I am a Zimbabwean, and so is Tsitsi Dangarembga, the author of This Mournable Body. We went to the same school in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city. I was junior to her, and only knew her by name.
The story is set in this city, in the late 1990s, well into the second of the nearly four decades, in which the country was ruled by Robert Mugabe. These were years in which the average citizen saw their life chances decline in unhappy spasms.
Tsitsi Dangarembga, who is also a filmmaker, shows us in very visual language, some of the side effects of such difficulties. Details come in varied ways. Some in short, stabby sentences, and others through conversations that twist into the fragility between every day intention and result.
She writes with great pace, and describes the different scenarios through the eyes and feelings of the fallible Tambudzai – the ‘you’ in the book.
“Your people say: you don’t lose your appetite over another person’s problems. Knowing this you are impatient to sit down to your meal.”
Readers of the triology will know Tambudzai from the first two books. Since I have only read this one I meet her for the first time in her hostel room, and then go with her as she hunts down jobs and places to stay in Harare. The scenarios are bitter, funny and horrific all at once. No matter how good or bad Tambudzai is, and the same for the characters she meets, the odds against them all remain oppressive and unpredictable.
Throughout there is a focus on women, with some strong scenes of public humiliation and physical harm. It is the one with the bicycle chain that hits me hardest, and yet this is the only sentence to describe the impact.
“Mai Taka wears her nightdress. The chain cuts through the cloth. She scrambles up.”
There are other dramatic scenes in the book, linked together by Tambudzai’s need to find work. It’s a clever format that shows us a selection of families, organisations and situations, caught in the onward struggle towards an unresolved future.
The great joy of it for me is the strong, original writing, and the setting. There are places, and names I recognise instantly. Another pleasure is that somehow, Tsitsi Dangarembga manages to be true to the agony of the odds in Zimbabwe without ever turning the book into a diatribe.
This Mournable Body was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. I would highly recommend it, particularly to Zimbabweans. It is writing to make us proud – full of energy and insight. A story amongst stories to help us understand each other as we try to build towards a better future.
I hope you’ll have room for it on your Christmas list. I was given it for my birthday.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2020