A radical among extremists?

The author of The House of Hunger (1978); Black Sunlight (1980); Mindblast; or The Definitive Buddy (1984); The Black Insider (1990); Cemetery of Mind (1992); Scrapiron Blues (1994) and La maison de la faim (1999), of course, has been dead for close to 20 years, but the riddle of what he stood for has not been solved.

Was Marechera a moderate in contradistinction to his fellow writers in the black “nationalist” movement who grew extremist to the point of rejecting all other writings except his own?

Or was he so abused and radicalised by his upbringing that he had completely lost it by the time he entered the then University College of Rhodesia before being expelled ‘ along with tens of others ‘ for political activities?

Or was he just a writer with ideas and style well before their time?

None is the wiser, for Marechera ‘ before and after independence ‘ defied categorisation in such simple terms as he continued to ruffle feathers of many in official/government positions by stating what is painfully obvious to anyone dealing with such an array of issues as art, freedom of expression, politics, sex, tolerance and so on, but in a totally different way.

Marechera, who was born in Rusape in 1952 and died in 1987 at the age of 35 with an unrivalled cult following, has always remained a writer true to himself ‘ a voice of an “invisible community” he always talked about.

Christened Charles before changing his name to Dambudzo during his days in the Diaspora of 70s, he won bursaries to St Augustine’s High School, University of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and New College, Oxford (England), but had the distinction of having been expelled from all three!

And another writer speaking about Marechera during a literary and cultural event in Harare recently, thought he was ‘ and remains ‘ an enigma.

The occasion for this discussion on Marechera, of the man and his writings, was celebrated, courtesy of the Cultural Section of the French Embassy and the other eight Francophone countries with embassies in Harare, during this year’s Francophone Week in Harare.

The discussion ‘ “French Perspectives on Anglophone African Writers and Writings” ‘ focusing on Marechera, was led by Xavier Garnier, a French writer who got to know Marechera in 1983 through Black Sunlight. Garnier has translated Marechera’s works, notably House of Hunger. For Garnier, Marechera forever remains a young author who won The Guardian Fiction Prize in 1979 for the House of Hunger, “an incandescent collection of short stories”.

But Marechera “did not want to assume a role as a nationalist writer upon his return to Zimbabwe” in 1982, says Garnier.

The “returned” Marechera (not the Charles of old) was a different one altogether (including accent!) ‘ although he had shown traits of being different before being expelled from the local university.

He had gone on a one-man street demonstration against the racist system once!

“And it was in the streets that he ‘ a bohemian character ‘ was to develop some of his writing,” says the French writer, adding: “Marechera lived among his characters on a day-to-day basis.”

His personal life formed much of his material. “I write what I live, and live what I write,” he used to boast in the hard drinking places of the Harare of the 80s.

For Marechera, there is no literature worthy of this name which is not devoted to putting up a radical resistance to the great social machine.

“English is not the only bitch,” he would say in his almost usually drunken moments.

Although The Black Insider and Black Sunlight are his most explicitly politicised texts, he maybe knew his weaknesses and never directed his efforts in that direction.

“Marechera knows that he is too volatile, too uncontrollable to play the social role expected of him as a ‘great writer’,” says Garnier.

And Olley Maruma, journalist, writer, filmmaker and Marechera’s contemporary, agrees Marechera had this kind of awareness but was too weak to fight it.

Maruma revealed that one time after getting a $25 000 royalty cheque, Marechera checked into the then three-star Park Lane Hotel (now Grain Marketing Board/Dura House!) for six months, living like royalty, needless to say, almost always stone-drunk!

And, there was always a constant long queue of new-found friends, old friends and other hangers-on revolving in and out of his suite with “soft loans” or whatever it was they wanted.

And Marechera, being Marechera, never discouraged these praise singers.

The night discussion at The Book Caf’ differed from the “usual” functions in the way that it was not restricted to writers and intellectuals belonging to one school of thought alone.

And one fan from the floor defended Marechera, taking over from D.H. Lawrence : “Don’t listen to the story-teller. Listen only to what his story tells you.”

And another went on to castigate (no doubt having partaken of liberal glasses of French wine that flowed liberally) the organisers of the discussion, for making capital out of Marechera and feasting on his name when “you had let him die a pauper”, eking out a living rummaging through garbage cans in the seedy backstreets of the then “Sunshine City”.

Coming to the seminar, it was an evening well spent, where Marechera was exhaustively discussed as a writer than as an activist.

On the night the French Ambassador, His Excellency Rimbauld also donated, in association with publishers Weaver Press, copies of the book translation of French Perspectives on Anglophone African Writers and Writing. Translated by staff and students at the University of Zimbabwe, and collaborating closely with the Embassy of France in Harare, the book represents an effort to encourage the flow of literature between Francophone and Anglophone Africa.

The result is a perspective and fascinating reflection on the best of Anglophone African writing.

August 2006
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