This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga review – a sublime sequel

A woman confronts the realities of life in Zimbabwe and reckons with her past in this follow-up to the 1988 classic Nervous Conditions

There is a moment in this magnificent novel when the central character Tambu, for once showing herself some compassion, wonders who she has become: “When you were young and in fighting spirit, growing mealie cobs in the family field and selling them to raise money for your school fees, you were not this person you have become. When and how did it happen?”

Many readers will be familiar with young Tambu from Tsitsi Dangarembga’s classic 1988 novel Nervous Conditions, set in late 60s and 70s Rhodesia, before the country gained its independence from Britain in 1980 and became Zimbabwe. Young Tambu’s endearing, defiant voice soared with a declarative “I” as though to announce, gloriously, her presence in the world.

Adult Tambu, the narrator of Dangarembga’s remarkable sequel, tells her story in the second person, as though she cannot believe what has become of her life and wishes to distance herself from it. As the novel opens, she is being pushed out of a hostel for young women by the matron, the patronising Mrs May, who reminds her cheerfully that she has “broken the rule of age”. For Tambu the hostel has a terrifying symbolism – it is a cocoon in which young, spry women find their wings, but from which she, now in her late 30s, must be nudged into precarious flight.

Her uncertain journey takes place in the city of Harare, in late 1990s Zimbabwe, when the young country was also beginning to flounder. The novel skilfully paints this backdrop for the reader: politics has become a lucrative business built on a corrupt system of patronage; the city is now a cesspit of litter thanks to an inept municipality; and racial tensions are beginning to mount, with war veterans invading white-owned farms.

Educated but unemployed, Tambu sees other women as adversaries in a game of success she is not certain she can win. This is no more evident than when, having found work teaching at a girls’ high school, she is overtaken by “a smouldering resentment” towards her students for their untrammelled, youthful optimism. In a vicious rage, she attacks one of them, the unruly Esmeralda, rendering her deaf in one ear. Tambu has no memory of the incident and subsequently finds herself in a psychiatric ward.

Dangarembga’s sentences are chromatic, rich and impressively precise with wonderful detail, capturing Tambu’s elusive struggles to slough off her heavy past. “You have failed to make anything of yourself,” she says of herself, “yet your mother endures even more bitter circumstances than yours. How, with all your education, do you come to be more needy than your mother?” The sources of Tambu’s troubles are as much existential as they are social, and during moments of frustration such as these the language takes on a Kafkaesque sensibility. The figure of Tambu’s mother haunts her throughout the novel, at one point manifesting as an eerie series of “small, misshapen” persons biting her thumb whom Tambu tries frantically to shake off.

While in the psychiatric ward, Tambu is visited by women from her past: her Aunt Lucia, who fought in the liberation war, and her English-educated cousin Nyasha, who has moved back to Zimbabwe from Europe. She tries to shrug them off, but they radiate a poignant love and sisterhood, as well as a weighty sense of the unspoken, carrying oblique references to the betrayal of the war’s ideals by present-day Zimbabwe.

It is perhaps her relationship with Tracey Stevenson, her high school classmate, that reveals to Tambu just how desperate she is to make something of herself. Tambu associates Tracey, a white Zimbabwean, with a traumatic past rife with racism and humiliation. Nevertheless, when Tracey offers her a job in her ecotourism business, Tambu turns her village into an ecotourist site. But it comes at a price; the women of her village must stage an “authentic African experience” for European tourists by dancing with their torsos bare. It is an outdated form of ethnography, reminiscent of the colonial fetishisation of the primitive “native”, belonging to a bygone era. In a dramatic, brutal, unforgettable scene, Tambu is finally confronted by her mother in the village, forcing her to confront herself.

This Mournable Body is a sublime reckoning with the young, sparkling Tambu of Nervous Conditions by her wry, adult self, and by a young postcolonial nation with the betrayal of its convictions. Betrayal acts in the novel as a revolving prism. It is through distancing herself into the second person that Tambu allows her language to betray her, in this way letting us, and herself, into those places that are tender to touch. Three decades on, Dangarembga has written another classic.

• Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s House of Stone is published by Atlantic. This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga is published by Faber (£14.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

The GuardianTramp

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