Complete With Dreadlocks and Cigarette
Julie Cairnie and Debrota Pucherova eds.
Moving Spirit: The Legacy of Dambudzo Marechera in the 21st Century
He was sent down from New College in 1975 and, while living rough in Port Meadow, completed one of the most innovative works of African, some might say recent, literature. He now returns to Oxford with a celebratory conference and a new publication—a turn of events that he would probably have found uproarious.
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. In 1979 he received the Guardian Fiction Prize for his highly acclaimed House of Hunger, the first publication of a small but explosive oeuvre. That much is known for certain, and the rest is a mixture of allegation and 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 the Rusape township. His mother turned to prostitution to keep Dambudzo and his brother in school and to feed the rest of the family. He went on to attend the University of Zimbabwe, and later, Oxford, although he was kicked out of both—for involvement in a political protest against Ian Smith’s government and attempting to burn down a building, respectively. The rebel writer sent down from Oxford—the parallel with Shelley is irresistible, as is the image of a new white marble statue reclining in New College, complete with dreadlocks and cigarette.
Julie Cairnie and Dobrota Pucherova, in their edited collection, Moving Spirit: The Legacy of Dambudzo Marechera in the 21st Century, set out to explore Marechera’s legacy through responses to his life and work by contemporary 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 and which is imprinted on a number of his early texts, both topographically, as a place with its streets, landmarks, sounds and atmosphere; and also imaginatively, as an idea”. One of the first and finest essays in the collection, a semi-autobiographical story by Jane Bryce, situates Marechera in a familiar Oxford, battling the diffuse anxiety of an international student and the more acute worries of race, poverty, and artistic expression. He moves between New College rooms, the Covered Market, the corner of Cornmarket and High Street, the Mitre pub, and a bench in the University Parks . In Bryce’s rendering, Marechera is alluringly unpredictable and intimidatingly well-read. At one point in the story, Marechera insists that Lewis Nkosi should have read Dostoevsky to understand the “rhythm of violence in Africa”. Later, he approves of her required reading of 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”.
This all-embracing quality was reflected by Dambudzo Marechera: A Celebration, organized by Pucherova, who avoided the label “conference” in favour of the more expansive “celebration”. The three-day event included academic papers, musical performances, dramatic and cinematic adaptations and personal reminiscences. There is a similarly impetuous, random spirit to the collection, which is the source both of its weakness and its strength. One of the editors describes it as a “big baggy monster”, and certainly some weak pieces make it through the selection process—Armstrong’s “Spirit’s and Projections: A ‘White Zimbabwean’s’ Reading of Marechera” stands out—but so do a number of idiosyncratic and illuminating essays. While somewhat uneven, then, the collection as a whole is both informative and engaging.
The essays which constitute Moving Spirit are divided into three sections: creative, reflective, and scholarly responses. The scholarly essays in the final section engage with various neglected elements of Marechera’s work, such as his children’s stories and love poetry, in addition to some formal criticism of his more well-known work. The essays characterize Marechera’s work as an example of situated postmodernism—formally slippery and yet deeply particular, as exemplified by the title of Carolyn Hart’s essay, “A ‘Postmodern’ at the Margins”. They map his position in a literary world of forbears and inheritors: Joyce, Lawrence, Bukowski, Shelley, Conrad, Kafka, Orwell, Sartre, Shakespeare, Soyinka, Novalis, Ionesco, Beckett, Tsvetaeva, Goethe, Okigbo, and Ngugi. In so doing, they describe Marechera’s work both as part of a world republic of letters and as an alter ego to classic African writing—the bad-boy flipside of 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, particularly in “Part 2: Memory and Reflection”. Memory Chirere, lecturer in literature at the University of Zimbabwe, describes the tragicomic effect on his undergraduate students of 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 “Marchera cult”, through which the maddening “St. Dambudzo” became a cult figure and pub legend. The larger-than-life quality of the material is helpfully offset by a considered reflection by Norman Vance, Marechera’s tutor at New College, alongside a fascinating set of images including rare photographs and a copy of Marechera’s application to Oxford. A favourite line, for its flourish and ironic bite: “And what undergraduate in Africa has not heard of your University’s long and unending tradition. It is a naïve reverence, I admit, but nonetheless this vague awe is not unimportant”.
One concern is that this collection, like 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, “Inspired Creativity”, draw together the life and work with, at times, considerable mutual insight. Jane Bryce’s story is one such, as is Robert Fraser’s fictionalized account of the London period of Marechera’s life, during which he terrorizes his publisher and shares beers with award-winning Nigerian writer Ben Okri. Fraser, in the course of the story, draws an analogy between Marechera and Richard Savage, the subject of Dr Johnson’s Life of Savage, who similarly lived 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.
Many of his readers describe the first experience of reading Marechera as a Damascus story. Elleke Boehmer, who opens the volume with her preface, “Dambudzo Marechera—Long Live!”, recalls her experience as typical of “the writers and readers who could not but respond to his work, having once read him”:
In late 1980’s Oxford I was one of those readers, then writers, who stumbled upon Marechera by chance, from a word of mouth suggestion, and was immediately captivated. Reading Marechera, not knowing he was no longer in the world, I wanted to hear him read, to meet him.
The collection, which has the fervent energy and readability of the “word of mouth”, succeeds in celebrating a legacy of still undetermined reach. A new book of more traditional Marechera literary criticism will appear in 2013, published by James Currey, and a biography by writer Helon Habila is in the works. Moving Spirit fits usefully within this growing body of Marechera secondary literature as a unique contribution, as well as compelling invitation to read or reread his work.
Charne Lavery is studying for a DPhil in English at Balliol College, Oxford.