The Bildungsroman has been one of the more durable genres of prose fiction. Conventionally depicting the protagonist’s journey from youth to maturity – ‘Bildung’ could be rendered in English as formation, development, growth or education – the historical meaning of its emergence has been much parsed: analogue of a dawning modernity, the rise of the bourgeoisie, or the formation of the modern nation state? With its parameters set in the context of the German Enlightenment in the late 18th century, it soon spread across the continent, becoming – at least for a season – the paradigmatic kind of European novel.
With the flourishing of the novel in Africa in the 20th century however, the Bildungsroman was adapted to a dramatically different experience of social upheaval and transformation. Intermingling with traditions of autobiographical writing, here its existential framework was ineluctably the radical reordering of African life by colonialism, the battle for independence, the pathologies and struggles that remained after its formal achievement. Major works in this vein included Camara Laye’s The African Child (1953), E’skia Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue (1959), Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not Child (1964), Wole Soynika’s Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981) and Nafissatou Diallo’s A Dakar Childhood (1982). In more recent decades, works such as Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Chris Abani’s GraceLand (2004) have kept the genre centre-stage in university curricula.
This inheritance however has been a subject of intense critical dispute. To what extent is the genre bound to colonialist notions of personal formation? How far can the developmentalism of such works be seen to reproduce, challenge or dismantle that complex legacy? Thirty years ago, these were questions much asked of the debut novel of Zimbabwean writer and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (1988). Written in the aftermath of Zimbabwe’s independence (it was the first novel to be published in the country by a black woman), it recounts the childhood and early adolescence of Tambudzai Sigauke, the daughter of a Shona family in rural Rhodesia in the 1960s, as she strives to break free of poverty and patriarchal village life. It is striking how differently the novel has been read: as a prime example of the Bildungsroman adapted to African realities, and as its undoing or refutation. Tambu’s evolution is profoundly Janus-faced. The price of gaining one of the few places for black students at a colonial mission school is an unyielding sense of anxiety and alienation. The novel’s title comes from a line in Sartre’s introduction to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth – ‘the condition of the native is a nervous condition’.
When a sequel, The Book of Not (2006), appeared eighteen years later, some of this ambiguity was resolved. Tambu’s continued education and first years of employment are portrayed in much starker tones, as she experiences continued injustice and cruelty amid the violence of Zimbabwe’s liberation war. Independence, when it arrives in the novel’s last section, is not matched by any parallel story of individual triumph over adversity; the novel seems instead to warn its reader against equating national independence with liberation of a more profound sort. It concludes on a note of uncertainty, with Tambu unemployed and adrift, unsure what her fate will be as a ‘new Zimbabwean’.
There is, then, a straightforward way to read This Mournable Body (2020), the final instalment of Dangarembga’s trilogy, which was published to much fanfare in the African literary world and shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year. Not as ‘inspiring’ or a ‘story of triumph’, as it was wishfully characterised in The New York Times, but as the final blow to any hopes invested in Tambu or in her homeland. A shadow of her plucky girlhood self, our protagonist is now eking out a precarious existence in a brutal, unforgiving Harare. Independence has brought no improvement in her circumstances. Scraping by in a filthy boarding house, she is kept down by white colleagues, misjudged by her fellow Shonas, and subject to all manner of casual, gendered violence. Meanwhile, the Third Chimurenga, ZANU-PF’s controversial property-redistribution program, is heating up in the background, portending national crisis on a world stage. As Tambu’s fortunes have faded, her dreams have coarsened too. The quest for self, at once social and moral – the Bildungsroman’s North Star – has degenerated into a desperate grasping at upward mobility.
Dangarembga then, seems once and for all to have traded in the Bildungsroman for another prominent African genre, the novel of disillusionment. By the work’s mid-point, Tambu is admitted into a psychiatric ward. Far from fulfilling any path towards freedom as a corollary to the country’s liberation, Tambu’s options after her breakdown speak to the country’s cruel fate – working in private security, the product of a decayed social infrastructure, or else a demeaning white-led tourist venture. The novel ends where the trilogy began, at the homestead of Tambu’s family, where in hope of advancing her career she returns to commodify the circumstances of her upbringing for western eyes. For readers once enchanted by her rise in Nervous Conditions, this is perhaps the literary equivalent of the despair wrought by the regime of Emmerson Mnangagwa, which rapidly dashed the hopes raised when Mugabe was finally ousted in 2017 after 37 years in power.
