“I got my things and left. I couldn’t think of where to go.” So begins Charles Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, set in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia.
These lines pretty much explain Marechera’s iconoclastic position and his ambivalent place in African literature. When he rose to prominence, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe were in vogue. He didn’t look up to them, if anything he subverted the traditional canon they gave birth to, holding up as his literary ancestors Dostoyevsky, Rabelais, Mikhail Bakhtin, Günter Grass and others.
When Marechera’s book came out, Doris Lessing described it as “an explosion” and compared it with “overhearing a scream”. This reaction was quite characteristic. His classmate at the University of Rhodesia in the mid-1970s, Kizito Muchemwa, had noted the “the intensity, the apocalyptic images, the incantatory rhythms, the eclectic sensibility of Charles Marechera’s poetry” that echoed William Blake and Ezra Pound.
While some found this streak admirable, most found it repulsive. His peer at university, Ibbo Mandaza observed that the fascination with Marechera by Europeans “has to do with what they see as a European trend in his writing”.
That might have been so, but that didn’t make what he had to say in his fiction any less relevant for Africa. “We are a very sexually active nation,” Marechera wrote, “but we try to hide that under the guise of an obscure national morality. I come across descriptions of the most harrowing sexual encounters, but when I describe that in my novels, it is called obscene.”
As a result, he had problems having his work published. Charles Mungoshi, recalling Mindblast, said: “I thought if the book was difficult — for me to understand who is going to buy it? Dambudzo, I felt you were not communicating to the people. I was still thinking a lot about the people, you know.”
But it was the people, in his own fashion, that Marechera wrote about. A character in one of his works prophesied that the future of modern African literature is going to be “complex, unstable, comic, satirical, fantastic, poetic, insane, a grand Meaulnes of dream, very abnormal and sort of abnormal in its pursuit of truth — “
This pursuit of truth, he reasoned, was constrained by categories such as African this or European that. “It is no longer necessary to speak of the African novel or the European novel: there is only the Menippean novel.”
Marechera’s reasoning was lucid; he saw that “beneath reality, there is always fantasy: the writer’s task is to reveal it, to open it out, to feel it, to experience it”. In his short life — he died at 35 — he had seen enough to be suspicious of power and greed, death and corruption. His sister was killed in a bomb blast.
Perhaps that’s why he argued: “I do not like this century. I do not like any other century, past or future. I do not like to live under the backside of a medieval god or a nuclear bomb, which amounts to the same thing.”
Even on the day he came back into Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, after almost a decade in Britain, he declared: “I can’t stay. I don’t belong here any more.”
One wonders what he would have made of present-day Zimbabwe, which at the time of his return in 1982, was already showing signs of being another house of hunger — a post-colonial one.
Most of the quotations in this piece are taken from Dambudzo Marechera: A Source Book on his Life and Work by Flora Veit-Wild (Hans Zell Publishers)
The Time of the Writer Festival’s closing-weekend programme includes the launch of Breyten Breytenbach’s new book, A Veil of Footsteps, and a discussion on New Voices by South Africans Kirsten Miller and Kopano Matlwa (author of Coconut) on March 28.
Breytenbach and Congo-Brazzaville’s Emmanual Dongola discuss Changing Cultures as part of the March 29 programme.
The March 30 programme consists of conversations with Australian journalist John Pilger, facilitated by political analyst Patrick Bond and Mail & Guardian editor Ferial Haffajee.
Events start at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre from 7.30pm. Call 031 260 2506 or visit www.cca.ukzn.ac.za.