A mordant, often darkly witty study of postcolonial dejection, This Mournable Body is the third in Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga’s trilogy of novels about Tambudzai Sigauke and her family. At the end of the first volume, the acclaimed Nervous Conditions (1988), a brilliant career shimmered before Tambu. But in This Mournable Body, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, the once sparky and ambitious student – like her country, Zimbabwe – has fallen on hard times. This is the era of the contested land reforms in the country; the state is corrupt; much-needed economic reconstruction has not taken place; the gloss of the early years of freedom has faded, to the extent that Tambu sees no point in calling 1980 the year of independence. Women in particular bear the burden of the increasing violence, poverty and exploitation. For Tambu herself, every day is an ‘implacable terror’.
Nervous Conditions invited identification with both Tambu and her angsty westernised teenage cousin Nyasha. This Mournable Body takes us into Tambu’s troubled mindscape some twenty years later. She has left her good job at an advertising agency ‘on the pretence of marriage’ but actually on principle, her best lines having been attributed to a white colleague, Tracey, who, in an ironic twist, later becomes her boss. Tambu now finds herself jobless, living on her savings in a women’s hostel and, later, in a run-down rental, dreaming about revenge and marriage to unworthy men. In a disturbing expression of her own self-hatred, she takes out her disappointment and rage on younger, more defenceless women. After an unprovoked attack on a hard-working but ‘meek’ pupil at the school where she is teaching, whom she makes deaf in one ear, she finds herself in a psychiatric institution and gradually begins to face up to her internal terrors.
The bearer of the titular body is, often shockingly, Tambu herself, brooding, damaged, resentful and shell-shocked by everything she and the women in her family have gone through during the War of Liberation and subsequently. In an interview, Dangarembga has spoken of adapting Teju Cole’s idea of the body deemed mournable in the media to explore the need for women in her society actively to own and mourn their suffering. Whereas Cole asked why only certain violent deaths were deemed notable and grievable in the West, Dangarembga is concerned with living women’s bodies and the idea that the lot of women is silently to bear the pain and abuse heaped upon them: ‘It’s a question of being allowed to grieve for yourself.’ Some of the most arresting moments in this consistently brilliant novel arrive when the shocks Tambu endures come from her not-yet-mourning body (her compulsively weeping eyes, her bursting heart), a body that consistently knows better than she does.
Dangarembga is acutely insightful about mental illness arising from historical mistreatment. Riffing on Sartre and Fanon, Nervous Conditions explored through the story of Nyasha’s breakdown the idea that the existence of the native is ‘a nervous condition’. This Mournable Body is a perhaps even more harrowing meditation on the mental derangement that being colonised inflicts. Before, Tambu was the stable, self-disciplined counterweight to Nyasha; now it is Tambu herself who is drowning in an ocean of pain. The scene in which Tambu eventually tries to apologise to the family of the now half-deaf young woman and washes her hands in the tears of her mother forms a heart-rending turning point. She sees that her own damage, unlike the girl’s, need not be permanent, though there remain further humiliations to endure before she gets to the point of incorporating that ‘knowledge’ into her body.
Self-dissociation lies at the very heart of Tambu’s story and is captured in one of its most memorable features, which has already drawn extensive comment, the second-person narrative voice. Telling her story as if it was happening to another, Tambu conveys that there is ‘no communication between the person she once believed she could be and the person she has in fact become’. As readers, we are immersed in Tambu’s self-alienation, at one and the same time reached out to and held at arm’s length.
Tambu’s story of derangement contains powerful echoes of Zimbabwe’s literature and history: the women’s hostel in Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing, the decaying former white suburbs in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, the violence of the Zimbabwe War of Liberation, captured by Shimmer Chinodya and Charles Mungoshi. This Mournable Body is a journey through the lieux de mémoire of Zimbabwean fiction. It is a major achievement.