Piecing Together the Barely Exquisite Corpse: On Tinashe Mushakavanhu’s Reincarnating Marechera: Notes on the Speculative Archive
‘‘There are those who find in memory evidence of their identity; indeed, some say each individual is himself the microcosm of all that mankind has been from the beginning of time. But perhaps this is to be seduced by metaphors – an act of self-mystification which beguiles those writers and readers for whom every novel or poem is seen as autobiography.’’Dambudzo Marechera,
‘‘Soyinka, Dostoevsky: The Writer on Trial for His Time’’
Tinashe Mushakavanhu’s pamphlet Reincarnating Marechera: Notes on the Speculative Archive is a 59-page text that attempts to deliberate on Marechera, the obstinate myths surrounding his life and work, and the social significance of his death and enduring legacy. It is also a text that records the research journey of Mushakavanhu – archival diggings at the National Archives of Zimbabwe, his grave site visits, discussions with gravediggers, and email exchanges with individuals who not only read Marechera, but influenced his writings, socially engaged and lived with him. Throughout the text, Mushakavanhu’s sentences oscillate between his own personal anecdotes on encountering Marechera’s work, comments on the latter’s biographical facts, and extracts from his assortment of plays-poetry-fiction-non-fiction collected in Mindblast. Mushakavanhu’s speculative account is cobbled from various, yet recognisable, traceable sources.
One can claim that the overarching impetus of Mushakavanhu’s project is to piece together the literary life-story of the real Marechera’s ‘hardly exquisite corpse’ as Brian Evenson once put it. Mushakavanhu attempts to ‘reincarnate’ Marechera, because Mushakavanhu claims that what we have now is a ‘carcass’ so diminished and disfigured by European-derived theoretical and literary doctrines we hardly recognise his Blackness. At the core of Mushakavanhu’s pamphlet is the impulse to speculate and portray a different version of Marechera, an image existing outside the predominant biographical work, and away from what Brian Evenson, in ‘Zimbabwe’s Beat Generation, has castigated as a ‘parasitic and necrophilic Trust’ that seeks to ‘crack his bones and suck out the marrow’ yet ‘failed to help Marechera publish anything while alive.’ Mushakavanhu aims to produce a rereading of the archive that invites the reader to see Marechera from the perspectives of the ‘black voices’ in the letters that outpoured right after Marechera’s death, in order to, I suppose, reclaim his ‘black agency’.
The booklet begins with a tribute poem to Marechera in Shona by Zimbabwean poet Chirikure Chirikure. Relying on Mushakavanhu’s endnote, the poem ‘evokes the presence of the author’s spirit and his enduring legacy.’ Subsequently, I am catapulted to confront an italicised two-and-a-half-page outline and orientation. Mushakavanhu here relays his first encounter with the work of Marechera, as a twelve year old, at a rural boarding school, introduced to his work by a friend named S. who steals books from the library, believes he’s bewitched by the author’s spirit, flees school lessons to go and drink booze in the nearest beer halls in the next village. The latter account is a usual-suspect unruly-behaviour story, or what Mushakavanhu refers to as a ‘rebellious teenage spirit’ systematically associated with the perceived ‘man-child’ image of Marechera. Mushakavanhu sets out to rectify myths around Marechera, the prominent myth being what he terms the ‘persistent fiction’ of his ‘permanent homelessness’ during his final years. Mushakavanhu argues that this is not true, because Marechera had a place at No. 8 Sloane Court, in which he hosted ‘intellectuals, journalists, writers, and expatriate visitors’ over drinks and dialogue.
Mushakavanhu proposes that there are three types of ‘archival contexts’ in which Marechera is read and mis/construed. He suggests that the misunderstanding is due to a dependence on the first two ‘archival contexts’. The first ‘archival context’ is Marechera’s own writings and his being and behaviour, his actions and interactions, his alleged autobiographical notes documented in the appendix journal in Mindblast. The second ‘archival context’ is the ‘biographical work of the German scholar Flora Veit-Wild and the European academy.’ The third is the imaginative archive, which Mushakavanhu interchangeably calls the ‘speculative archive’, one he insists is the most important and yet remains unexplored in prominent scholarship on Marechera. It is an archive, argues Mushakavanhu, that ‘embraces the black testimony’, an archive that is teeming with black voices that have been unheard and erased by the ‘prevailing biographical archive’. Accordingly, Mushakavanhu fashions himself in a fight that attempts to wrestle and wrest the work of Marechera away from the grasping biographical grip of Veit-Wild.
