After having devoured Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga in one sitting, I couldn’t wait to start reading the final novel in her Tambudzai trilogy: This Mournable Body. Following the same protagonist, Tambudzai (Tambu), throughout her adult life, and set in the 1980’s after the War of Liberation in Zimbabwe, This Mournable Body piqued my curiosity, simply by virtue of the excellent characterisation in Nervous Conditions. While Nervous Conditions took us through Tambu’s coming of age, This Mournable Body pushes us into the deep end of Tambu’s adulthood. Faced with the ebb and flow of Tambu’s resurfacing memories, the reader is urged to take the plunge.
Immediately, what is most striking about This Mournable Body is perhaps the second-person narration, drawing the reader into the narrative. The novel’s first section, fittingly titled ‘Ebbing’, distinctly evokes an atmosphere of decay. Literally and figuratively crawling with insects, the prose succeeds in creating a visceral sense of discomfort. As Tambu struggles with burnout and the glaring realities of lost potential, the reader feels as uneasy as she does, if not more. It is definitely challenging to reconcile the Tambu we remember from her youth with the Tambu of the present.
Unlike the chronological structure of Nervous Conditions, This Mournable Body is more episodic and fragmented. The pace of the narrative is choppy and unpredictable, but this is loyal to the realistic passage of daily life. Sometimes, the novel plods in sluggish circles while Tambu trudges through interview after interview. At other times, major events are glossed over or alluded to at lightning speed. Just as Tambu inevitably has to revisit previous traumas and return to her past, the reader must take this journey with her.
As Tambu inevitably has to revisit previous traumas and return to her past, the reader must take this journey with her.
As the title suggests, This Mournable Body is inextricable from the individual violences inflicted upon bodies, against the background of the war’s aftermath. In too-quick succession, the women of the novel suffer assault after assault, regardless of their age and class. When reading, Tambu’s complicity in this violence did not sit well with me. My first impression of Tambu prompted me to lose sympathy for her, perceiving her as selfish, passive, and callous. While I cannot speak for every reader, I doubt that their views of Tambu’s character would be positively coloured by her occasional inaction, which ironically causes the most harm. However, as Tambu moved through lodgings and jobs, my sympathy for her increased. By no means am I suggesting that in order for literature to be worthy, authors have to create likeable and sympathetic characters. Indeed, the merit of This Mournable Body lies in the rich characterisation, which resists facile interpretation and bars us from making snap judgements.
Through her nuanced exploration of Tambu’s struggles with identity, Dangarembga challenges the notion that knowledge is tantamount to power. How can this hold true when Tambu, the most educated member of her immediate family, struggles with unemployment and has her work plagiarised and devalued by her white colleagues? Even her educated cousin Nyasha, despite her degrees and accolades, struggles to secure funding for her workshops. Nyasha’s father, Babamukuru, the dominating patriarchal figure of Nervous Conditions, and the biggest proponent of a Western education, is reduced to half a sentence in This Mournable Body.
The merit of This Mournable Body lies in the rich characterisation, which resists facile interpretation and bars us from making snap judgements
As Tambu’s mother puts it, Tambu is leaving her degree to “rot”, but can we blame her? In a discriminatory educational system, where she is forced on the receiving end of double standards, it is no wonder that she grapples with internal conflict and dissociation from her past. Dealing with an ambivalence about white people, Tambu oscillates between a desire to gain proximity to white people and her resentment of their actions towards her.
The character of Tracey, Tambu’s white classmate, academic rival, and boss, best embodies Tambu’s ambivalence. On the surface, Tracey offers the prospects of advancement, but as both Tambu and the reader come to realise, this comes at a price of compromising one’s identity. This is where Tambu’s growth comes to the fore. While Nervous Conditions ends with her move into the white-run convent for further education, to an extent, This Mournable Body ends with Tambu and her mother reclaiming their lived experience, as opposed to letting it fall in the hands of white people.
As This Mournable Body draws to a close, homecoming emerges as the most prominent leg of Tambu’s journey. From childhood, Tambu has dealt with shame about her village, viewing education as a force for mobility and change. Yet her homecoming, which is in part necessitated by her work, empowers her to make independent decisions.
This Mournable Body is certainly not a beach read: it is a trenchant, complex novel that immerses you deep into Tambu’s mind. And for those new to Tsitsi Dangarembga: you don’t have to have read Nervous Conditions to fully appreciate the wealth of imagery and vivid narration that make This Mournable Body a strong contender for this year’s Booker Prize.
Image: Sol Noya Carreno