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13 November 2020updated 19 Aug 2021 12:06pm

Why Tsitsi Dangarembga is one of the most remarkable authors the Booker Prize has ever celebrated

It may be the third volume in Dangarembga’s trilogy, but the Booker-shortlisted This Mournable Body is a sequel that doesn’t rely on its predecessors.

By Leo Robson

The announcement, in September, of the 2020 Booker Prize shortlist emphasised, none too surprisingly, the collective attributes of the nominated titles, the “very different” voices and characters on offer, the sheer “variety” of stories. Being unable to prioritise or even really individualise, what the chair of this year’s judges, Margaret Busby, omitted to note – and what the media reaction was all the more unlikely to recognise – was that one of the writers, Tsitsi Dangarembga, the author of This Mournable Body, is not just, say, a third-time novelist, or first-time shortlistee, or a woman, or a Zimbabwean, but one of the most remarkable people the Booker has ever celebrated.

A screenwriter and director (her film, Everybody’s Child, is available on YouTube), as well as a political activist (she was arrested during the summer for her role in planning anti-government protests), Dangarembga is best known, and at the same time far too little known, for her scintillating novel Nervous Conditions (1988), the first instalment in the history of Tambudzai Sigauke, the teenage daughter of a Shona family growing up in rural Rhodesia in the 1960s. The book was praised by Doris Lessing and Chinua Achebe, and featured – alongside The Golden Notebook and Things Fall Apart – on the BBC’s 2018 list of 100 stories that shaped the world.

Dangarembga’s road to acceptance has not been short. Nervous Conditions took four years to find its publisher, the London-based The Women’s Press, and though it was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, its sequel The Book of Not (2006), about Tambu’s mistreatment at school and in the workplace, was brought out by a specialist press based in Oxfordshire. It’s typical of Dangarembga’s progress – one step forward, one step back – that in celebrating Nervous Conditions, the coverage of This Mournable Body, which catches up with Tambu around the turn of the millennium, has frequently neglected to mention the existence of this middle volume, and makes reference instead to a “30-year” wait.

Dangarembga’s latest UK publisher, Faber, has taken the more extreme decision to present the new book, at least implicitly, as a standalone work. There is some justification for suggesting a fresh start, since Dangarembga is no longer using the first person – no longer, therefore, framing Tambu’s story as a memoir written to make sense of a life, the complexities of which she struggled to disentangle in real time. So the explicitly empowering and mildly meta-literary basis of the enterprise is gone, to be replaced with persistently awkward second-person narration. Physical sensation is presented at one remove, as almost an out of body experience (“your heart beats calmly in your chest”). Thoughts seem schizoid (“you wonder how you can suppress your growing feelings of doom”). Most obtrusive of all is the exposition handed from Tambu to herself. A sentence in chapter four begins by reprising the plot of Nervous Conditions: “Your uncle, who intervened to keep you from your mother’s fate by sending you to school…”

[see also: The 2020 Booker Prize shortlist is the most diverse and international ever]

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Another stumbling block is the use of a “triumph over adversity” structure, with sections entitled “Ebbing”, “Suspended” and “Arriving”, in a book that itself forms part of an arc. This is a problem often encountered by writers of series: how do you portray personal progress across books as well as within them? (Rachel Cusk’s Outline books provide another recent case.) Nervous Conditions recounts how Tambu came to receive the education she so desired – first at the mission school run by her uncle, where she replaced her brother after he died of a short illness; then at a convent school, where she is among the small minority of African students. The Book of Not presents the foundering of Tambu’s dreams: her academic achievements are not fairly rewarded, then she is mistreated by her superiors at the advertising agency where she works as a copywriter. Tambu’s escape from the burden of peasanthood is now a prelude to the doldrums depicted in the opening pages of This Mournable Body, in which Tambu is living a precarious and soulless existence in a brutal, corrupt Harare, a predicament from which Tracey Stevenson – her former adversary at both her old school and the advertising agency, and now the owner of an eco-tourism start-up – provides an unexpected, though not entirely savoury, reprieve.

