Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 13, 2021

This Mournable Body, by Tsitsi Dangarembga

I haven’t read the winner of the 2020 Booker Prize yet, but it must have been spectacularly good to have been chosen instead of the shortlisted This Mournable Body by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga. It’s one of those books that makes me wish that all my reading were as worthwhile.

The novel tells the story of one woman’s moral decay and decline into poverty and is emblematic of Zimbabwe’s postcolonial debacle.  So it could have been a melancholy book, but witty asides and black humour lighten the tone.  At the same time, it’s also a painfully honest examination of the deluded visions of Zimbabwe’s leadership and the corrupt state of the nation and body politic.

Tambudzai (Tambu) is a thirty-something Zimbabwean down on her luck.  And it’s not her fault: she was uplifted from rural poverty by an uncle who enabled her education but despite her degree she can’t get work and she can’t get ahead.  Progress towards a better life and success are a mirage.

Tired of being paid a miserable wage while men took credit for the work she did, she imprudently resigned from her job in an advertising agency.  When the novel opens she is exhausting her meagre savings in a rundown hostel where she is past her use-by date because the hostel is for young women, and she is no longer young.

Very soon the reader is drawn into the moral collapse that represents the morass into which Zimbabwe has fallen.  Tambu goes for a job interview as secretary for the Widow Riley but is refused entrance by a wily servant who perceives that Tambu will displace her.  Discouraged yet again, Tambu goes home in anger that expresses itself when a mob turns on one of the girls from the hostel, a flashy, sexy good-time-girl called Gertrude.  I don’t know whether the image of Tambu standing ready to cast a stone is a Biblical allusion to shared guilt or if that’s me imposing a colonial interpretation on a traditional Zimbabwean way of ‘disciplining’ unruly young women who depart from patriarchal standards of behaviour.  But either way the scene skewers the reader into being complicit.  On the one hand Tambu is addressing herself; on the other, the second-person ‘you’ is the reader—both the postcolonial Zimbabwean who wilfully refuses to take responsibility for the descent into mob rule and the wider world which looks away, helpless to intervene in affairs for which under colonialism it was the bedrock but which it now no longer controls.

Her mouth is a pit.  She is pulling you in.  You do not want her to entomb you.  You drop your gaze but do not walk off because on the one hand you are hemmed in by the crowd.  On the other if you return to solitude you will fall back inside yourself where there is no place to hide. (p.24)

Justification comes easily:

You did not want to do what you did at the market.  You did not want all that to happen, nor did anyone else.  No one wanted it.  It is just something that took place like that, like a moment of madness. (p.28)

BEWARE: SPOILERS

From the hostel, Tambu moves to a squalid boarding-house owned by Mai Manyanga, a woman whose husband was an opportunist who made money.  He died, leaving her with a graveyard of unsold payphones and a large house.  Despite her assurances that it’s a god-fearing household, her tenant Shine routinely assaults another tenant Maka and leaves in a huff when Tambu declines to let him into her room.  She has set her sights on Mai Manyanga’s three sons as potential husbands as a way to escape her circumstances.  They in turn are plotting to kill their mother in order to gain their inheritance.

The arrival of Christine a.k.a. Kiri alters the situation.  She was a freedom-fighter in the war of independence, but like others in Tambu’s family she has sacrificed much and gained nothing in return.  She chivvies Tambu into action and so she takes up teaching as a last resort while she works out which one of the sons to ensnare.  Temperamentally unsuited for the job and teaching a subject for which she is unqualified by her #irony sociology degree, Tambu loses her temper one day and assaults the unruly Elizabeth, leaving her deaf in one ear.

Part II is an abrupt change of scene.  Tambu is in a psychiatric ward.  She is catatonic, unable to process what is said to her, unable to speak.  Only able to weep unstoppable tears.  There is no need to labour the point that she with the griefs she represents is the only sane person in the ward…

Her family turns up and eventually she is (reluctantly) taken into the family of her cousin Nyasha.  Tambu despises Nyasha for ‘selling out’ into marriage with a European but at the same time she judges Nyasha for allowing the large property to fall into squalor and disrepair.  Tambu thinks that Nyasha is neglecting her responsibilities as a home-maker while her German-born husband ostentatiously helps with the cooking.  (Which, as we all know, is the only creative, satisfying element of daily housework which is also the only task that brings gratifying praise.) Nyasha is busy running empowering workshops for young women (necessitating hours of unempowering preparatory catering) while Leon, the know-it-all (but alas disconcertingly right) Cousin-Brother-in-Law mutters unencouraging remarks about how she is wasting her time.