Yet Mushakavanhu’s overreliance on Veit-Wild’s Dambudzo Marechera: A Source Book on his Life and Work – referenced nine times – is paradoxically inconsistent considering his manifest objections concerning the scholarship of the German biographer and the European Academy that is ‘engaging with Marechera in a way that makes him optimal for consumption’.
In other words, Mushakavanhu’s enterprise is strictly citational, not critical of Veit-Wild’s biographical work on Marechera, as he promises an appraisal that never arrives.
There are two terms that attract me to Tinashe Mushakavanhu’s Notes: ‘reincarnating Marechera’ and the notion of a ‘speculative archive’. The intention of this reflection is to scrutinise what it means to reincarnate Marechera and then figure out the function of the speculative archive and what it comprises. Why, for instance, is the ‘imaginative archive’ more important than Marechera’s own writings? The point of my reading is finding out what is entailed in Mushakavanhu’s rereading of whichever Marechera archive he has engaged. Put another way, is he reading the archive in a new light or, rather, regurgitating received reflections on Marechera? The genuine question here should be phrased: is he investigating and utilising the ‘old archives in new ways’ as some theorists have advised?
In his italicised outline, Mushakavanhu argues that the ‘real Marechera is missing’ and in the following sections of his pamphlet he intends to look and locate the dead author, whether in the streets or deep in the dens of his speculative archive, which can be construed as a synonym for both his own imagination-based recreation of Marechera and the black voices in the extracts of letters sent to the Trust. Mushakavanhu argues that the version of Marechera we have is one that is buried in a ‘sequence of affective and theoretical presumptions’. This, according to Mushakavanhu is another way of killing an already dead Marechera: that is to say, another routine act of sinking the ‘real Marechera’ into oblivion. Nonetheless, Mushakavanhu is neither specific nor does he spell out these ‘affective and theoretical presumptions’ and the people who propagate them: he does not explicitly locate these arguments that he finds so loathsome.
I am compelled to presume that Mushakavanhu is referring to the work of the contributors to Flora Veit-Wild and Anthony Chennells’ volume Emerging Perspectives on Dambudzo Marechera and/or the accusations of decadent Euro-modernist tendencies and criticisms from Marechera’s detractors such as Juliet Okonkwo, Mbulelo Mzamane or Ranga Zinyemba. Is Mushakavanhu alluding to James Currey’s account of working with Marechera in his book Africa Writes Back? In truth, we do not know Mushakavanhu’s own ideas in this discursive drama. In one instance his seems to be criticising critics who use European-derived concepts to engage Marechera’s work in the global context of world literatures; at the same time he appears to be against the detractors who dismiss Marechera’s work as being alien, un-African and inauthentic. What Mushakavanhu is too scared to acknowledge and advance is the point that most of the negative and negating criticisms levelled at Marechera emanated not from the ‘European academy’ per se, whose proponents in Mushakavanhu’s narrative remain unnamed, but from Black critics and writers – Musaemura Zimunya, Juliet Okonkwo, Ranga Zinyemba, Mbulelo Mzamane – whose criteria of ‘progressive’ creative fiction privileged nationalist, nativist and ‘traditional realist’ leanings.
