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ISBN: 978-0-9547023-7-3 | 256 pages | Weight: 0.27kg | Paperback | Published 2006 | Rights: World
Categories: African | Fiction | Literature | Feminism | Race | Politics | International |
The Book of Not is the latest novel from one of the most acclaimed Zimbabwean writers of her generation and is already fulfilling the promise of her first novel Nervous Conditions, par excellence.
The Book of Not traces Tambu's continuing quest to redefine the personal, political and historical forces that threaten to destroy the fabric of her community - and reveals how its aftermath still bedevils Africans today. Dangarembga's language sparkles and dances on the page as she delves into the education system, the liberation struggle and attitudes of contemporary Zimbabweans in an incisive and insightful examination of a system calculated to destablize the sense of self.
A distinguishing feature of The Book of Not is its radical positioning in underscoring the paradoxes and complexities in the transition from colonialism to globalisation. Tambu's search for self-knowledge
reveals that the process of decolonisation might have started; but it is far from finished.
‘In time of war’
This is the much-anticipated sequel to Tsitsi Dangaremba's first novel, Nervous Conditions, which famously began, 'I was not sorry when my brother died.' The Book of Not opens just as boldly, with a leg, severed from its body, flying through the air and getting hooked on a tree branch, to remain there suspended, dripping blood. This pendant limb will dangle throughout the course of the novel as a metaphor for the vicious war of independence that rocked Zimbabwe for most of the 1970s.
Again the protagonist, Tambudzai or Tambu, does not feel sorry for her sister Netsai, whose leg it is that is severed. Above all she wants to get away from what she calls 'this primitive scene:' 'I felt as though I jumped onto the spinning limb and rode it as it rotated, moving up to somewhere out of it.' Where the protagonist would rather be is at the prestigious Young Ladies' College of the Sacred Heart, where she has a scholarship to be "transformed into a young lady with a future." That future is of course as far away from her village as possible.
This theme of escape runs throughout the novel: escape from her village, escape from her family, escape from her Africanness. In this ambition Tambudzai is totally ruthless. Most of the novel is set in the grounds of the Sacred Heart College, which also represents pre-independent Zimbabwe with all its racial conflict. The school is run by nuns, headed by Sister Emmanuel, who often point to the fact that they have allowed black students - all five of them - into the school as proof of their Christian charity. But the students live an unequal existence: no black skin should ever come into contact with white and they are all crammed into one room known as the 'African dormitory.' Despite having the best O-level result in her year, Tambudzai never gets to be on the honour roll - her place is taken by a white girl, Tracey.
Tambu's identification with her white classmates and the school administration reaches an extreme level when in a bid to gain acceptance she volunteers to contribute to the war effort by knitting for the white Rhodesian soldiers.
The whole novel is an examination of Tambu's increasingly warped perspective, achieved through a focused, almost claustrophobic first-person point of view and a masterly deployment of flashbacks. We inhabit Tambu's mind so totally that we often have to pull back to remind ourselves that this is not reality, but the world as Tambu sees it. As she says, more than once, 'What I was most interested in was myself and what I would become.' The novel's irony - and irony is the armature on which this whole story hangs - is that Tambu doesn't see how false and unachievable her goal is. In a sense, this is the same old story of being black in a far too white world, even though here - more irony - the white world is actually in Africa.
Dangaremba here historicises the Zimbabwean story and this is quite useful, because, following the news today, one is often made to assume that the story began with Robert Mugabe and his rough treatment of the white farmers, but it actually began long before then, around 1890, with Cecil Rhodes' British South Africa Company and its rough treatment of black farmers.
Helon Habila is the author of Waiting for an Angel (Penguin Books).
Whatever novel Tsitsi Dangarembga would write following the success of the seminal Nervous Conditions would be judged using the high benchmarks this book set when its author at once celebrated and critiqued femaleness and questioning emasculating gender relations. Even more vigorous standards would be applied, one assumes, for a book that would follow as its sequel.
Most of the action in The Book of Not (Ayebia, Clarke Publishing Limited, UK, 2006), the sequel to Nervous Conditions, happens against the backdrop of Zimbabwe’s nationalist war of independence in the 1970s. It begins with an unflattering view of the nationalists. Tambu and other villagers are at an all-night meeting with the guerrillas where Babamukuru, her benefactor and guardian, is being beaten because he is a sell-out and a collaborator for daring to send his niece to “a school for his child where the education was superior to the education given to the children of other people.” Netsai, her younger sister, has her leg blown off by a bomb at the same meeting.
Dangarembga subtly brings to the fore, using the innocent eyes of a teenager, the racial issues that the Catholic-run multi-racial school would rather push to the margins. African pupils live six to a room meant for four students. Not even senior fifth and six formers are exempt from this arrangement. They have to share the hostel with first formers. When Tambu uses the toilet reserved for white students she is called to the headmistress’s office for a reprimand and later, the principal writes a letter to Babamukuru in which she accuses her of having a “complex.”