It is, without doubt, a wrenching book. Dangarembga is no less unflinching in depicting the country’s economic woes. Any charge of so-called ‘poverty porn’ that might be levelled – against the ‘urchins’ roaming the streets of Harare sullied by ‘used condoms and cigarette butts’ that ‘build thick puddles of charcoal-coloured water’ – would be misplaced. Her work might be better understood as showing how real lives become the stuff of trope. Dangarembga is also distinguished by the sincerity of her local commitments. Unusually for a writer of her renown she continues to reside in Zimbabwe; she was detained in anti-corruption protests last year (and was recently awarded PEN’s International Award for Freedom of Expression). Her own description of her trilogy, as provided by a recent essay, is indeed in expressly political terms: ‘In the social, moral, economic and leadership decay that marks Zimbabwe today, I am hard put to find any personal trajectory that can be described as upward in any sense, other than that of accumulating material possessions.’ In her telling, Zimbabwe is suffering from a ‘crisis of personhood’ wrought by decades of despair and brutalisation, disaffection with the political class, and the abjections of ‘greed, lust, dishonesty, bloodthirstiness and corruption’ that have taken hold.
In such circumstances, a literary genre that depends on the development of the individual clearly cannot function as normal. But it may be a simplification to read the trilogy’s culmination as merely a brutal inversion. In Dangarembga’s conception, her work serves as an inquiry into ‘what is required to reanimate those who have suffered social death’ and calls for a ‘national transformation through engagement with the person’. A recent lecture, given in memory of the anti-apartheid revolutionary Oliver Tambo, spelled out her vision of a renewed moral focus on the individual that doesn’t lapse into an individualism of an anti-social, neoliberal sort. Her proposals are a necessarily back-to-basics approach to the democratic imagination, insistent on rights to life, human dignity, and freedom from cruel or degrading treatment and punishment. Among other things, the lecture served as an important reminder that ‘critiques’ of rights – one of the scholarly conversations in which her work has been implicated – can ring hollow when your friends and comrades are imprisoned or otherwise disappeared.
Returning then to her trilogy’s bruising conclusion, where might the seeds of this personal regeneration be sought? One answer may be found in the growing references to the Shona philosophy of hunhu, a communalist way of thinking that emphasises collective moral responsibility and the interconnectedness of human beings. This mode of thought, which Tambu wrestles with as her path falters, insists on a kind of moral growth that cuts against the liberal-individualist foundations of the Bildungsroman. At the same time, it insists on just and respectful individual behaviour. Dangarembga is ultimately interested in a more complex question than rise or fall, win or lose. Instead, she is asking how those crushed by social and economic forces beyond their control can retain a claim to moral growth – and what sort of fiction that demands. Conceived in these terms, the novel’s climax can perhaps be read in a more guardedly optimistic way. Without revealing every detail, it is sufficient to say that Tambu goes from marketing her mother to embracing her, from grasping for a promotion to giving up her job. Though Tambu’s dreams have been blighted, and so too the initial promise of national liberation, a new, more complex and less commercialized kind of self-formation may be in sight.
Were the work less attuned to the material realities of Zimbabwe’s place at the bottom of the world’s economic pecking order, or the links between ZANU-PF corruption and the avarice of global finance, such a conclusion might appear quietist. The course that Dangarembga has plotted for Tambu and Zimbabwe is a purposefully modest one, informed by an awareness of how grand political pronouncements have been put to the test in Zimbabwe and failed. The powers of hunhu in post-independence, post-democratic Harare to open up a space whose value is not fully beholden to a rampant neoliberalism – in which cultures and selves are bought and sold – are of course limited, but they are not meaningless. This Mournable Body is, then, a novel that mines what humanist possibility it can find in the Bildungsroman, while never mistaking it for nearly enough. After a trilogy which collides the genre against the realities of Zimbabwean life, Dangarambga seems to nevertheless insist that it will continue building in one form or another, trying, faltering, and then trying again in a different register. She has dismantled the genre to recombine its parts, producing a remarkable fiction in the process.
Read on: Lola Seaton on the Bildungskritiken of Raymond Williams and Mark Fisher.