Mushakavanhu proposes to provide a rereading of the archive and his ‘scratching’ and speculating is generally based on the appendix in Mindblast, photocopied poems (collected in Cemetery of Mind), a special report transcript extracted from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report on the death of Marechera’s sister Tsitsi Marechera/Chiliza. Mushakavanhu does not even think to link the latter with the poem I Used to Like Tomatoes (a poem Marechera wrote after her death) though Mushakavanhu produces the mimeographed poem without caption or commentary. There are also a couple of letters sent to the Trust whose extracts he shares with the reader. Mushakavanhu invers that Marechera’s archive is spread out across Berlin, London, Pietermaritzburg and Harare, and the exhumed findings expose a man who is ‘deeply thoughtful, exacting, thorough, and well read’. He claims that these ‘qualities are suppressed because they contradict the outcast, the rebel, the iconoclast figure that the European academy has mainstreamed’. However, one simply needs to take a long look at the ‘biographical work’ Dambudzo Marechera: A Source Book on His Life and Work to brush aside this untruth. One need not exhume archives to notice from the first sentence of any of Marechera’s text that he is erudite: his overexaggerated literary exhibitionism pokes the philistines. His sophistication is unmistakeable and so are his iconoclastic ideas and ideals. In addition, being well-read and critical enough to rebel against the reigning conventions of the time is partly what makes Marechera the outcast – the literary outsider who, according to his own words – captured in Olley Maruma’s film After the Hunger and Drought – has been treated like an ‘eccentric growth on the skin of the new Zimbabwe’. There is no contradiction, no suppressed qualities.
Mushakavanhu’s Notes on a Speculative Archive is divided into five parts accompanied by an appendix. There is the Machine of Death, Imagination Library, Literary Shock Treatment, and Epistolary Anarchy. The central question that animates the Machine of Death section of the pamphlet is Marechera’s death and its meaning; movements and organisations his death instigated and generated, such as Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe Women Writers, Baobab Books, House of Hunger Poetry Slam. Above all, Mushakavanhu intends to ‘foreground subjectivity in biographical research and also to make sense of Marechera’s conflicted legacy’. Admittedly, it’s a daunting undertaking to centre and pin down the ‘real Marechera’ in the sea of his autobiographically inconsistent constructions and invented identities. The latter should not be read as an obstacle but a generative gesture that demands a symptomatic reading and reinterpretation. Mushakavanhu is aware of the matter – the conflation of biography and invention –because he admits that Marechera proved to be an ‘unreliable witness to his own life, often contradicting himself’.
What is missing in Mushakavanhu’s account is a symptomatic reading that can expound the significance and function of such an empirically untrustworthy and trickster approach to both auto/biography and fiction.
In one of his research excursions to Berlin and Harare, Mushakavanhu discovers that the primary documents on Marechera’s death are missing, and what is left are files on his life. This moment leads Mushakavanhu to entertain many unanswered questions around Marechera’s death: ‘Did he die of HIV/AIDS, or was it a convenient diagnosis? Did he die lonely of a broken heart? Was he tired and demoralised?’ Mushakavanhu’s wonders as he ponders possible ways to ‘reincarnate’ Marechera. This is not all that animates and drives this short section; Mushakavanhu has better and burning questions: ‘What do you bring a dead man, a dead Marechera?’ He considers a couple of objects as dead offerings: ‘A typewriter? A bunch of books? Flowers? Weed?’ Mushakavanhu knows very well that none of these are necessarily needed in honouring Marechera. Nor is ‘performing a ritual’ a required ingredient in the right recipe of ‘reincarnation’.
For Mushakavanhu sharing stories and laughter and being accompanied by namesake and fellow Zimbabwean author Tinashe Muchuri on their journey to the cemetery is enough. He does not hold back from documenting the details of walking through ‘Harare city centre’ and ‘hopping on and off kombis’. Much of the notes can be considered as a reflective report on his research journey without any original revelation in the final moment. The captivating part in this section is their discussion on the philosophy of death as understood in the Shona culture in relation to an individual such as Marechera, who died without having a child. According to Muchuri, then, such a spirit is barred from returning among the living, but can often be beckoned to ‘whip some rogue children into line’. Only those who have had children are transformed into worthy ancestors who often visit and accompany the living as guides and even possesses them. Considering Marechera’s anarchic and iconoclastic ideas and assaults on tradition; how does Mushakavanhu reconcile this philosophy on death with Marechera’s iconoclasm and apostasy?
If Wole Soyinka in Ideology and the Social Vision (2): The Secular Ideal is correct that iconoclasm itself ‘may embody a social vision’; what does Marechera’s social vision entail? In the opening sentence of Machine of Death, Mushakavanhu believes Marechera has never left. Indeed Marechera lives vicariously through the spirit of his writings or in the ‘imaginary’. Later in the discussion with Muchuri on Shona philosophy concerning death and its aftermath in relation to Marechera, Mushakavanhu concludes that:
‘We don’t expect him to come back, we don’t expect his spirit to guide the living. . .’
