injustice of her creative advertising work being peddled for a pittance and being passed off for someone else’s. She takes on a teaching job at the local school and ends up beating up a student so badly that the student ends up deaf in one ear while she, Tambu, begins her mental decline and ends up in a mental hospital.
Months later after her convalescence and while living in her cousin Nyeshas house she runs into Tracey, her former manager, who now runs her own safari tour business. Tracey, who is a white women if the same age and with the same qualifications as Tambu, offers her a lifeline and gives her a job.
Tracey is seemingly out of touch to the injustice Tambu had faced making a side remark about her exit from her ‘cushy’ job, oblivious to the fact that Tambu was being paid much less than her white colleagues and her bosses were using her copies as their own.
The author is talented and her writing style is unique and brave. Using the second person point of view, the author places us front, centre and middle of this plot and there is no escaping from the main characters shortcomings, which are many.
The flaws in the character were evident in the very first pages when she stands by while one of her hostel mates is getting harassed for wearing revealing clothes, when she pilfers vegetables from her landlords garden and watching from her window when the niece works on the dwindled vegetable garden or when she doesn’t lift a finger to help at her cousins house after she is released from hospital following her mental breakdown.
It is frustrating to read her inaction at the treatment of women she witnesses yet despite this; the reader is drawn in to the protagonist s struggles and genuinely roots for her breakthrough.
“You want to strike twenty years off your age, to shout, “Here I am, I am new, remade; look at me, I’m just beginning!” For in many ways you feel you are starting everything afresh after resolving to make things work. You must be thick skinned and preserve….”
The author uses a lot of symbolism throughout the book. The Lady Di’s pumps that her cousin gave her when she was abroad studying at LSE and which Tambu wore to every meeting, interview and special occasion. This symbolises westernisation and colonialism and the beauty standards that society had placed on women like Tambu who have to confirm in order to fit in and be accepted.
Also the hyena with its maniacal “laugh-howl” symbolises her mental decline. Every time the hyena is mentioned, Tambu slowly begins to lose a bit of herself, ” The hyena laughs as you enter the gate. It has slunk once more as close to your skin, ready to drag away the last scraps of certainty you have preserved the moment you falter”. Tambu is aware of the presence of the hyena yet is powerless to control it.
The saddest symbolic item is the mealie meal which was prepared by her village dwelling mother and sent to the City to Tambu who instead of welcoming the gift doesn’t want to accept it, then when it is brought to her her doorstep she hides it, stashes it in someone’s else’s house then tries burying it.
The gift from her mother symbolised her home, her native roots, her village ties which Tambu has tried so hard to distance herself from. When there is getting away from the mealie meal and as it sits in her new flat months later, rotting, smelling and no longer useful, Tambu looks at it and thinks:
” You should have eaten it, you reprimand yourself, cooked in your mother’s love while at Mai Manyanga’s and taken it into your body. In this way you would have made a home where ever you were”.
The best bits of this book for me was the theme that explored female empowerment through the introduction of the classy authoritative figure of Ma Moetsabi. She is Lady from Botswana who runs a Boutique in the City, an indication of what Tambu aspires to be and where she falls short.
Ma Moetsabi is innovative, hardworking and carries herself with class. When she disperses a mob that had gathered outside her shop, Tambu witnesses an act of courage by a female which she has seldom witnessed before nor has she ever tried to do for herself or anyone.
As Tambu watched this act of bravery, she stood ‘..transfixed by the Queen of Africa, whose voice grows gentler and softer’, something she helself has failed to do.
This mournable body is a lament at the state of affairs in Zimbabwe and Dangaremba weaves the story so well. From the growth of the burgouise society in the Prados and Rovers and their Chanel and Gucci wearing wives to the decline of the State and the corruption, discrimination and tension in the country, Dangaremba has created another written masterpiece.
The temptation to give up on reading this book in the first few pages is great. This is because of the hard second person point of view writing style the author employs and the books alternations between English and the Shona language or direct translations from Shona to English.
However, one is rewarded with rich literature and a well embroidered literary tapestry of delight if one sticks to it and reads to the end. This read is not for the faint hearted and certainly not one to read at one sitting. I regret not being attentive to the themes from the very first page and only paying proper attention to the civic and history lessons I was being offered a chance to learn from the word go.
I love the way Dangaremba uses womb sharer or womb brother to denote kinship. Using such simple yet thought provoking comparisons for everyday terms is a type of language I have come to identify closely with African writers and their uncanny ability to find meaning in the ordinary and the mundane. This book is a must re-read for me because it’s been the hardest first read and I need to do it justice so a re-read is definitely needed!
You can head over to the Marama Alliance UK page to read Leonora Sinclair’s take on this book. I am always interested in her take and I am curious as well to see how she has found this book!
Happy reading and stay blessed
The Platformm Team