Despite his demise, aged 36, on Aug. His mythical boldness bore little resemblance to his tentative, almost timid character. The writer was accused of not contributing to the nation-building project. But Marechera was speaking to and for a postwar generation. His audience, then and now, comprised of the young, who cared little about hero-worshipping, but about racial equality and economic advancement. Never mind that their hero, Marechera, remained destitute for the rest of his life.
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C ontemporary southern Africa is littered with the detritus of grand schemes—imperialism, apartheid, development, independence, socialism. Wrought first by colonial violence and then by anti-colonial movements gone bad, the wreckages of utopia heap up in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, and South Africa. The fallout of these schemes accumulates and compacts.
Citizens find themselves making their lives on ideological as well as actual rubbish dumps. The most acute diagnosis of this wreckage comes from Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera, the writer of the garbage dump. Marechera grew up in colonial Rhodesia scavenging discarded books; in later years, he examined how certain lives get designated as disposable.
His novella House of Hunger , published two years before Zimbabwean independence, is itself a kind of enteric nervous system, registering the processes of political waste-making and the decomposition of the poor. A thinker who excoriated grand schemes, consistently identifying with the vagrant and the exile, Marechera would no doubt approve of being on the B-side.
As both a member and documenter of the precariat, Marechera was well acquainted with the bare-life logic of the camp and the dumping ground. After his father was killed in , the family was evicted and the year old Marechera moved with his mother and eight siblings to a shanty town nearby, constructing a house out of mud and refuse. His brilliance earned him entrance to the University of Rhodesia; student activism there made him a marked man. In , Marechera fled the colony to take up a scholarship to New College, Oxford, but after spending 18 months generally drunk, high, paranoid, absent from tutorials, and occasionally abusive and pyromaniacal, he was expelled.
Once again, he entered bare life. He lived in tents, squats, doorways, even spent a few months in a Welsh prison. In these depleted and often abject circumstances, his writing career began to take shape. His output was small—a short story collection, two novels, poetry, and a play—much of it published posthumously. With a powerful anarchist and experimental orientation, his corpus immediately caused ripples in orthodox African literary circles, then dominated by sober realism.
House of Hunger was, by some accounts, written in exile in Oxford in a small tent alongside the River Isis. The sun was coming up. Rubbish heaps generate their own anaerobic temporalities. While ostensibly set in late colonial Rhodesia, the novella, or sections of it, could be about independent Zimbabwe.
Black policemen prey on township residents; school children make their way to their indifferent schools. Bare life endures, under colonial rule and, as the novella anticipates, under the post-independence regime.
Marechera elaborates the key challenge of postcolonial aesthetics, namely what can be made from wreckage and ruin, a question that reverberates ever more loudly in our calamitous present.
Even as it opens, the narrative stalls. The unnamed narrator becomes mired at the bottle store, pursuing erratic conversations first with Harry, a school acquaintance and police informer, and then with Julia, possibly his girlfriend. Memories of childhood traumas, school cruelties, colonial brutalities, university persecutions, and failed romances crowd out the narrative present. Time appears to stutter and seize up. The messianic promise of liberation is overpowered by the reek and ruin of the township.
We knew that before us lay another vast emptiness whose appetite for things living was at best wolfish. Life stretched out like a series of hunger-scoured hovels stretching endlessly towards the horizon … Gut-rot, that was what one steadily became. Gut-rot refers both to cheap alcohol and to its corrosive effects on drinkers. Marechera is relating the historicity of the gut under colonial rule.
This cheap alcohol was widely used in southern Africa to hook migrant laborers into addiction and endless contracts. To become gut-rot is to corrode the self as one corrodes others. House of Hunger— both the novella and the loosely linked stories that accompanied it when it came out in book form—is a prescient critique of militarized and masculinist authoritarianism.
As Marechera saw back in the s, the way in which one resists will be the way in which one is governed. The narrative ends with an old vagrant wandering in to tell aleatory stories of chameleons, dwarves, and fantastic happenings. He presents the narrator with a package that the informer Harry has dropped. It contains photographs of the protagonist and his friends with notes intended for the police. The novella itself comprises annotated portraits of the protagonist and his friends and so becomes yet another form of surveillance.
Marechera had long foreseen this outcome and from the very beginning had cast scorn on Zimbabwean independence. Not content with heckling Robert Mugabe on his first post-independence visit to England, he doubled down on his defiance by arriving at a celebratory party dressed in aristocratic fox-hunting gear. His lasting legacy is this somatically saturated work, one in which readers cannot escape the mind and body of the narrator.
Contemporary southern Africa is littered with the detritus of grand schemes—imperialism, apartheid, development, independence, socialism. Wrought first by colonial violence and then by anti-colonial By Isabel Hofmeyr.
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A brief survey of the short story, part 54: Dambudzo Marechera
C ontemporary southern Africa is littered with the detritus of grand schemes—imperialism, apartheid, development, independence, socialism. Wrought first by colonial violence and then by anti-colonial movements gone bad, the wreckages of utopia heap up in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, and South Africa. The fallout of these schemes accumulates and compacts. Citizens find themselves making their lives on ideological as well as actual rubbish dumps. The most acute diagnosis of this wreckage comes from Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera, the writer of the garbage dump.
The 40-year-old “prophetic” novel that predicted the troubles of modern-day Zimbabwe
The repetitive use of visceral language combined with the powerful imagery it evokes creates a stagnant and cramped environment in which the unnamed protagonist and his counterparts attempt to survive. Through certain characters Marechera questions the nature of survival itself, in the sense that if the mind has been irrevocably damaged, how will it interpret the future? It becomes strikingly apparent that the systematically exploited bare their scares internally which conditions their behaviour and shapes their identity. This novella is filled with guttural metaphors that emphasise the multifaceted nature of political tensions in Zimbabwe; tensions between the Rhodesian administration and nationalist guerrilla movements, but also between ZANU and ZAPU in their identical wish to be the forbearers of national liberation.
B-Sides: Dambudzo Marechera’s “The House of Hunger”
It was published three years after he left university. As well as this, Marechera's distinctive collage prose is discussed and utilized frequently. Rather it implies a more far reaching and metaphorical hunger of the soul — the vacuous yearning and emptiness within the national consciousness, aspiring for more but held back by poverty and corruption. First published to critical acclaim in Heinemann African Writers Series , no.