Mushakavanhu is stuck at the crossroads holding a blank map: on one side he seems to follow Marechera’s refusal of death, on the other side he accepts the fate of the childless as defined in the Shona traditional knowledge system. In this regard his ideas on how to reincarnate, or how Marechera is being reincarnated, are never clearly defined and definite. If we follow the image of Marechera as an anarchist and iconoclast who refuses the structures and strictures of family, marriage, employment, societal expectations and conventions – how does one then reconcile Muchuri and Mushakavanhu’s musings on ‘reincarnating’ Marechera, in view of the Shona philosophy of death and Marechera’s rejection of tradition or ‘whatever diminishes/The individuals’ blind impulse’? They conclude that Marechera’s spirit cannot come back and ‘guide the living’ because he left no-one to lead. In any case, says Mushakavanhu, traditionally the child cannot lead the courts. Mushakavanhu’s account is annoyingly jumpy and discontinuous. He makes statements and does not bother to qualify and elaborate.
Reading Mushakavanhu one gets an image of an impulsive writer working under duress, desperate to capture and communicate every single thought and sentence that comes to mind.
In the fashion of sacrificing argumentative rigour and coherence, he swiftly adds that Marechera is a father of many children. He references Zimbabwean writer Ignatius Mabasa who is cited as saying that books are our children and friends of our children too. They are everywhere, proclaims Mushakavanhu. Not the books, but the children of Marechera – I suppose including Muchuri and Mushakavanhu and the unnamed lot infected with what Memory Chirere has called ‘Marechera-mania’ – who keep frequenting the cemetery looking for their father.
We know that these visits to the cemetery are bound to yield nothing new. Instead, the sites that require constant revisiting are Marechera’s books, his actual and only children he left for us to study. Though indulging traditional wisdom on the mystical nature of death and playing with meanings is seductive, it would do us good to suspend semantic games and remember that, while alive, Marechera lambasted the idea of a sacralised and incontestable tradition in its widest sense. Nowhere is this distaste more humorously dramatized than in his short fiction ‘‘The Christmas Reunion’’ (1978) and it is caricatured again in his iconoclastic text Black Sunlight (1980). We should specifically remember his bitter and biting comments in his “Farewell Lecture” (1982), in Olley Maruma’s film After the Drought and Hunger (1985) and in his lecture “The African Writers Experience of European Literature” (1986). It would have been generative if Mushakavanhu had been generous enough to examine what Marechera had said and written in order to speculate on Marechera’s position as an outsider, not only in his ‘biography’, his ‘country’s history’ but even in the supposed spiritual world predicated on the traditionalist idea of the after-life. It seems to me that the only functional way – the only sensible form of reincarnation needed, is a rereading and reinterpretation of Marechera that inspires contemporary writers to work within Marechera’s anarchic and iconoclastic tradition.
To embrace and engender a tradition of dispelling tradition: to write with and against it.
What is the Imagination Library? is a question I keep asking as I read this section in the pamphlet. Mushakavanhu provides no solid answers and doesn’t seem concerned to break down the connection between the title and the content. There is no definition. There are no hints hidden between the lines. What one encounters here is Mushakavanhu retelling in a few short paragraphs Marechera’s anecdote of his famous four-and-a-half day attempt at being a ‘literary agent’, in which he received 300 phone calls and was visited by 150 aspiring writers seeking guidance from him in the only office he has ever occupied, at the corner of ‘Second Street and Stanley Avenue’. In his journal Marechera regrettably referred to this initiative as ‘a disaster among many’. The literary agency venture failed. Marechera documents the experience with a hint of hilarity in Mindblast: consider the part in which Marechera pity-watches the youth who plagiarised and presented the poems of John Keats as his own (“Plagiarism is out. Pastiche, good pastiche can be in. His was a letter-by-letter daylight robbery from the Keats Estate”). He suspected that some of the individuals among the 150 who came to see him at his office were government spies and intelligence agents. Mushakavanhu takes us through these details without adding anything substantial to what is already found in Mindblast. What is the function and significance of Mushakavanhu’s ‘speculative archive’, if it does not necessarily depart from what is already known about his subject? Here I am referring not only to a re-reading of the found documents and writings in the archive, but a symptomatic reading that yields anything but platitudes and received and repetitive readings.
