The opening of “This Mournable Body” is jarring. Author Tsitsi Dangarembga, nominated for the 2020 Booker Prize, begins the novel in the second person, and while readers adjust to this perspective, Dangarembga lets readers know that they are picking up a stone in a city square in Zimbabwe, poised to hurl it at a colleague. Tumult has erupted near a stopped bus, and Gertrude — said colleague, who is wearing what the crowd sees as inappropriate — is being verbally and physically assaulted by street goers. Readers, poised as Tambu, a woman who lives in the same hostel as Gertrude, prepare to partake in this attack. It is an opening that is disturbing and mildly confusing with its degree of straightforwardness, diffused only when a young stranger protects Gertrude.
Though this introduction is effectively troubling, the degree of tact behind it is questionable. When it is finished, it is finished: This opening trauma is not revisited. It spells out what becomes a broader problem for “The Mournable Body,” one that grows more tangible as the narrative continues. It is clear that Dangarembga knows what she wants to do. Unfortunately, she seems only able to provide it through diametric extremes: bewildering passages of inaction or interrupting periods of disturbia.
The final novel in the “Nervous Conditions” trilogy, “This Mournable Body” returns to the life of Tambu, a middle-aged woman living in post-war Zimbabwe. The publication comes more than 30 years after the trilogy’s genesis, and though the Booker Committee nominated the novel on its own, reading the piece as a standalone gives a sense of being blind to the content of the book’s predecessors.
At its start, Tambu’s story seems isolated enough to be something fantastic. The novel begins in a hostel, with the apparently amoral (see the above scene) Tambu desperately seeking employment. She has well-off family members and is educated; her family has survived the trauma of war and she lives in a bustling (albeit deeply traditional) city. Opportunity abounds. Yet the Tambu that readers are introduced to through the second person is deeply troubled. As Tambu lingers, hardly noticed, in hostels, schools and in a widow’s cheap housing, she fails to maintain a job or personal relationships. Tambu is ravenous for wealth, comparative success and for the imagined epiphany that will eventually turn her life around. Readers are forced to watch as she repeatedly claws after this, only to miss the mark and descend further into despair.
What Dangarembga set out to do with the novel is clear. “This Mournable Body” is heaped with commentary on the traumas of war, on gender in Zimbabwe and on both the lasting and disappearing associations between Europe and post-colonial Africa. It chronicles a downtrodden Zimbabwe, once full of aspiration, that fits well within its present political turmoil. Tambu is a character emptied of hope and soaring with traumas to be understood, including those within her family and those with respect to her mental health. And Dangarembga has the adeptness not to spoon-feed these themes, but also the foresight not to bury them. What goes wrong, then, is how she carries out the rest of the work.
By midway through the novel, it becomes clear that the main problem isn’t that Tambu’s narrative is uneventful, or that it leaps through unspecified periods of time, or that its subject matter is heavy. The problem is that the novel, eliciting details that are ostentatious and so blatantly only for show, doesn’t do much of anything for readers except make them feel stupid. With each page that Dangarembga drags the novel longer, the desperation for an elementary context or a sentence that is basic and not layered with unspecific vocabulary becomes more extreme. It is unbearably frustrating — it makes the read painful. It makes it seem as if the reader has constantly missed something. It is only possible to interpret so many half-hearted, questionable metaphors about oceans, vines and hyenas.
Even when readers feel that they’ve momentarily grasped something — usually because Dangarembga has given in and written a physical description — this understanding is snapped away quickly. The narrative returns immediately to its mundane, confusing origin form.
What makes this more disappointing is that it’s clear that Dangarembga is a good writer. Even in under 300 pages, she proves a sense of knowledge about piecing a long novel together and about making despondent characters realistic. She maintains a distinguished level of language that is noticeably consistent. After all, her first novel “Nervous Conditions” was so heavily praised that it has become a staple in modern African literature. But this only lends itself to a sense of having missed something great from a well-practiced writer.
Any heart gained from the jump start with which Dangarembga opens “This Mournable Body” is long diffused by the second half of the novel. The work might be better when taken as a part of Dangarembga’s entire trilogy. It also might be better when left alone entirely.
Managing Arts Editor John Decker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.