Much of the literature from Africa published in the United States is layered with an "explanatory gloss," as Kwame Anthony Appiah noted in his 2004 introduction to Tsitsi Dangarembga's now classic debut novel, "Nervous Conditions" (1988).
Not so with Dangarembga, an author and filmmaker from Zimbabwe who grew up in white-minority-governed Rhodesia. She writes about experiences that are only partly comprehensible to her characters, let alone her reader, as her protagonist tries to sculpt a selfhood while carrying the combined baggage of colonialism, the war for independence and deep-seated racism and sexism.
"This Mournable Body," which found its title from the Teju Cole essay "Unmournable Bodies," is the final novel in a trilogy that follows Tambudzai (or Tambu) from girlhood to middle age. It is a staggering achievement, ambitious yet compulsively readable, a novel that feels like the culmination of 30 years of work and self-exploration even as it repeatedly shows how a life will always be a work in progress.
This is partly accomplished through the use of second-person narration, which heightens the contrast with "Nervous Conditions," a coming-of-age novel that was narrated in the first person with a hopeful sense that Tambu's brutal childhood gradually would cease to impact her. Here, the burden of the past weighs heavy.
The "you" is, of course, not the reader, but Tambu, who is in a deep funk after quitting her job at an advertising agency where the white co-workers claimed the credit for her fine work and thus advanced without her. The novel opens on Tambu holed up in a youth hostel in Harare, bitterly sharing space with girls half her age. As she gets ready for a job interview, she is met in the mirror by a fish staring back at her, "cheeks drooping like monstrous scales beneath purplish eye sockets."
This monster that she carries within will exert its will in various ways, most horrifically when she beats a teenage girl in the classroom where she teaches.
After a stay in a psychiatric hospital, Tambu feels the shame of being reduced to dependency on relatives. She wishes her cousin Nyasha would take her side in her grievances rather than remain occupied helping other women in the community deal with domestic violence. Only after facing the mother of the girl she has beaten does Tambu begin to reconnect with herself.
"Grief flows to and fro through your entwined fingers, and the tears from your two faces mingle so that it is as though you are washing your hands. Ah, how you wish the tears would cleanse away everything the four hands hold." In this moment of connection, generations of the two women's incomprehensible anger are sublimated but not completely overcome, because in Tambu's world the potential for violence is always under the surface.
David Varno's writing has appeared in Bomb, the Brooklyn Rail, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House and elsewhere, and he serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.
This Mournable Body
By: Tsitsi Dangarembga.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 284 pages, $16.