The overall image of Marechera in Mushakavanhu’s musings in this section is one of an obliging community member, a mentor to literary neophytes. As Mushakavanhu writes about Marechera at his office: ‘Everyone would come in and sit, so he was almost like a monk, a spiritual healer’. Marechera himself noted in his journal that he was ‘Listening all the time to hair-raising stories which would never happen to writers or prospective writers in the United Kingdom – it seemed here in Zimbabwe the writer, because of his own ignorance of the rights and rules and legal contracts about authorship and publication, was very easy victim to cruel sharp practises’. After his death no healing can be said to have transpired. Instead, in his death, Marechera instigated a whole new generation of ‘writers and prospective writers’ to outpour their grievances and gripes with the government of the time. Thus, for Mushakavanhu this birth of ‘letter writing as a social practice’ is a form of reincarnating Marechera (the only moment that tries to explain the meaning of reincarnating Marechera). What Mushakavanhu terms the Epistolary Archive is proof that – in terms of literary infrastructure and publishing culture – nothing directly transformed, which is visible in the desperate and frustrated tones of the letters the Trust received in the five-year period 1987-1992.
Even if one were to overlook the absence of original treatment of the work of Marechera, the unstructured and repetitive narrative, there are other problems in Mushakavanhu’s text that need to be confronted. It appears that he mixes up Marechera’s biographical moments. For instance, Mushakavanhu claims that Marechera’s ‘Alienation with Harare comes in him not finding a community of thinkers, an intellectual community that understood what he was about’. Consequently, Mushakavanhu concludes that “And so at the end of the day he ended up identifying with Beat Generation, the Surrealists, Greek philosophers, Anarchists, and many others from faraway places”. Mushakavanhu here confuses Marechera’s London days with his return to Zimbabwe. Marechera did not begin reading and identifying (aesthetically) with the aforementioned writers and thinkers because he felt alienated with Harare. Whilst in London, he already felt disillusioned after receiving a couple of rejection slips for The Black Insider and another unnamed and unremembered manuscript. Marechera was also disaffected and disheartened because, as he writes, ‘The House of Hunger was not making much money’ and generally people were treating him as a ‘lunatic’.
In an interview with Flora Veit-Wild Marechera says: ‘When I wrote Blacksunlight, I was staying at what was called the “Tolmers Square Community” . . . At that time I was also reading books by those writers who had tried in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s, to get into that subconscious region where a ghost has rights too. For instance Charles Bukowski. And of course, before that I had been reading the American writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, the Beat Generation poets and novelists. . .’ Undoubtedly the estrangement never began in Harare, but followed him and continued to haunt him there, after he arrived from London. I suspect that the alienation sliced deeper than simply a matter of being lacerated by the ‘slow brain death’, publishers’ rejection slips and struggle and strain to make ends meet.
Discussions that exclude Marechera’s Bakhtin-influenced and favoured Menippean manner in relation to his literary shock sensibility should be entertained with great suspicion. In the section titled Literary Shock Treatment, Mushakavanhu’s treatment of Marechera’s writing is general rather than specific. The problem with this restrained style of engagement is that a lot is missed, and we don’t get to zoom in on the texts and appreciate the texture and subtlety of each individual work. Mushakavanhu gives a general overview without any helpful particularities drawn from specific points within Marechera’s oeuvre to demonstrate Marechera’s idea of the literary shock sensibility. One would think that because Mushakavanhu titled this section after Marechera’s literary intention of shock he would dig into the mechanics of such an endeavour in relation to Marechera’s experimental prose, poetry or plays. There is no in-depth engagement with Marechera’s literary shock treatment in relation to his review essays and lectures on aesthetics, particularly his understudied The African Writers Experience of European Literature, in which Marechera discusses his literary predilection and poetics thoroughly in relation to European literature. What is the significance of this sensibility in relation to African literature?
