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The second instalment of life in Zim

Whatever novel Tsi­tsi Dangarembga would write following the success of the seminal Nervous Conditions would be judged using the high benchmarks this book set when its author at once celebrated and critiqued femaleness and questioned emasculating gender relations. Even more rigorous standards would be applied, one assumes, for a book that would follow as its sequel.

Most of the action in The Book of Not (Ayebia), the sequel to Nervous Conditions, happens against the backdrop of Zimbabwe’s nationalist war of independence in the 1970s. It begins with an unflattering picture of the nationalists. Tambu and other villagers are at an all-night meeting with the guerrillas where babamukuru, her benefactor and guardian, is being beaten because he is a sell-out and a collaborator for daring to send his niece to “a school for his child where the education was superior to the education given to the children of other people”. Netsai, her younger sister, has her leg blown off by a bomb at the same meeting.

Dangarembga subtly brings to the fore, using the innocent eyes of a teenager, the racial issues that the Catholic-run multiracial school would rather push to the margins. African pupils live six to a hostel meant for four students. Not even senior fifth and sixth formers, who should have had rooms to themselves, are exempt from this arrangement. They have to share the hostel with first formers. When Tambu uses the toilet reserved for white students she is called to the headmistress’s office for a reprimand and, later, the principal writes a letter to babamukuru in which she accuses her of having a “complex”.

In many ways the tightrope of tension that stretches across the old Rhodesian country of Nervous Conditions remains equally taut in the sequel. The African girls, for instance, lived in mortal fear of accidental contact with white pupils, who would rather not be touched by the blacks. “We spent a lot of time consumed by this kind of terror. We didn’t speak of it among ourselves … but the horror of it gnawed within us.” The maxim “thou shall not” comes to define how Tambu and other Africans live out the rest of their days at the mission.

The school’s administration ever so slightly made them aware of their inferiority, the result of which was a searing self-loathing for Tambu and other black people. In her waking moments, the fact that she is not white and her limbless sister — who is a living, although dismembered, testimony to her connection to the war — weigh heavily on her. As a result, her time at the school is a series of events in which she tries to be agreeable and ingratiate herself with the authorities.

Initially she thinks, naively, that she is guilty by association with other black girls who had not received “proper treatment”, but when she comes to and realises that the way they are treated is gratuitous and there is no way whatsoever of making amends, the depth of the agony is palpable, much like in the Afro-American novel of the 20th century. Tambu agonises that “you came to a school where you frequently had to pinch yourself to see if you really existed” and when you realise you do, you “often wished you didn’t”, much like the quest for identity in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

As you read, you become aware of the narrator’s increasing maturity, which has the effect of preparing you for the denouement at the end. As she grapples to come to terms with her situation, she toys with the idea of unhu (ubuntu) — what she calls “I am not well, so you are not well too” — and she realises that this philosophy is effete when not reciprocated. Strangely, and perhaps appropriately, this “let and live” philosophy is couched in terms of what you are not, rather than what you are.

But it is the run-up to her humiliation that the author carefully paints with great care and artistry. Tambu, in a break with the school’s tradition, ambitiously attempts to etch her name in the annals of the school. She works hard for two years, indeed comes top of her ordinary level class, only for rules to be changed to accommodate Tracey Stevenson, a white student.

All around her, the limits to her aspirations are cast in concrete and, it would seem, neither all the ambition nor all the will she can summon are able to move the obstacles placed before her. Now even Nyasha, her strong-willed cousin, has been sucked into acquiescent silence and lethargy at the mission school and is later banished from the book altogether when she leaves for England — perhaps one thing that could be faulted about the story.

The Book of Not is a worthy, perhaps not symmetrical, sequel to Nervous Conditions, but it grandly sets the stage for the final book in the trilogy, which will be set in post-independence Zimbabwe.

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