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'This Mournable Body' by Tsitsi Dangarembga
'A crash tells you you have not paid sufficient attention.'—Review #199
This is the last Books on GIF review of 2022. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel ‘This Mournable Body’ was short-listed for a 2020 Booker Prize, and has been buried in my bedside pile (which is actually two piles now) for more than a year. With a new year approaching, it was finally time to tackle this book.
Here’s the cover:
The story follows Tambudzai, a woman who has fallen on hard times. When we meet her, it’s the late 1990s, and she’s living in a hostel in Harare, Zimbabwe. She is looking to improve her circumstances by finding a respectable job and better lodgings as the country, too, struggles to find its footing in the years after independence in 1980 and the war that preceded it. Power and water outages are rife, as are racial and economic disparities. Tambudzai used to work for an advertising agency before ending up in the hostel, but left under murky circumstances. She is burdened with trauma and guilt for being educated in a boarding school while her sister went to war (where she lost a leg) and for not providing for her extended family back in a rural village. We see her quest for respectability and prosperity zig and zag over several years, from a teaching gig at a high school to a program director job at an ecotourism startup. But whenever things begin to go well for her, something always happens, like:
A night out, for example, ends with Tambudzai drunkenly screaming at a random white woman, and then sleeping it off on the floor in a bus shelter. After a separate and more violent incident, she is briefly committed in a psych ward. A chance encounter at the grocery store with a former white classmate, however, leads to Tambudzai’s biggest opportunity, at the ecotourism company. She works to attract Europeans to Harare for tours of a farm where elephants and water buffalo roam, and for home-stays in a ‘ghetto.’ Meanwhile, seizures of white-owned farms, which occurred in the early 2000s, force Tambudzai and her boss to think up new tourism opportunities. I won’t give their plan away, but it had me thinking:
There are intense and riveting moments throughout ‘This Mournable Body.’ In one, Tambudzai watches a mob attack a woman she knows from the hostel. As the skirmish ends, Tambudzai looks down and is surprised to find a stone in her hand, ready to be thrown. That scene will stick with me, but I struggled with this book. My issue was not with the story, but its structure. ‘This Mournable Body’ is written in the second-person perspective. That’s the one where every sentence is directed at:
I understand this format likely is meant to put the reader in the position of the protagonist, but it didn’t work for me. All the sentences telling ‘you’ what you did are tedious and distracting, and they took me out of the story so much that I almost put the book aside. Still, if this format doesn’t bother you, consider reading it. ‘This Mournable Body’ offers a complicated character and a glimpse into Zimbabwe’s history.
How it begins:
There is a fish in the mirror. The mirror is above the washbasin in the corner of your hostel room. The tap, cold only in the rooms, is dripping. Still in bed, you roll onto your back and stare at the ceiling. Realizing your arm has gone to sleep, you move it back and forth with your working hand until pain bursts through in a blitz of pins and needles. It is the day of the interview. You should be up. You lift your head and fall back onto the pillow. Finally, though, you are at the sink.
There, the fish stares back at you out of purplish eye sockets, its mouth gaping, cheeks drooping as though under the weight of monstrous scales. You cannot look at yourself. The dripping tap annoys you, so you tighten it before you turn it on again. a perverse action. Your gut heaves with a dull satisfaction.
It is a woman knocking at your door.
“Tambudzai,” she says. “Are you coming?”
Who they thanked:
In addition to family, friends and colleagues who supported her completing ‘This Mournable Body,’ Dangarembga also thanks author Teju Cole for his 2015 piece in The New Yorker called ‘Unmournable Bodies’ (might require subscription). The essay, which inspired the title of this novel, contextualizes the deadly terror attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo amid violence, intolerance and death perpetrated by Western governments. This passage stands out:
We may not be able to attend to each outrage in every corner of the world, but we should at least pause to consider how it is that mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain violent deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than others.
‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarembga was published by Graywolf Press in 2018. 284 pages. $14.88 at Bookshop.org.
Books on GIF is going on a brief book-review hiatus for the rest of the month, because this year has us like:
In two weeks you’ll get our annual gift guide, but we will be hunkered down until New Year’s Day when we’ll send Review #200. In our previous issue, we included a poll for Books on GIF subscribers to choose the book featured in that newsletter. The votes are in, and the people have spoken! You chose:
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Before you go:
ICYMI: Review #198
Read this: This article in The Guardian reports on how Dangarembga in September was convicted of inciting violence after staging a peaceful protest calling for political reform in Zimbabwe. According to the paper, ‘Dangarembga was arrested in July 2020 for holding a placard inscribed “We want better. Reform our institutions” during a peaceful protest.’ A magistrate in Harare imposed a fine on the author and a suspended sentence of jail time provided she doesn’t do it again. Amnesty International and the PEN International writers group condemned the conviction.
Read this, too: ‘What Makes a Movie the Greatest of All Time?’ in The New York Times is a fascinating look at how the lofty Sight and Sound poll of best-ever films has evolved over the decades. How many of these movies have you seen? Do you agree with the rankings? I wonder, when the next of these polls is conducted, if the voters will have put ‘Triangle of Sadness,’ which we saw this week, in its correct place among them.
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!
Until next time,