/ 9 April 2015

Dambudzo Marechera: Africa’s literary doppelgänger

An illustration of the late Dambudzo Marechera.
An illustration of the late Dambudzo Marechera.

He was thrown out of New College, Oxford, for haphazard tutorial attendance or, the story goes, for attempting to set fire to a building. He counted Percy Bysshe Shelley as his role model in rebellion and wrote his best-known work while homeless and living rough in the nearby parklands known as Port Meadow.

In 1979, this explosive collection of linked short stories, House of Hunger, received the coveted Guardian fiction prize, and was heralded as forging a bold new direction for African literature.

He is one of the most hyper-mythologised of Oxford’s disavowed literary progeny and innovative African literary minds, and yet it is more than likely you’ve never heard of him. Unless, that is, you are Zimbabwean. 

Charles Dambudzo Marechera was born in Harare, in colonial Rhodesia, in 1952, and educated at St Augustine Mission, a school for black students run by Benedictine monks. That much is known for certain, and much of the rest is a mixture of allegation and often fabulous legend. His father died while he was young – in one of Marechera’s versions, he was run over by “a twentieth century train” – forcing the family into abject poverty in Rusape township. His mother turned to prostitution to keep Dambudzo and his brother in school. He went on to attend the University of Zimbabwe, and later, improbably, Oxford.

It seems appropriate, at this time of renewed xenophobic suspicion and violence, to consider the legacy of a writer whose life and work exemplified border-breaching inclusivity, and who hails from one of our most maligned and under-appreciated national neighbours. As Marechera said in answer to an interviewer’s inevitable question about his origins: “If you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then fuck you.”

Julie Cairnie and Dobrota Pucherova, in their edited collection, Moving Spirit: The Legacy of Dambudzo Marechera in the 21st Century (Lit Verlag), set out to explore Marechera’s contemporary legacy through responses to his life and work by creative writers, scholars and artists. The book emerges from a celebration held in Oxford in May 2009, which aimed to “recuperate the memory of the author in the place where his writing first emerged”. The event, Dambudzo Marechera: A Celebration, was organised by Pucherova, and avoided the label “conference”.

Its three days included academic papers alongside musical performances, dramatic and cinematic adaptations alongside reminiscence. There is a similarly impetuous, random spirit to the collection, which is the source of its weakness and its strength. One of the editors describes it as a “big baggy monster”, and certainly some very weak pieces make it through the selection process – Jennifer Armstrong’s Spirits and Projections: A ‘White Zimbabwean’s’ Reading of Marechera stands out – but so do a number of unusual and illuminating essays. Although somewhat uneven, then, the collection as a whole is both informative and unexpectedly entertaining.

The essays are divided into three sections: creative, reflective and scholarly. The scholarly essays in the final section engage with neglected elements of Marechera’s work, such as his children’s stories and love poetry, in addition to a small amount of formal criticism of his more well-known work.

His oeuvre emerges both as part of a world republic of letters and as an alter ego to classic African writing – the bad-boy flip side of Chinua Achebe’s realism.

Marechera himself stated famously that “I myself am the doppelgänger whom, until I appeared, African literature had not met yet”. One of the unique contributions of the book is its description of the effect of this rebellious attitude on the next generation of Zimbabwean writers.

Memory Chirere, lecturer in literature at the University of Zimbabwe, describes the tragicomic effect on his undergraduate students on reading Marechera: “After their first experience with The House of Hunger, at least a third of the male students immediately begin to be overtly outspoken.

“They begin to grow their own dreadlocks, smoke and drink, scribble their own poetry and prose and you are waylaid by young men and women who plead with you to look at what they are writing.”

Contributions by James Currey and Tinashe Mushakavanhu elaborate on the “Marechera cult”, through which the maddening “St Dambudzo” became a Zimbabwean cult figure and pub legend.

One concern is that this collection, like almost everything else on Marechera, too frequently segues from the literary to the (irresistibly eccentric) biographical. The literary critique at the end is the shortest section, overshadowed by the more dynamic earlier sections. However, a few contributions in the first section of the book draw together the life and work with, at times, considerable mutual insight.

One of the first and finest pieces in the collection, autobiographical fiction by Jane Bryce, situates Marechera in a richly mapped Oxford, ­battling the diffuse anxiety of an international student, and the more acute worries of race, poverty and artistic expression.

In Bryce’s rendering, Marechera is alluringly unpredictable and intimidatingly well-read. He insists that Lewis Nkosi should have read Dostoevsky to understand the “rhythm of violence in Africa”, and approves of her required reading of Middle English chivalric romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, because – highlighting his stutter, which, she suggests, may have been cultivated for purposes of suspense – “orality, tradition, verbal formulae, the interpenetration of the natural and supernatural […] will teach you more about Africa than any number of realist novels or revolutionary plays”.

As gripping is Robert Fraser’s fictionalised account of the London period of Marechera’s life, during which he terrorises his publisher, the indefatigable James Currey, and shares numerous beers with Nigerian writer Ben Okri.

Fraser draws an analogy between Marechera and Richard Savage, the subject of Dr Johnson’s Life of Savage, and similarly for much of his life a “failed author and scapegoat”. Marechera, Savage, and the younger Fraser himself, form part of a long line of writers – “that transhistoric, excluded company” – whose work constitutes “a meditation on desperation, a disquisition on living on the edge of things”. Fraser here points to one of the great achievements of Marechera’s art, its harrowing capacity to engage with poverty and beauty in the same breath.

It is that ability, to write poverty not only as a depressing leveller but also as connecting and richly storied, that makes Marechera urgent reading for South Africans today. Pucherova and Cairnie’s book is a worthwhile introduction to that revolutionary spirit.

A version of this piece first appeared in the Oxonian Review