Instead of examining Marechera’s works in depth, Mushakavanhu focuses on Marechera’s allegedly autobiographical journal and ends up recycling the readily available points. Mushakavanhu is quick to describe Marechera’s work as having an ‘unstable element’ or state that his ‘writings are amalgams of different genres, in which linear links are broken’. Such statements are unhelpful if made without textual illustration. Would it not be helpful to discuss this ‘unstable element’ in comparison to texts by his Zimbabwean contemporaries whose work was not subjected to the harsh nativist criticism of Marechera’s detractors? ? What are these genres that Marechera is mangling and mingling? What is the function of such an amalgamation? And is such an experimental adventure successful? Mushakavanhu is not interested in investigating and defining such literary undertakings.
Mushakavanhu’s conception of Epistolary Anarchy raises intriguing points about the politics of the National Archives of Zimbabwe (N.A.Z.). In one of his excursions to their offices, he forays into their historical records and discovers a folder labelled MS 901/6 which contains hundreds of handwritten letters that ‘mourn and memorialise’ Marechera. Mushakavanhu writes that in these letters there are ‘demands for freedom of speech’ and ‘requests of mentorship’. The letters came from all over the country ‘rupture(ing) this small view of Zimbabwe, which is often restricted to a little corridor in the middle of the country that starts in Harare and ends in Bulawayo’. He also discovers that certain documents on Marechera have disappeared and when they reappear in one of his revisitations, the documents have been doctored. This is not surprising as Mushakavanhu has suspicions that the N.A.Z. is in liaison with Central Intelligence Officers who are ‘policing how and what people research’. The public is fully aware of the censure and censorship in the country, the consequences of being critical of the state and its repressive forces; as Mushakavanhu shows, some of the letters which appear in extracts in this section are anonymously signed: a sign of ‘anxiety around surveillance’. Mushakavanhu suspects that some of these letters were written by the ‘ruthless’ Central Intelligence Operatives, but does not provide reasons for this suspicion.
Mushakavanhu argues that the letters provide us with an understanding of ‘biography and confessional discourse that Marechera pioneers in Zimbabwe’, though he never further expounds on this idea. He writes that the floodgates of letters to the Trust, most of which were directly addressed to the dead Marechera, ‘trickled for five years (between 1987 and 1992)’ and as a result the Trust was compelled to convene writing workshops. Mushakavanhu is ever-suspicious of the level of trust conferred to the ‘guardians of the Dambudzo Marechera Trust who are seen as a direct link to Marechera himself’. He questions the unsuspecting enthusiasm and ‘unquestioning admiration of Flora Veit-Wild’ expressed in the letters when he rhetorically asks: ‘If Marechera survived through the patronage of expatriate white women like her, why can’t she lift these hundreds of young black men out of their poverty too?’ What is clear here but remains unclear to the letter writers is that Veit-Wild is not the saviour, or the ‘outside interlocutor’ who can ‘transport the letter writer to instant stardom’. Yet one cannot help but mention that Mushakavanhu’s suspicion is not original, as writers and critics, such as Brian Evenson or Musa Zimunya, among others, have always been critical of the role of the Trust in relation to Marechera and his work.
In the letters to the Trust, Mushakavanhu is searching for the ‘black testimony’ which will help challenge the scholarship on Marechera, whose life and work has been ‘scaffolded on white memory’. Is the black testimony the letters themselves? Or is what the writers of the letters are saying about Marechera the black testimony that is supposed to restore Marechera’s ‘black agency’? Since this remains unclear, one wonders what Mushakavanhu thinks about the criticisms of Marechera by his black contemporaries, who were out-rightly dismissive of his work and even accused him of writing outside the bounds of the African oral tradition. In all truth, some of the arguments broached by certain critics in Emerging Perspectives on Dambudzo Marechera are closer to comprehending Marechera’s abject and disruptive poetics of eclecticism than the narrow nationalist and nativist interpretations that ultimately reduce him to a reactionary and Euro-modernist. I am mainly thinking of Laurice Taitz’s Knocking on the Door of the House of Hunger and Drew Shaw whose Transgressing Traditional Narrative Form is an explosive contribution that exposes the emptiness and uselessness of these accusations and misreadings of Marechera; interpretations that conclude that Marechera has been – to use Mushakavanhu’s words –’infected by European philosophy and theory to a point where he has no identity’; meaning his being and behavior as well as eccentric and eclectic literary aesthetics are alien, un-African and inauthentic.
