Title: This Mournable Body
Author: Tsitsi Dangarembga
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Reviewed by: Zukiswa Wanner
In the early hours of Sunday morning, at 0246hrs to be precise, I sent a WhatsApp text to a bookish friend who often shares the same taste with me in literature: I’m on p57 of This Mournable Body and finding it hard to get into. So trying hard not to judge it by Nervous Conditions yet…
It was never going to happen that I would succeed in not judging This Mournable Body by Nervous Conditions standards. Sure, the author is no longer the same person she was when the first book came out in 1988. Heck, I am, not the same person I was in December of last year and if I were asked to write my last book, I likely would not write it the same way. And yet, the sheer beauty and ingenuity of Nervous Conditions makes this reader, despite what she knows about writing, compare. A major part of it is that This Mournable Body is the third in a trilogy which started with Nervous Conditions, continued with The Book of Not in 2006 and now we are here. Equally important though is that I am human and will compare authors’ books with their predecessors. In this case though, I was glad my friend didn’t respond because I may not have got back to the book. What started would later turn out to be a work of great artistic merit, more matured and on par with the first in the trilogy.
In retrospect what may have made me hesitant may have been the second-person narration style of the book and yet too as the book progressed, it is exactly what made me start enjoying it. So while
P11 You go on to Borrowdale Police and make your way between BP and Total service stations. By the side of the road, you peel off your Lady Dis. You pull out black Bata plimsolls and push the pumps into your bag.
was relatable (I have smart shoes when I make an appearance and comfortable shoes that I walk in spaces), it was difficult to get into at the beginning. However by the time one gets to
p65 You subside onto a granite boulder beneath the gnarled tree, at odds with yourself once more, at odds with yourself once more, not knowing why, fighting back tears.
The story is now beyond relatable and starts feeling like the Tambudzai I got to know and who I liked as much as she annoyed me and by
p125 You are immediately resentful, judging that this is no way to treat a convalescent, that living in Europe has not improved your cousin at all; if anything, it has made her more ill-mannered.
I remember that she annoyed me because, even at 12 when I first got to know her and all the subsequent times I got to revisit her (at least twice a year), it was how judgmental she was to those whose fate she should have understood more because it was parallel to hers.
In This Mournable Body, Tambudzai returns with her air of quiet disdain. Seeing yet not speaking out against injustices and sometimes, being part of that injustice. In a crowd baying for blood at a rank, the reader will not understand Tambudzai’s actions towards her hostel-mate Gertrude but the reader is not alone because she does not seem to understand her actions either. From there, the reader cannot help but notice that it shall go downhill.
Having isolated herself from her family and jobless in Part 1 of the book dubbed Ebbing, Tambudzai’s actions become more and more erratic as she moves out of the hostel and into new accommodation. From the get-go, she is unsure of her new digs and the people that she has to leave with especially her landlady, Mai Manyanga. But while the events at her new abode are disturbing
P54 Your housemate weeps that her dying started right there, with her error of judgment. While she leaned over, brushing inside the bowl, Shine heaved in and wedged his knee between her buttocks. She says no more than this…
it is her own actions, just when she seems to finally be getting some redemption, that gets her house of cards stumbling down. It is here where we are led to part 2, Suspended and come across some of the familiar names and faces as they try to help her to get it together. Mainini Lucia is as feisty as ever and now as an ex-combatant, is using the skills she learnt in China to start her own outfit with a fellow comrade. Nyasha, now married, is still battling patriarchy that sometimes leaves her defeated as when she has to deal with her domestic workers, the married couple Mai Taka and her husband, Silence who is anything but. Nyasha’s relationship with Tambudzai shows the latter exhibiting the same lack of sympathy that she did when they were young. In the same way as those in lower positions, it is always to those of her ilk that she should empathise with the most that she exhibits her misplaced anger.
P156 Shocked and disappointed at Cousin-Brother-in-Law’s outburst, which is not the superior conduct you expect of a European, you hold on to the memory, slipping away from a developing argument in a dusty recall. If you are disillusioned by Cousin-Brother-in-Law, however, your anger is aimed at Nyasha, who cannot be grateful for the fact that, though her husband might be unpleasant on occasion, she never experiences the abuse that Mai Taka routinely endures.
Just as Tambudzai chose to focus on how lucky Nyasha was to have Babamukuru as her father in Nervous Conditions little questioning the difference in treatment of Nyasha and her brother which led to the former’s breakdown, she does the same here too. Her envy for what she perceives –Tambudzai- Nyasha to have, leaves her unable and unwilling to see beneath the surface. But this is because of their distinctly different personalities. Nyasha and Tambudzai’s personalities seem like metaphors for Zimbabwe in particular and the world in general. Nyasha’s feminism and her insistence on equality in an unequal world are didactically opposed to Tambudzai’s hunger for individual success, competitive nature and desire to be able to show those she feels may not have thought much of her that she has made it. In Tambudzai’s world then, the individual trappings of success and outward appearance will always trump any personal problems. And so when she meets her former high school nemesis, previous boss and now eco-entrepreneur Tracey Stevenson who she should be wary of, the fact that she embraces her does not surprise.
Yet again, Tambudzai pits herself against another marginalized individual as competition and what could have been does not end in quite the way she had hoped in the final part of this immensely enjoyable read, Arriving.
Would I recommend this book? Yes I would. This Mournable Body may have a slow start but it is the sort of book to be savoured during the holiday season on a break from social media without all the noise that comes with daily life. Anyone who loved Dangarembga’s debut, Nervous Conditions, will enjoy this just as much or even better. One cannot help but feel that the writer is giving a wink to the reader when she writes in language that is culturally entrenched in the society she writes about:
“Give it to me,” says Mainini Lucia.
You walk over to your aunt.
“Here,” Mainini says to Christine. “The child says here are her tears.”
It is this insight into the place she writes of that moves This Mournable Body from good to great. With this last offering in the trilogy, Tsitsi Dangarembga has come full circle in this book that was the first in this trilogy. This Mournable Body is extraordinary in its ordinariness and memorable precisely because Tambu, Nyasha, Mainini, heck even Tracey Stevenson may be rooted in a particular place but have universal familiarity be it in Harare, Nairobi or Germany where Cousin-Brother-in-Law hails. If there is any criticism to be made, it is on the ending which reads as a little too contrived. This reader couldn’t help feeling that Tambu’s exit from the village would have been a great ending, but in fairness, I have been accused of writing books that seem incomplete so this ending will resonate with many.