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This Mournable Body

This Mournable Body is undoubtedly an important book, but it’s more than a little difficult to read. The deservedly renowned Zimbabwean novelist, filmmaker and playwright Tsitsi Dangarembga presents a devastating portrait of her country after independence has finally been achieved, but has failed to produce the equitable utopia that the struggle seemed to promise would follow liberation from colonial oppression.

The novel follows Tambudzai and her efforts to claw her way to a prosperity and personal success she understands as her due, but which she repeatedly struggles to realize. She is thwarted by misfortune, by structural injustices that privilege white people and men, and also, it often seems, by herself. After walking out on a relatively lucrative job in an advertising agency because she is tired of her white male colleagues taking credit for her work, she finds herself running out of money and options. She manages to get a job as a biology teacher, but an unwellness that seems to have been brewing for some time culminates in a mental breakdown, and she lands in an institution. This is, perhaps, the nadir of Tambudzai’s journey – or at least it might seem as such until developments that arise later in the novel. However, her life takes a more hopeful turn after her institutionalization, and there are reasons to be optimistic that she might fulfil at least some of her dreams.

The story is written in the second person – always, for me, an initially estranging experience. In This Mournable Body, it is especially difficult because the ‘you’ the reader is inserted into, Tambudzai, is so unlikeable. She is often unsympathetic: prone to jealousy, malice, spite, and inflected in most of her actions by an injured resentment resulting from the fact that she hasn’t been able to demonstrate how superior she is to everyone around her. But Dangarembga is excellent at which she does, and after some time it seemed to me that the novel was a lesson in self-loathing. It was often unpleasant, but it was also extremely effective.

Dangarembga’s writing is very strong, and in many ways this novel seems to be a book that an honest person might have to write about a post-liberation situation that has been a profound disappointment of earlier hopes. It’s part indictment of the individuals who want to get ahead regardless of the cost, but also part recognition that some systems are so deeply rotten that there are few, if any, good options. I can’t say that I enjoyed this book, but I have a great deal of respect for it.

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