‘This Mournable Body’: a scorching tale of mental and societal ...

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‘This Mournable Body’: a scorching tale of mental and societal collapse

Tsitsi Dangarembga concludes her trilogy with this hypnotic novel, now in the running for the Booker Prize

Claire Allfree

A particularly ugly incident occurs a couple of chapters into Tsitsi Dangarembga’s third novel, This Mournable Body, shortlisted last week for the Booker Prize. A skimpily dressed woman stumbles trying to board a bus in Harare and, as her skirt climbs up her leg, people at a nearby market jeer at her seeming lack of self-respect. Discombobulated, the woman falls backwards into the crowd, which closes over her with blind, self-righteous fury. Watching impassively is Tambu, who recognises the woman from the hostel where she lives, but makes no move to help her. Instead, she picks up a stone.

Tambu doesn’t throw the stone and the woman survives, although when Tambu sees her back at the hostel, surrounded by concerned women, her face “is like a relief map you pored over in geography classes. Hills and riverbeds are carved out of gashes and bruises, the imprints of feet, some bare… some booted”. Tambu will later be haunted by the weight of the stone in her hand (although Tambu, it transpires, is haunted by many things), but her first instinct is to shrug off the outrage of her five fellow hostellers and help herself to some dinner. “Against a market. Five.” she thinks. “Against a city, a nation … Women. Five. What do they think they can achieve? They can hiss as much as they wish.”

The collapse of personal morality against a background of endemic corruption in modern-day Zimbabwe and the inability of the individual to effect change ricochet through this unsettling novel, which concludes a trilogy begun eight years after independence. Nervous Conditions (1988) introduced Tambu as a precocious child from a rural background growing up amid the chaos of the Rhodesian civil war. Three decades on (the second instalment, The Book of Not, was published in 2006) and Tambu is now middle-aged, broke and unemployed – she left her job as a copywriter after her white colleagues took credit for her work...

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