The post office replaces Marechera and his death is an awareness-raising and memory-making catalyst, argues Mushakavanhu in one of his original moments. The letters to the Trust reveal Marechera’s ‘enduring influence’, he asserts. It has to be said that they also expose admirers and copycats who position themselves as Marechera reincarnates, such as the persona in the letter signed E.M. Zengeza 1, Chitungwa, December 1989. The note begins, ‘Dambudzo is our prophet, I pray to him, I mean that I am continuing from where he left off’. What is perceptible is a sense of frustration with authority and contentions to the state’s repressive forces that deny freedom of speech and expression. They echo Marechera’s own criticism levelled at the state. More than anything, this Epistolary Anarchy, as Mushakavanhu calls this section of the pamphlet, depicts an underdeveloped and desperate literary infrastructure that may have contributed to Marechera’s deteriorating sense of alienation. The letters and Mushakavanhu’s reading do not succeed in locating and elucidating Marechera’s writings outside the ‘prevailing biography’. The way the idea of Epistolary Anarchy is theorised does not achieve Mushakavanhu’s thesis of finding the missing ‘real Marechera’, nor does it reclaim and restore his ‘black agency’. For Mushakavanhu the absence of ‘female correspondents’ in these letters is a sign of the ‘phallocentric nature of [the]black radicalism’ within which Marechera operated. In other words, beyond being a ‘mode of self-analysis’, the letters are ‘portals into the opaque psyche’ of the literary and political state of the nation at the time. The view is ‘opaque’ because there are certain voices that are missing, meaning black ‘female’ voices. Mushakavanhu points out that ‘proponents of Marechera scholarship have also been mostly white women’, though he barely argues the case and the cause.
Mushakavanhu promises to provide a rereading and reinterpretation of Marechera’s archive, yet he hardly keeps the promise. Occasionally, I am enthralled, for a moment, by pithy phrases on Marechera’s anarchic and iconoclastic poetics and political activism, but there is never a coherent and sustained line of analysis and elaboration. Often Mushakavanhu is guilty of merely describing the writing style of Marechera in platitudes and rhetoric. Accompanying the uneven narrative are black and white photographs and photocopied poems of Marechera that are neither engaged with nor integrated into the narrative. In our meditations on the work of Marechera, we should not ignore his own idealistic conception of literature which stretches beyond racial and geographical boundaries, but treats literature as a landscape where divisions are obliterated.
It would be absurd and regressive to restrict and police who should and should not memorialise and theorise on the work of Marechera when his writings were in conversation with writers all over the world.
We have seen how narrow nationalist, nativist and realist readings of Marechera’s work have reduced his literary style to a supposedly self-indulgent, reactionary and Euro-modernist sensibility; while, in truth, his entire literary enterprise is a subversive, or, in Marechera’s own terms, ‘rigorous re-evaluation of . . . western intellectual thought’.
Above all, the term that describes what Mushakavanhu is attempting to do in his pamphlet is captured in Saidiya Hartman’s concept ‘critical fabulation’. Critical fabulation is an attempt to exhume, examine and surface suppressed voices, to fill up the gaps and the omissions in the archive; it also aims to ‘displace the received or authorized account, and to imagine what might have happened or might have been said or might have been done’. This is not what is at work in Mushakavanhu’s pamphlet. What is omitted in the Veit-Wild biographical work on Marechera is a speculation on the significance and function of the letters to the Trust. What we have in Mushakavanhu’s narrative is an identification of this omission-as-problem and an underwhelming attempt at speculation that hardly paints the picture of the ‘real Marechera’ he would like people to see.
“As I read it every single word erased itself into my mind. Afterwards they came to take out the stitches from the wound of it. The stitches were published. The reviewers made obscene noises”.
The House of Hunger, 1978