Feud for thought: revisiting The House of Hunger

Conrad Landin looks back at Dambudzo Marechera’s re-published coming-of-age novella

Thursday, 28th April — By Conrad Landin

Dambudzo Marechera © Ernst Schade De Beeldunie Amsterdam new

Dambudzo Marechera. © Ernst Schade, De Beeldunie, Amsterdam

PREPARING to step foot in independent Zimbabwe for the first time 40 years ago, Dambudzo Marechera was nothing if not ambivalent.

“You mention the name ‘home’ to me – it means nothing,” he said in an interview with the filmmaker Chris Austin. “Even my own voice is no longer my own.”

Eight years before, Marechera had arrived in Britain from a country still known as Rhodesia, to take up a scholarship at Oxford University.

But he was soon “sent down” – and instead ended up seeking a living as a writer from a series of north London squats.

There was also a stint at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Asked for his next of kin on arrival at Pentonville, Marechera said there was no one. Pressed further, he opted for the publisher of his first book, The House of Hunger.

“Imagine being buried by Heinemann’s,” he later chuckled. “Good God.”

The House of Hunger, re-published this month in Penguin Modern Classics, is a coming-of-age novella. Set in the Rhodesia that Marechera had escaped, whose Unilateral Declaration of Independence under Ian Smith was designed to thwart the prospect of majority rule, its narrator is a literary misfit searching for “black heroes”.

Instead he finds police informants and charismatic sex workers, racist students and wizened elders, black poets and white sympathisers – jostling together in a colonial hangover of oppression, violence and revenge.

This human cocktail provides fuel for a mind – and a narrative – riddled with anxiety, paranoia and hallucinations.

Yet these characteristics sit alongside a persistent tone of dispassionate melancholia, which Marechera establishes from the moment his protagonist stands by while his brother beats his wife. The narrator’s much-feted “disinterested intervention” in this scene of domestic abuse is in fact nothing of the sort.

Later on, amid a catastrophic rain storm, we see the weakness of human civilisations in the face of the natural world – much like in the “Time Passes” section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

But Marechera’s epic description of this scene – “the singing fury of it stuck little needles into the matter of our brains” – seems equally a metaphor for society’s corruption at the hands of prejudice, greed and poverty.

In The House of Hunger, the impact of these evils is as apparent in black men’s struggles with their own masculinity as it is in the colonial hierarchy.

“Something diseased had been unleashed among us,” Marechera writes: “there was in that rain the swollen seeds of an old feud”.

The narrative voice is nonetheless fundamentally detached: not only from politics and emotion – but from time and place too. Switching between settings in a flash, we realise that no matter how far or fast we run, the scars of the past will always re-emerge.

Marechera knew this too well, becoming as much an exile in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe as he was in Thatcher’s Britain, and struggling with homelessness, drink and violence before his premature death in 1987.

It’s a message that’s also reinforced in the sequence of short stories and essays that follow the title novella: in spite of temporal and geographical shifts – as far as Charing Cross and Clerkenwell Road – the same themes and preoccupations return again and again.

Back in the rain storm, as the township’s people struggle to defend their homes from the downpour – “building, rebuilding, groaning against its blows” – we see the power too of collective resistance. These reconstruction efforts continue “until once again the walls of that malice came crushing down” – a phrase that seems deliberately ambiguous.

It calls to mind Antonio Gramsci’s observation that “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born”.

The “morbid symptoms” of the interregnum that Gramsci spoke of are on display not only in The House of Hunger, but in humanity’s failure to defeat injustice in the decades since its publication.

The House of Hunger. By Dambudzo Marechera, Penguin Modern Classics, £9.99

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