In many ways the tightrope of tension that stretches across the old Rhodesian country of Nervous Conditions remains equally taut in the sequel. The African girls, for instance, lived in mortal fear of accidental contact with white pupils, who would rather not be touched by the blacks. “ We spent a lot of time consumed with this kind of terror. We didn’t speak of it among ourselves…but the horror of it gnawed within us.” The maxim “thou shall not” comes to define how Tambu and other Africans live out the rest of their days at the mission.
The school’s administration ever so slightly made aware of their inferiority, the result of which was a searing self-loathing for Tambu and other black people. In her waking moments, the fact that she is not white and her limbless sister – who is a living, although dismembered, testimony to her connection with war – weigh heavily on her. As a result, her time at school is a series of events in which she tries to be agreeable and ingratiate herself with the authorities.
Initially she thinks, naively, that she is guilty by association with other black girls who had not received “proper treatment” but when she comes to realise that the way they are treated is gratuitous and there is no way whatsoever of making amends, the depth of the agony is palpable, much like in the Afro-American novel of the 20th century. Tambu agonises that “you came to a school where you frequently had to pinch yourself to see if you really existed” and when you realise you do, you “often wished you didn’t,” much like the quest for identity in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
As you read, you become increasingly aware of the narrator’s increasing maturity, which has the effect of preparing you for the denouement at the end. As she grapples to come to terms with her situation she toys with the idea of unhu (ubuntu) – what she calls “I am not well, so you are not well too” - and she realises that this philosophy is effete when not reciprocated. Strangely (and perhaps appropriately) this “live and let live” philosophy is couched in terms of what you are not, rather than what you are.
But it is the run-up to her humiliation that the author carefully paints with great care and artistry. Tambu in a break with the school’s tradition ambitiously attempts to etch her name in the annals of the school. She works hard for two years, indeed comes top of her ordinary level exam class, only for the rules to be changed to accommodate Tracey Stevenson, a white student.
All around her, the limits of her aspirations are cast in concrete and it would seem, neither all the ambition nor all the will she can summon are able to move the obstacles placed before her. Now even Nyasha, her strong-willed cousin, has been sucked into acquiescent silence and lethargy at the mission school and is later banished from the book altogether when she leaves for England – perhaps one thing that can be faulted from the story.
The Book of Not is a worthy, perhaps not symmetrical, sequel to Nervous Conditions, but it grandly sets the stage for the final book in the trilogy, which will be set in post-independence Zimbabwe.
The Book of Not is a sequel to Nervous Conditions, the winner of the 1989 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Africa, which introduced us to Tambuzai Sigauke, the eldest of four daughters from a farming family in Umtali, in 1960s colonial Rhodesia. Tambu’s academic promise (and the death of her only brother) enabled her to rise socially thanks to the patronage of her uncle, the English educated headteacher of a mission school. In her uncle’s house, she grows close to her cousin Nyasha, who had a few years of education in England and is struggling in her native country as a member of the colonized. When Nyasha succumbs to an eating disorder, the doctor is reluctant to diagnose bulimia, because “it doesn’t happen to black girls”.
The Book of Not opens in a newly formless world, where guerrillas battle to overthrow colonialism. And Tambu, now sixteen, is once again a witness to the sufferings of someone close to her, when her younger sister Netsai, loses a limb in the aftermath of a guerrilla bomb. Tambu’s story becomes a series of “nots;” she can only bow her head “ to summon the peace that comes with not seeing.” A student at a school “peopled not by those who looked like us but by Europeans,” she learns other withdrawals; in class, she closes her eyes against the image of her damaged sister. The convent school is the site of her personal rebellion against the realities of the war being fought over her “nascent Zimbabwean soul.” It is also where Tambu tries to dismantle a system that places all black students, regardless of age and academic accomplishment, in the same substandard dormitory.
School reinforces in Tambu a sense of her own skin as inferior. Despite achieving the best o-level grades in her class, she is overlooked for a school prize which is awarded to Tracey, who is white. Later, at work, credit for Tambu’s brilliant copywriting goes to a white male superior. The white characters in the novel are not caricatured or imbued with menace; rather, the attention is diverted from the originators of oppression to its effects. The book’s portrayal of the black schoolgirls and the way their conflicting loyalties and aspirations make them turn on each other is honest and compelling.
The reduction of Nyasha’s character is disappointing. Tambu’s defiant, frail cousin sparkled with disruptive energy in Nervous Conditions: here she barely rises of the page. She takes her pills in silence, yet somehow finds the energy to comment on the radio broadcasts by the Zimbabwean rebels. The second novel in a trilogy, The Book of Not promises a conclusion for Tambu and her cousin that refuses to enact the usual fall of women who confound their environment and find themselves in turn confounded.
Tsitsi Dangarembga was born and brought up in Zimbabwe. She studied medicine and psychology before turning to writing full-time and becoming the first Black woman in Zimbabwe to publish a novel in English. Nervous Conditions was the recipient of the 1989 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Fiction and has become a modern classic. She has also written a play entitled She No Longer Weeps. Having studied at the German Film & Television Academy, Dangarembga now works as a scriptwriter and consultant and is an award-winning film director. She is currently working on the third novel in the trilogy.Return to the top of the view