Limning insanity in Migrant London—Brian Chikwava’s Harare North

Harare North

Author: Brian Chikwava
Reviewed by: Sean Christie

Published by: Jonathan Cape, London, 2009

The reviews of Harare North so far have all agreed about two things: the power and originality of the narrative voice, and the weakness of the plot, with a third concurrence perhaps being that the power of the voice makes up for weakness of the plot.

Zimbabwean-born Brian Chikwava does not give his first person narrator a name, which matters little because the singularity of his creation is patent in the first line and never lets up. ‘….like many immigrant on whose face fate had drive one large peg and hang tall stories,’ he begins, ‘Shingi had not only become poor breadwinner but he had now turn into big headache for me.’

In contrast to the depressive intellectual exiles Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera landed in England through works like The House of Hunger and The Black Insider, Chikwava, who has lived in London since 2000, introduces an ill-educated anti-hero of the first order: a former Green Bomber (Zanu-PF youth brigade cadre) who has killed for—and is simultaneously on the run from—the Mugabe regime (although his support for the vehemently anti-British dictator never wavers, even when the eviction of his family from their tribal lands by state-sponsored miners becomes incontestable).

The problem that propels the narrator through London—he needs to make US$5000 in order to bribe his way out of a pickle with the police back home (a thing he expects to do with ease)—is well conceived as a means of striking to the heart of the pressures that circumscribe the lives of London’s desperately disadvantaged African migrants.

Initially the narrator stays with his cousin Paul in Brixton (known to Zimbabwean expatriates as Harare North on account of the number of their kinsmen who have pooled there), but he immediately wears through the patience of Paul’s dyspeptic wife (ironically named Sekai/laughter) and moves into a squat with his feeble childhood friend Shingi (short for Shingirayi, meaning perseverance—another irony), two other Zimbabwean men, a seventeen year old girl named Tsitsi, and her infant. We know from the outset that Shingi is doomed (‘…I can’t tell Shingi’s mother that Shingi is dying in London because I see no point in making she cry’), and that the narrator doesn’t seem to care much (‘When it become clear that our friendship is now big danger…me I finish it off straight and square’), all of which hints at a possible fratricide at the heart of the plot. This expectation is encouraged by the regular reappearance of a screwdriver (as a tool for cleaning shit off shoes, tenderising steak and for finishing off wounded squirrels) which the narrator steals from his cousin early on in the story. In the end, however, the narrator’s screwdriver does not kill or save Shingi, and the tension drains away, which is perhaps all it can do, for Romulus and Remus of the London underworld the narrator and Shingi are not.

Chikwava does, however, extend to his narrator the power to see through the postures and minor frauds of the people he encounters (while maintaining to the very end a vast blind spot in regard to own shortcomings). His unpredictable behaviour and insane thought patterns (shot through with moments of proverb-like acuity) act like enzymes on the of the novels’ other characters, who, true to the findings of the sociologists, deny at all costs the realities of the present and instead between the past and the future. For example: he catches holier-than-thou Sekai out in a tryst with a skinny Russian doctor (and promptly bases his entire homecoming strategy on her susceptibility to blackmail). He outs squat patriarch Aleck (‘here is head boy that turn into proud hard man’), who claims to be a Croydon shop assistant, as a former ‘fruit-and-vegetable-vendor-boy ’ who now works for the ‘BBC’ (‘British Buttock Cleaners’). These revelations cause Aleck to flee the squat, abandoning Tsitsi and the child he fathered.

More centrally the narrator’s bullying never fails to expose his friend Shingi’s feebleness, a dynamic which comes to a head when he sabotages Shingi’s amorous pursuit of Tsitsi by hiring Shingi a prostitute. Shingi turns to heroin, loses his job, and ends up incontinent and dying anonymously in a hospital.

To create a voice capable of both exposing and representing (the narrator has lost his sanity by the end of the book) the psychological pressures of migrant life in London, Chikwava has mixed elements of Nigerian pidgin (‘everyone’s buttock holes get vex’), Dread Talk (‘more fire’), London slang (‘graft’, ‘wicked’, ‘the score’), with a laugh derived from the Afrikaans word for shit—kak kak kak. Lest it be presumed that Zimbabwean migrants actually speak like this I hasten to say that Chikwava has created a patois of one (although I was reminded strongly of the boy soldier Agu, from Uzodinma Awieala’s Beasts of No Nation). Zimbabwean pidgin sounds very different, comprising southern African linguistic influences and a range of non-lexical expression in which mimics delight—short surprised ah’s, enraged yeh yeh yeh’s, portentous drawn out O’s and terrified eeeeh’s. This disjuncture alone was enough to convince me that Harare North is not ‘almost entirely about Zimbabwe,’ as one reviewer suggests, but overwhelmingly a book about a young black migrant, who could quite as serviceably come from the Caribbean, losing his mind in a major European metropolis.

If I could ask Chikwava one question it would be whether his publishers insisted on a more overtly political novel (that seemingly ageless demand foisted on African writers by English publishers), because the Zimbabwean elements of Harare North have a squeezed-in feel. Bearing this – to my mind unnecessary, except of course in the marketing sense – burden of politics, the narrator loses traction with about eighty pages to go. After Shingi’s stabbing, which is preceded by bad pathetic fallacy, the book ill-advisedly continues for another forty pages, entirely on inertial force.
In the end, as has been suggested, a weak ending does not distract much from the achievement of Harare North, but it has, I suspect, cost Chikwava places on the long lists of this year’s major fiction prizes.