Tsistsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions, which was published in 1988 and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, not only took the world by storm but became reading material for many a university student. In the book Dangarembga deals with the themes of poverty, the challenges faced by women and the struggles they have to undertake to succeed. The story’s protagonist, Tambudzai Sigauke – Tambu for short – comes onto the scene as a child succeeding at school against all odds in pre-independence Zimbabwe.
In the follow-up novel, The Book of Not (2006), we met Tambu again as a teenager and young adult struggling with identity, the trauma of war and the lack of an escape from it. Now, in This Mournable Body, Dangarembga gives us Tambu again – but as something rare: a struggling anti-heroine.
THIS MOURNABLE BODY is published today. Gratitude for everything and blessings to all, especially for and to those who held my hand over the decades. I pray THIS MOURNABLE BODY will bring joy to all.
— Tsitsi Dangarembga (@efie41209591) August 7, 2018
Tambu is no longer young but is not yet middle-aged. She is unemployed, living in a hostel and running out of savings. The questions running through her mind are, “Who are the people who succeed in life? Why do they succeed? Are some people condemned to failure?”
“You are concerned you will start thinking of ending it all, having nothing to carry on for: no home, no job, no sustaining family bonds …. You have failed to make anything at all of yourself …. How, with all your education, do you come to be more needy than your mother?”
The book summary describes the story as follows:
“Anxious about her prospects after leaving a stagnant job, Tambudzai finds herself living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare. For reasons that include her grim financial prospects and her age, she moves to a widow’s boarding house and eventually finds work as a biology teacher. But at every turn in her attempt to make a life for herself, she is faced with a fresh humiliation, until the painful contrast between the future she imagined and her daily reality ultimately drives her to a breaking point.
In This Mournable Body, Tsitsi Dangarembga returns to the protagonist of her acclaimed first novel, Nervous Conditions, to examine how the hope and potential of a young girl and a fledgling nation can sour over time and become a bitter and floundering struggle for survival. As a last resort, Tambudzai takes an ecotourism job that forces her to return to her parents’ impoverished homestead. It is this homecoming in Dangarembga’s tense and psychologically charged novel that culminates in an act of betrayal, revealing just how toxic the combination of colonialism and capitalism can be.”
Tambu can be seen as a symbol as well as a character: Her strife for prosperity amid dysfunction imitates modern Zimbabwe’s ongoing struggle to outgrow stifling corruption.