There is so much more to this brilliant novel, but I want to focus on just one devastating scene when the servant Mai Taka offers to go to the cinema on her day off to make up for taking a previous day off when her husband beat her so badly that she couldn’t work.  When Silence (yes, that’s his name) threatens her, she tells Nyasha it would be better not to go because he has already kicked her and he will beat her again when she comes home afterwards.  But Nyasha insists that Mai Taka stand up to him, to Tambu’s shocked astonishment at her cousin’s foolishness in treating Mai Taka as though she were a workshop participant. Leon (the male ‘in charge’) gets out of the car to negotiate, ultimately agreeing sulkily that Mai Taka will be paid for the day since she is working.

And then Mai Taka arcs up.  She knows she will be beaten now whether she goes to the cinema or not so she may as well go and do what she wants to do anyway.  The irony here is that Mai Taka who’s never been ’empowered’ has more courage than her employer: Nyasha didn’t want to go because she has work to do but gets bullied into it by Leon telling her that the children want a mother not a workshop facilitator.

The awfulness of this scene is that it replicates the tentative moves towards independence of women in different times and places around the world.  The menace implicit in these men’s control is the same though Leon’s is non-violent.  He will get what he wants and so will Silence.  (He retaliates by leaving Mai Taka, taking the children to his parents, and she will never get them back under Zimbabwe’s laws which awards custody to fathers.)

Things look up for a bit and Tambu lives briefly in a room furnished with minimalist, post-colonial Zimbo-chic wrought iron and leather, but her devastating betrayal of her village and its traditions ends in a ghastly tragi-comic tableau.  Dangarembga (who lives in Harare and is therefore a participant in this society not an off-stage observer) at the same time sheets responsibility for the debacle where it belongs: a successful eco-tourism business run by a white Zimbabwean trying to adapt to the new economy is ruined by war-veterans appropriating the land. Whatever the rights and wrongs of much-needed land reform in Zimbabwe, it is a Zimbabwean author writing this searing critique:

You give up paying attention and listen with only half an ear, as Lucia and her companion attempt to dissuade you from the Village Eco Transit enterprise.  Everybody has heard about ex-combatants setting themselves up as custodians of the nation’s development, in spite of displaying no understanding of business that is not related in one way or another to combat.  Yes, it was their very ignorance concerning how to move the country forward that stopped the tours on Nils Stevenson’s farm.  If not for those very war veterans, you would be earning your living up in the north-western gamelands.  (p.338)

I think it’s fair to say that the situation in Zimbabwe was dire under Robert Mgabe and the re-election of the ZANU-PF and its socialist ideology offers little hope of improvement in the economy or social conditions.

But perhaps the indomitable spirit of Zimbabwean women will prove that wrong.

There are plenty of reviews for this superb book, but the best of them is at Literary Elephant. 

Author: Tsitsi Dangarembga
Title: This Mournable Body
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 2020
ISBN: 9780571355518
Source: Bayside Library


Responses

  1. Straight on to my library reserve list. I am intrigued …

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  2. I have been to parts of Zimbabwe. The poverty and desperation brought me to tears. I would have a hard time reading this book but it does sound like an important work.

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    • Pam, it’s brilliant. And I do think it would make you chuckle as well.

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  3. So pleased you liked this one as much as me, Lisa. It made my Top 10 last year. I found it very challenging in all kinds of ways but the story has stuck with me and I now want to read the first two in the trilogy.

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    • Me too. My library doesn’t have it so I’m going to have to buy it.

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      • The good news is the second book, which has been out of print for awhile, is being republished on 4 March. It’s already available in a kindle edition.

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  4. Wonderful review, Lisa! I am hearing people raving about this book. So glad you liked it. It looks like a tough read though, but glad to know that the dark humour makes things easier. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 😊

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    • Hi Vishy, thanks for dropping by. I hope you get the opportunity to read it one day too.

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  5. I am reading this next week! So will come back and read your post then!

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  6. I don’t think I’ve ever written this before: I’ll come back to your review when I’ve read the book.

    I formed the intention of reading it after Kim’s review and now Literary Elephant, whom I’ve often seen around without ever checking out her writing, says I should read books 1 and 2 first. It might be a while

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    • Gosh.
      #PicksSelfUpOffTheFloor
      It was my intention to read Books 1 & 2 first as well, but none of my libraries had it, and because I *hadn’t* read Literary Elephant’s review (until yesterday) I was a bit wary of parting with hard-earned for an author I didn’t know.
      I wish I could find Africa’s equivalent of Fishpond, which is online, but not owned by Amazon…

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  7. I read Nervous Conditions a couple of years ago and I’m looking forward to “catching up” with Tambu in this book. I think it will also be interesting to see how Tsitsi Dangaremgba has changed as a writer. If you like to pair books with films, I also recommend the film Neria, for which she wrote the story and which is also very much about women in a changing society.

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    • Merci! I will look around to see if I can find the film.
      I’ll be interested to see what you think: IMO this one has the mark of mature writing so I imagine it will be quite a contrast with her debut, if and when I can get a copy too.

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  8. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) was also impressed by this book. […]

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