This is a hard book. Maybe I shouldn’t start that way, but it’s the first thing I can think to say about This Mournable Body. This book is a stunning, intricately crafted work of art by a writer who possesses insight into the human condition that rivals Hemingway’s, but it is also a dense, difficult piece of literature, and it would be dishonest of me to pretend otherwise.
A Zimbabwean author who writes in English, Tsitsi Dangarembga is a highly versatile and well-lauded artist. She has directed and written multiple films, and she is the founder of both the Women’s Film Festival of Harare and the International Images Film Festival. Her first novel, Nervous Conditions, won international acclaim, including a spot on the BBC’s list of 100 stories that shaped the world. Nervous Conditions was the first of a trilogy of novels telling the story of Zimbabwe’s independence through a village woman named Tambudzai. That trilogy continues with The Book of Not and concludes with This Mournable Body.
Consequently, this novel is likely much easier to interpret if the reader has absorbed the prior two books. Unlike some literary novels in series, this one showers the reader with clues that she is not getting the whole story. The narration invokes past occurrences and family connections frequently, reminding the reader not of the details of these events, but simply that they exist. The reader is clearly meant to know the backstory already. That backstory (Tambudzai’s) involves a hardscrabble past in a remote village, a start-and-stop pattern of success and failure in prestigious schools and jobs, and a major professional betrayal that has catapulted Tambudzai into poverty.
Across the course of this novel, Tambu tries to move forward with her life, but she is stopped at every turn. She demonstrates breathtaking hypocrisy and resentment toward nearly everyone around her, but also, every time she manages to get beyond hand-to-mouth living, her past traumas kick in and she hallucinates, loses herself to fugue states, and becomes uncontrollably hostile. Ultimately, Tambu must go home again, to the village where her life and Nervous Conditions began, and face up to the exploitation in which she’s been a both a participant and a victim.
Literary themes permeate the novel: postcolonialism, class mobility, gender and race relations, trauma theory. The novel tends more toward character study than toward plot, which accounts for its wandering motions and its occasional dearth of clarity. I found myself asking “Wait, what happened between those chapters?” more than once. But this tendency also means that Tambudzai springs to life as one of the most indelible characters in contemporary literature. She is vain, ambitious, self-sabotaging, and disdainful, but she is also profoundly damaged, which makes her sympathetic. “I am the kind of person two cooks give a coin to. No, I am not that person. I am. I am not. Would I know it if I am that person?”
The reason for her damage and bad choices lies in the prior novels, I think, but the reader gets the outline of it from the relentless internal nature of the narration. Tambu has been betrayed, she has been through war, she has lost some of her family, she has lost her home. She was told she was destined for great things, but no great things happened to her, and that makes her feel both cheated and guilty: that a promise was broken, and that she proved incapable. She suffers under misogyny and racism, and tries to work with or around these forces instead of against them, but no strategy succeeds. Everything she does leaves her worse off than before, monetarily or spiritually, until the very last pages of the novel.
This Mournable Body is narrated in the second person, a curious choice. (The prior two books were narrated in the first person.) Few novels can sustain the second person without exhausting the reader; it has found its best use in the short stories of Lorrie Moore and, some would argue, Junot Díaz. Perhaps this narrative choice is part of why this book is so difficult to read, but surely another element is the content. Life is far from good in free Zimbabwe. Scarcity of all kinds stalks Tambu. Men are violent predators. White people are untrustworthy, yet unavoidable. Dangarembga’s writing is beautiful, but dense, like tiny embroidery.
When you think she is in agreement with you, she is a sun giving off warmth and strange, invisible sustenance; when not, she seems too brilliant and strong, a bolt of lightning waiting to strike.
The book pushes its reader into a place and situation that many Westerners might have never have considered at all, much less understood. But then, this is why we read (or so I hope): to understand a life, a perspective, that differs significantly from our own. The foreignness of this novel might make it more challenging than a book that hews closer to our own lives. However, with this book, I have dipped for a time into a life that I will never live. This Mournable Body is a challenge, but it’s also awe-inspiring, a depiction of trauma, deterioration, and redemption accomplished with rare potency and grit.
Reviewed by Katharine Coldiron
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: August 7, 2018