Wednesday, October 12, 2011

111. The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga


Title: The Book of Not
Author: Tsitsi Dangarembga
Genre: Fiction/Socio-Political
Publisher: Ayebia-Clarke
Pages: 250
Year of First Publication: 2006
Country: Zimbabwe

Tsitsi Dangarembga's The Book of Not  is a sequel to Nervous Conditions. It continues Tambu's story as she begins her life at Sacred Heart school, hoping to improve her lot through education. In this sequel, there is a slight change in narrative structure; perhaps to reflect Tambu's growth and education though this also made the reading somewhat tedious, in the beginning and at some places, as it looks very refined, even though the story was written in the first person narrative. But some places are conversational, where the author addresses the reader directly.

If Nervous Conditions is a colonial story or set in a colonial period with less emphasis on political activity and more on the social connections, taboos, and traditions,  The Book of Not is this and more. The more is in its political focus. It is a story that traces the conception, birth, growth and quasi-death of a nation: from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. A conception that is fraught with losses: mental, infrastructural destruction, insane killings, in a country that has lost its touch with humanity and with that ethereal substance that makes us relate and feel and see and believe that what need not be doneto  us must not be done to others by us. This second book opened with the war for independence and Tambu's sister, Netsai, having lost her right leg in an explosion and Babamukuru, Tambu's uncle (her father's brother), having been summoned by the Vana mukoma - elder siblings or the fighers - for being a mutengesi - betrayer because his niece is at an all-white school, irrespective of the fact that his daughter, Nyasha, was not. Babamukuru, the no-nonsense, opinionated man, who sought nothing but extreme or pure excellence and would not even fully follow the imposed curfew, almost lost his life. These incidents marked the beginning of Tambu's life at Sacred Heart. They also served as the reference point in her life, a tributary of sorts. 

Tambu had always thought of education as the key that will liberate her from the kind of 'entrapment' her mother seemed to be under and possibly from that of Maiguru who, in spite of her higher education, was still under the control of Babamukuru. Tambu's friends were her books. She was had no room for amorous thoughts. However, Tambu, whose education became possible only because his brother, Nhamo, died, was haunted by the sounds of war beyond the mountains and the images of Netsai's lost legs and Babamukuru's near death encounter, putting this aggressive friendship under threat of collapse. In Class, her mind would involuntarily drift far and wide, far from what was being taught at the moment and any question would be wrongly answered or even not answered at all. She became a nervous wreck, acting impulsively before feeling contrite afterwards. The effects of the independence struggle, which made the killing of freedom fighters (terrorists) seen as gains and the killing of whites seen as tragedies, widened an already deep racial cracks between the handful of blacks and the white-majority in the school. So deep was this discrimination that black African girls, at assembly, had to be careful not to touch the white girls or even bump into them. With some teachers exhibiting racist tendencies, the small group of black African girls were exuding palpable fear with every call to the Headmistress office akin to a drag towards the guillotine. Tambu became a candidate of mild depression and when she sought therapy through weaving clothes for government fighters, the, hitherto cordial somewhat shaky relationship she enjoyed with her fellow black students, escalated into physical and acrimonious fights and unspoken animosity.   

Lonely, a psychologically wrecked Tambu gave up not on her quest for academic excellence, lest she falls no farther than her mother, in life. The Book of Not though about Tambu's unfulfilled goal in life, is also about her unrecognised and unacknowledged achievements. And it was this non-recognition that was to push Tambu downhill so that as she
... went on planning my life ... life was planning an insurgence. [27]
The first of two major non-recognition was when she lost the award of being the best O'Level student, after getting so many ones, to Tracey, because - according to Sister Emmanuel - Tracey was an all-round student. The loss of something she had worked an entire five-years for, fighting over bouts of depression, isolation, and more to achieve, contributed to her giving up in life. After this a series of bad results followed: A'Level and Bachelors. The second non-recognition led her to resign her position as a scriptwriter in the advertising agency where she worked, even though she had nowhere to go. This was after another colleague was awarded for something she had worked on, which had earned the company several contracts.