Nervous Conditions was presented as the fruit of “a long and painful process” of evolution for Tambu, a journey of self-discovery that enabled her to “set down this story”. But the new book portrays Tambu as lost, lacking clarity and self-awareness, in the late 1990s, a decade after the first volume was published. You wonder not how Tambu finds herself in a state of near-penury despite having gained an education, as she herself repeatedly does, but why she is benighted, resentful, clenched and self-sabotaging, despite the wisdom she exhibited when recounting the earlier part of her life. So This Mournable Body invites the kind of reading it will largely receive – and which the Booker jury might welcome – as a work that doesn’t rely on its predecessors. Yet, paradoxically, if the author’s belated renown is to serve any purpose, it is surely to bring attention to Nervous Conditions, and not simply as an earlier novel by the same author, but as the book that introduced Tambu, the subject of what is now, whatever the inconsistencies, a trilogy.

At one point in This Mournable Body, a white European tells Tambu that the workshop run by her troubled and brilliant cousin, Nyasha, is designed to give the youth “not only a voice, but an analytical one”. Nyasha has more in common with her creator than Tambu herself does – she is the daughter of highly educated parents, herself educated in the UK and Germany – and that description of her efforts closely approximates what Dangarembga achieved in her first novel.

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Tambu’s voice brings the advantages of directness (“In those days I felt the injustice of my situation every time I thought about it”) and an immersion in the child’s-eye view, but the use of retrospect also brings a sense of distance to the days when she was a fish out of water. Tambu recalls, among other things, the different sensations of travelling by cart and by car; her sense of amazement that you might toast bread “as if it had not already been baked”; and her awkward first encounter with a panelled toilet (“I climbed on to the seat and squatted, first facing the cistern and then, more comfortably, facing away from it”). Mostly, though, her account is devoted to the systematic evocation of personal dynamics – her own ambivalent and sometimes not-so ambivalent relationship to her immediate family members, including the boastful brother whose death she doesn’t pretend that she mourned, and their dealings with each other.

[see also: Booker Prize nominee Gabriel Krauze: “I always had this instinct for wildness”]

In one typically memorable passage in Nervous Conditions, Tambu explains that what was needed in the kitchen was a mixture of her aunt Maiguru’s detachment and her aunt Lucia’s direction, but that they were both stubbornly wedded to the rightness of their own approach, pretending, Tambu realises, that they were being bold, strident, self-possessed “when really, for each one of them, it was a last solitary, hopeless defence of the security of their illusions”. Tambu, far from sparing herself, portrays the gradual hardening of her own illusions – how, in trying not to confront what she calls “unconfrontable issues”, she developed her “thinking strategy”: “It was meant to put me above the irrational levels of my character and enable me to proceed from pure, rational premises.” Perhaps the central thing she is forced to accept, by experience but also by literature, is that “reason and inclination were not at odds”– that, for example, her cousin’s personality was “not something you could dissect with reason”, that painful realities cannot be banished through the assertion of will, that thinking cannot be used for everything. So it’s disheartening, or at least confusing, that the final paragraph of the new book refers to Tambu’s knowledge finally existing in “your heart” and not “only in your head anymore”.

Perhaps This Mournable Body is intended as a rebuke to the 30-something Tambu who thought she had all the answers. It also seems possible that the course of Zimbabwean history derailed Dangarembga’s original plan for the series. There can be no escaping the horrors of the Mugabe era, the subject of an allusion on the penultimate page of This Mournable Body (“There is more war in your country’s way of peace than any of you had expected”). If Nervous Conditions offers a refuge from the peculiar frustrations of what is destined to become Dangarembga’s bestselling book, it may also offer an alternative to the pessimism that she has felt obliged to express, a return to a rosier, more consoling period in Tambu’s tale, when the word “life” referred not to repeated miseries – yet another set-back, an illusion lost all over again – but to books and friends and the “more abstract atmosphere of vitality that meant that things, exciting, interesting, useful things, were about to happen”.

This Mournable Body
Tsitsi Dangarembga
Faber, 384pp, £8.99