Inside The Black Insider,
Or, War and Literature:
The Writing of Dambudzo Marechera*

by Ralph Dumain

I know next to nothing of Zimbabwe’s history, politics, and culture, other than generalities of the struggle against its white supremacist regime, and my love of the music of the Shona people. I know least about the literature this country has produced. I stumbled by accident upon the late Marechera (1952-1987) in some dollar-book-bin, intrigued by the title. It turns out that Marechera was such a good writer, he turned what has now become a rather pedestrian subject matter into some first-class writing.

Marechera appears to be the classic marginalized intellectual, in rebellion against colonialism and injustice in all things everywhere, having thoroughly absorbed the highest products of western culture and admiring them while rebelling against the limitations of his world. The main character is basically himself as a writer, reflecting his own tribulations and those of his peers: the traumatic violence of the home country, the life of exile, European racism, the experience of university, and the perverse demands of authenticity. (Marechera repeatedly suffered accusations that his work was elitist, inaccessible, un-African, and apolitical.) Normally the self-absorption of such an overdone scenario would be a mine-field of cliches, but the author’s exceptional writing creates a drama of reflection even where real action is lacking. There is real-life drama to be sure in descriptions of warfare in his home country and of bitter alienated life abroad, in the midst of which he contrasts his own intellectual and aesthetic preoccupations. A number of noted authors are mentioned: Africans such as Soyinka and several European writers, including some conspicuous cites from Shelley. (Eventually a few American authors black and white get tossed into the mix.) The author constantly meditates on the human condition, yet he doesn’t come off fussy or excessively precious in spite of a prose style overloaded with stylistic artifice and literary allusions. His manner of expression is always fresh, interesting, and original, and it shines with an unflagging critical intelligence. His observations are always intriguing, though their meaning is often not evident. It is as if he is insinuating philosophical observations that go beyond their manifest expression. Among the numerous intriguing passages, I will only cite two, not necessarily the most striking passages, but ones whose content gave me pause:

It’s a pity nation-making moves only through a single groove like a one-track brain that is obsessed with the one thing. It is not enough to be in power but to be power itself and there is no such thing except in the minds of people with religious notions. We are a devastated garden in a time of drought in which only those weeds grow which are lean and hungry, like Cassius. The multitudes are thick with grey hairs. Their empty bellies propel them to the immediate source. A time will come when their thoughts are not their needs and then I say beware the blazing of their minds. [p. 37]

‘Just as the skin of water supports a multitude of insect and other life, in the same way dramatic syntax carries on its surface complex and minute sensations of space, time, etc. which deep beneath the surface are as awful and mysterious as the deepest fraction at the bottom of the deepest sea’, I replied. ‘In a way we are no longer talking about the common plays of theatre and stage but of the very activity of life and non-life itself. Is it not strange and uncommon that we can talk like this in the very midst of bombs and bullets and disease? It is not. The imagination reaches only that which is just beyond the grasp of human capability. No more. If our acts were really strange to ourselves and to our imagination then we would indeed understand what insanity is. For we conduct ourselves in terms of clarity and stability and roses which are only a minute fraction of the spectrum of the impossible and the possible. Hence such of what we know of as real life is limited within the thin thread of colour in which we have positioned ourselves in the spectra of the universe.’ [pp. 46-47]

Well, Marechera’s prose is intense all the time, which keeps his now-familiar postcolonial preoccupations from becoming stale. He proceeds through the gamut of experiences from literary obsessions to socio-cultural identity crises to the pressures and practices of British and continental European racism to the harmful influence of the Christian mentality on Africa to the horrendous bloodbaths in the African homeland. There appears to be no way out of these dilemmas, no recourse but to endure their inexorable trajectories and face them without getting painted into a corner via the imposition of stereotypical ideas, images, and expectations.

* Marechera, Dambudzo. The Black Insider, compiled and edited by Flora Veit-Wild. Harare, Zimbabwe: Baobab Books, 1990. 128 pp. This book consists of an introduction and 6 short stories, the title story comprising the bulk of the book (pp. 23-115).

Written & uploaded 25 December 2000
©2000 Ralph Dumain

See also:

Marechera, Dambudzo. Cemetery of Mind: Poems, compiled by Flora Veit-Wild. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1999. (Originally published 1992).

Veit-Wild, Flora. They Called You Dambudzo—A Memoir. Auckland Park, South Africa: Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd, 2020; James Currey, 2022.

Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe—Study Guide


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Uploaded 25 December 2000
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