This story could be read at several levels. As a book on Zimbabwe's history, the events in Tambu's life have symbolic meanings in the new nation's life. For instance, very symbolic is the gunshot that paralysed Babamukuru on the eve of independence. Does this signify the end of the Babamukuru era, those who worked hard to earn themselves positions, albeit low, during colonialism and the rise of  the noveau-riche, those who fought not, not the Netsais who lost their legs  instead of gaining freedom, but those who took advantage of the vacuum created by the departing white population? This is symbolic, in that the rise of the parvenu is always followed by putrefaction: moral and economic.
Babamukuru had been struck by a stray bullet that ricocheted off a flag post during the twenty-one gun salute while they lowered the Union Jack and raised the Zimbabwean flag at the Independence celebrations. The bullet lodged in his spinal cord. When he was not supine in bed, he sat in a wheelchair, which rendered him yet more full of umbrage and more cantankerous than usual. So to the scars of war were added the complications of Independence. Neither he nor any of any of my family came to campus to celebrate my graduation" [198]
Some of the white Rhodesians, afraid of falling standards that succeed independence, left the country. And it is these falling standards, in education, that allowed Tambu to earn a university education, after several odd jobs. Tambu, at several points began to question the deaths that led to independence, something that is now common in post-colonial African literature. Most see it as senseless. Most associate the attainment of independence to other causes and other than the struggle per se. And even though Tambu was not blind to the racism and discrimination at that point in time she also thought so.
I emerged from my studies to a new dispensation. I could never, after all the years at Sacred Heart and Fridays in the town hall, bring myself to believe Rhodesians had died; definitely they had not done so in sufficient quantities to cause a great blimp in the course of history.  .... Convinced it was not the deaths of Rhodesians that had caused Mr Mugabe and Mr Smith to talk to each other with some degree of sincerity, I assured myself happily that the phenomenon was due to a bigger and better motive on both sides: a desire to desist away from chopping away lips, ears, noses, and genitals from the bodies of people's relatives by the elder siblings; a desire to develop a larger, kinder heart on the part of Europeans. [198]

Is it easier to trivialise the fight for independence after it has been won? This is a question that could only be answered on an individual level. Tambu lost what she wanted to be: an independent and educated woman at the core of the new nation contributing positively and in a big to life, nothing like her stereotypical mother who thinks a woman's place in this world is the husbands house (or specifically, kitchen). She almost became the exact economic replica of her at independence. And this is partly due to the negative aura or energy that filled her mind making her think that she deserved nothing good in life. She practically lost her will to fight, her ambition. And all emanated from the emotional neglect she suffered.

With Zimbabwe's history - or struggle against independence - as the background, this story provides a crush course on Zimbabwe from the perspective of one whose vision was crashed as a result. It is worth the read except that the story would not have a normal distribution if one superimposes the events and timelines on such a distribution. For instance, whereas Dangarembga showed enough of what Tambu went through during her O'Level days, though the last three years was rushed, we hardly ever got to feel enough of her A'Level days. However, this does not take anything from the story. And even though it is a sequel and one's understanding is enhanced if one has read Nervous Conditions, I think one could also read this as a stand alone book. 
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ImageNations Rating: 4.5/6.0

10 comments:

  1. What an amazing review! It sounds like this book was fraught with violence and pain, but you made a really great case for reading it in your review. This sounds like something I would have to be in the right mood for, but that I would definitely read. Very wonderful review today, Nana!

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  2. Exceptional (and fascinating) piece here. Your blog is becoming my education on Africa, a continent I'm next-to-completely illiterate on, though hopefully not for long with your help.

    I see you're reading Salinger's debut. I hope you'll have the opportunity also, if you've haven't already, of reading his short stories; in particular, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish".

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  3. This is an excellent review! Even though this book can stand alone, I would want to read Nervous Conditions first. Have just checked my library's website and there are no copies in the system, but I've added it to my amazon wish list. Thank you for the review.

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  4. @Enrique... this is the first Salinger I'm reading. Thanks for the recommendation. I take such recommendations serious and I'll be looking out for it.

    I'm glad you enjoy reading my blog. Thanks

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  5. @JoAnn, I hope you get it, so I could read your thoughts on them.

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  6. Sounds neat, like I would probably learn a lot! :-)

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  7. Ah, I tried to The Book of Not once but left it for another time. My mistake was in comparing to the delightful and sublime Nervous Conditions. Thanks for the review.

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  8. @Kinna, this isn't as excellent as the first but it is equally good. I myself had to start it for about three or four times. I faltered a lot but persisted. Took some time and require patience. The style might be the problem. Or perhaps me.

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