Ok… Now I may be biased about this particular book… So I feel I have to be honest before I really get to grips with it. This is the exact text that I will be using tomorrow in my english literature exam. The very one. I will be in a silent room, under time pressure, trying to glean all sorts of A* worthy quotes and literary nuggets from one of the very few copies in existence in less than 24 hours. Hang on. Maybe less than 12 hours. Unless I don’t sleep. Oh God. All I’m saying is that there probably are a great deal of valid reasons why I should feel so strongly about this book. I’m just going to say its hideous. Really really bad. Do not go near it with a barge-pole. Unless, like me, you absolutely have to and your english grade depends on it. We’re totally talking in the worst possible of circumstances. Completely and utterly.
Anyway, the thing is, there is probably a very good reason why there are so few copies around… And why I know I’m certainly not the only one who lets out a genuine groan of pain when its name gets mentioned. Ugh. Right. Where to start? First off, we all knew how painful it was going to be pretty much as soon as we had read the blurb. Blurbs are there for a reason – and usually that reason is to try and represent the book in its best light, hopefully with the aim of enticing as many readers as possible into actually buying it. But I can definitely say anyone who takes the time to try and read this one would be seriously put off, or have to be completely mad to ever want to attempt to read it. Honestly. Right… To prove my point, here’s my particular favourite, the first line of criticism:
‘The introspective function of the novel as a genre emerges clearly in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s work, a Bildungsroman that offers us a moving narrative of the developing consciousness of her young, female characters.’
I mean, oh my crikey, what does that even mean? The only reason that I have any clue of what a Bildungsroman actually is (and yes have started using it as a tag) is due that that genuine piece of literary nonsense. Nobody speaks like that. Nobody reads a book and thinks ‘hmm how introspective that was’ or that totally ‘[mapped] at once the tortured routes to female subjectivity and the path to gender egalitarianism’ (another genuine favourite). Blimey. Really, would you?
But anyhow, it’s not the blurb I’m meant to be criticising, however difficult it is to avoid, but the content of the book itself. Just going to say now. It really doesn’t get much better. At all. Set in 1960s Rhodesia, just prior to it becoming Zimbabwe, the novel follows the life of Tambu, an impoverished young woman, through first person narrative. Tambu lives in a world where women are accepted as nothing more than a means to an end by men – they produce children, cook and clean, and most important, remain silent. The book itself does not in fact have a linear narrative, but is written in such a way as to echo other African literature, through episodes or moments, completely circular – you have no idea what moment in her life she is discussing until she’s moved on to the next. In its style, I suppose, the book can be forgiven. There are instances of purely delightful description and clever imagery. But they are too few and far between, spaced apart by a hideously dull narrative of something that has a great deal of potential. Now I know I could not write it any better, but God, Dangarembga was very much onto something here.
The book essentially covers the struggles of the women around Tambu, each fighting against their men and their circumstances to try and survive as best they can. You have Nyasha, a westerinised, intelligent and fragile girl; Tambu’s mother, a demon-obsessed, bitter old woman; Lucia, the one piece of comic relief in the whole text… And then you have Tambu. Who goes and ruins it all by being so blooming sensible all the time. She claims throughout to be calm, demure – the model of the perfect African woman. Except her one issue is that she is too intelligent. She strives to be educated, even to the point of being ‘vindicated’ on her brother’s death as it means she can go to school. Reading Tambu’s narrative, I could not help but feel one thing. Unlike she actually claims in the beginning, she is cold. She is callous. She, to me, is just a nasty piece of work. And I’m sorry, but I really struggle to sympathise with her. Empathise, yes. She has an incredibly hard life and has to go through some awful experiences to become recognised. She has to deal with her ignorant father, her limited circumstances and Babamakuru, the ‘saint’ who is actually just a man with a messiah-complex. And herself. Basically, she just didn’t feel real. So therefore I have no sympathy – and usually I’m a soft touch.
And this may become a bit of a running theme but I really do struggle with people who are not real. Ok, that sounds completely bizarre. But it’s true. I’m sure we’ve all read works of people who you just think, nobody, absolutely nobody would deal with this scenario like this. It just isn’t feasable. Yes, some of the feelings she conveys are deep and highly telling, but there is no point in the novel where I would go as far as to say they were moving. Because that wouldn’t be true. Tambu fundamentally innoculates us against everything, good and bad, in the novel. The happiest moments are muted by self-loathing and annoying and non-sensical asides. The bad bits are covered up by Tambu claiming it’s in her personality to ignore them. Quite honestly, this does not work for me. I mean if that is Tambu’s genuine stance, how is she ever going to get anywhere? To illustrate, her personality continues to diminish as her relationship with Nyasha develops. There is, at one point, a truly very gritty scene where Nyasha ends up being beaten for her insubordination. Tambu herself is also beaten later on by the same man. But these events do not seem to categorize as anything else to Tambu than part of normality. She carries on and merely mentions it in passing, before continuing to lament about her lack of feminine normality.
While this, as a literary technique, is sometimes effective, it does just become a little grating when used gratuitously. It seems Tambu is unable to completely engage with and relate to her own life. That’s the reason why I chose my key quote, I guess. Even when her brother, Nhamo, who yes is not the most pleasant of people, dies from an unknown mumps-like disease, Tambu seemingly makes no effort to do anything about it. I’m not saying that she should be outwardly shouting and crying like her mother, because that might get a bit tiresome in this format, but seriously, if she is so ‘vindicated’, could we have a little more chirpiness? Ok. That sounds completely wrong considering we are discussing his death – more than a little morbid – but she says it, not me.
I’m guessing that that’s my main point though. We expect through the narrative that she would be willing to be more open with the reader. I guess the point is that we don’t even have to like her to enjoy the story. But when a narrator’s character becomes distractingly and constantly bleak and bland, the book can’t help but feel more than a little beige. And that is so an understatement. It is dull as hell. And yet it shouldn’t be – it really does have something to say…
But it is. And my exam is in less than ten waking hours.