A friend lent me Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988) an embarrassingly long time ago (we’re talking years) and a combination of the appalling cover and the vague, uninviting title meant that I put it off for ages, and then forgot about it. I finally remembered that I still had it a couple of weeks ago, flicked it open with some trepidation… and was almost immediately hooked. What is it they say about judging books by their covers – do it or don’t do it? I forget.
The striking opening line is ‘I was not sorry when my brother died.’ The ‘I’ in question is Tambudzai, who lives with her family in 1960s what-was-then Rhodesia. They’re in a poor rural community, the poorest members of a large family – they can only afford to send one child to school, and it is Tambudzai’s brother Nhamo who gets this honour. Tambudzai is desperate to attend school, even growing and selling her own maize to get the fees, but Nhamo tries to assert his masculine superiority at every turn, making Tambudzai miserable. The reader doesn’t mourn much when Nhamo dies – and nor, it seems, does Tambudzai. His death takes place in ‘the mission’, where Tambudzai’s rich uncle lives with his wife, son, and daughter Nyasha – and it is here where Tambudzai is herself later taken:
Thus began the period of my reincarnation. I liked to think of my transfer to the mission as my reincarnation. With the egotistical faith of fourteen short years, during which my life had progressed very much according to plan, I expected this era to be significantly profound and broadening in terms of adding wisdom to my nature, clarity to my vision, glamour to my person. In short, I expected my sojourn to fulfil all my fourteen-year-old fantasies, and on the whole I was not disappointed. Freed from the constraints of the necessary and the squalid that defined and delimited our activity at home, I invested a lot of robust energy in approximating to my idea of a young woman of the world. I was clean now, not only on special occasions but every day of the week.
Nyasha is about the same age as Tambudzai, but had spent some time in England and adjusted to 1960s English culture, before having to re-adjust back to 1960s Rhodesian expectations. One of the most interesting aspects of the Nervous Conditions is the contrast (and friendship) between these cousins. Nyasha (although only fourteen) is considered loose and immoral for wearing short skirts and talking to boys; Tambudzai is keen to adhere to her uncle’s instructions, but is developing her own conscience and personality at the same time. There is another storyline relating to Nyasha’s well-being which appears rather too suddenly at the end, and doesn’t really work – indeed, the whole ending is surprisingly rushed – but before that, this contrast of characters is really fascinating. Alongside, there is an equally well-drawn juxtaposition of Tambudzai’s old life and her new life. Although her parents want the best future for her, they are also clearly a little confused and jealous when she visits with a developing outlook on life. It’s done very subtly, for the most part, and you can tell that the novel is semi-autobiographical.
Indeed, this is probably one of the reasons I enjoyed Nervous Conditions so much. If you’ve been reading SiaB for a while, you probably know that I don’t like books set in countries which the author isn’t from, or doesn’t know well. So if a British author wrote a novel set in Zimbabwe, but had never been nearer than Portugal, or had only been for a fortnight on a package holiday, then I wouldn’t be interested. Since Dangarembga’s childhood was in fact in some respects like Nyasha’s (it seems), I’m very willing to read her views of her country and people. Here’s a good example of why:
We waved and shouted and danced. Then came Babamukuru, his car large and impressive, all sparkling metal and polished dark green. It was too much for me. I could have clambered on to the bonnet but, with Shupi in my arms, had to be content with a song: “Mauya, mauya. Mauya, mauya. Mauya, Babamukuru!” Netsai picked up the melody. Our vocal cords vibrating through wide arcs, we made an unbelievable racket. Singing and dancing we ushered Babamukuru on to the homestead, hardly noticing Babamunini Thomas, who brought up the rear, not noticing Mainini Patience, who was with him, at all.
Had this been written by an author who had never lived in Africa, it could never have been as natural. The greeting – so normal and expected of Tambudzai – would have become some sort of spectacle, where the dancing and singing would have been relayed as a piece of research. I much prefer the sort of novel Nervous Conditions is, where the reader – wherever they live – is immersed in the non-artificial perspective of a local.
Primarily, of course, I valued Nervous Conditions for Dangarembga’s writing. It is lilting and beautiful, but not overly stylised. It flows naturally, and gives Tambudzai’s voice perfectly. My only reservation with the novel, aside from the aforementioned rushed ending, was that it occasionally lost the subtlety which mostly made it special. I’m all for a feminist message, but sometimes Dangarembga didn’t trust to the show-don’t-tell method (and she should have trusted it, because she excels at it for the most part. Excerpts like this just felt as though they’d been included for cutting and pasting into high school essays:
[…]Babamukuru condemning Nyasha to whoredom, making her a victim of femaleness, just as I had felt victimised at home in the days when Nhamo went to school and I grew my maize. The victimisation, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it everywhere with them.
Not to mention how reductive that it. Never mind. Nervous Conditions is a novel, not a treatise, and for the most part Dangarembga achieves this wonderfully. Not for nothing did it win the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1989. It’s always a treat when I enjoy a book much more than I thought I would, and I can only apologise to my friend that it took me so long to get around to reading this one.