The life of Marechera

HARARE - Charles William Dambudzo Marechera was a Zimbabwean novelist and poet.

He was born in Vhengere Township, Rusape, to Isaac Marechera, a mortuary attendant, and Masvotwa Venenzia Marechera, a maid.

Dambudzo died at the age of 35, and left behind a large number of unpublished literary works.

Turning his back to the traditions of realism, Marechera sought to express subjective visions with fragmented language, without linear or chronological order.

In Zimbabwe, his style was labelled as “alien to Africa”. His works are highly autobiographical, dealing with rootless characters struggling against poverty, abuse, and oppression.

Born to a poor family, he won scholarships to St Augustine’s Secondary School, to the University of Zimbabwe and to New College, Oxford.

He has the distinction of having been expelled from all three.

His first book, The House of Hunger (1978), is the product of a period of despair following his time at Oxford.

Among the nine stories it contains, the long title story describes the narrator’s brutalised childhood and youth in colonial Rhodesia in a style that is emotionally compelling and verbally pyrotechnic.

The narrative is characterised by shifts in time and place and a blurring of fantasy and reality.

Regarded as signalling a new trend of incisive and visionary African writing, the book was awarded the 1979 Guardian fiction prize Black Sunlight (1980) has been compared with the writing of James Joyce and Henry Miller but it did not achieve the critical success of House of Hunger.

Loosely structured and stylistically hallucinatory, with erudite digressions on various literary and philosophical points of discussion, Marechera’s second book explores the idea of anarchism as a formal intellectual position.

The Black Insider, posthumously published in 1990, is set in a faculty of arts building that offers refuge for a group of intellectuals and artists from an unspecified war outside, which subsequently engulfs them as well.

The conversation of the characters centres on African identity and the nature of art, with the protagonist arguing that the African image is merely another chauvinistic figure of authority.

At Oxford University, Marechera struck his professors as a very intelligent but rather anarchic student who had no particular interest in adhering to course syllabi, choosing rather to read whatever struck his fancy.

He did not adapt well to the cultural change in Britain and in particular the rigid Oxford educational tradition.

He was by now an alcoholic, which fuelled his inherent rebellious nature to behave evermore erratically; after causing numerous disruptions, his last act at Oxford was an attempt to set fire to the university’s New College.

Given a choice between psychiatric treatment or expulsion, Marechera made his decision: “I got my things and left.”

It was thus from the combined experiences at the University of Rhodesia, Oxford and vagrancy on the streets of England and Wales that Zimbabwe’s most celebrated novel, The House of Hunger, emerged.

After it was taken on by James Currey at Heinemann and published in their African Writers series, Marechera became something of an instant celebrity in the literary circles of England.

However, his self-destruct button proved irresistible and he constantly caused outrage.

It seems that Marechera thought the British publishing establishment was ripping him off, so he resorted to raiding the Heinemann offices at odd times to ask for his royalties.

Marechera returned to the newly independent Zimbabwe in 1982 to assist in shooting the film of House of Hunger but fell out with the director and remained behind in Zimbabwe when the crew left, leading a homeless existence in Harare before his death five years later, from an Aids-related pulmonary disorder.

Mindblast; or, The Definitive Buddy (1984) was written the year after his return home and comprises three plays, a prose narrative, a collection of poems, and a park-bench diary.

The book criticises the materialism, intolerance, opportunism, and corruption of post-independence Zimbabwe, extending the political debate beyond the question of nationalism to embrace genuine social regeneration.

The combination of intense self-scrutiny, cogent social criticism, and open, experimental form appealed to a young generation of Zimbabweans, the so-called mindblast generation, who were seeking new ways of perceiving their roles within the emergent nation.

Marechera’s poetry was published posthumously under the title Cemetery of Mind (1992).

Like his stories, his poems show the influence of modernist writers from Arthur Rimbaud and T. S. Eliot to Allen Ginsberg and Christopher Okigbo, and confirm his proclivity for perceptive social critique, intense self-exploration, and verbal daring.

In an interview Marechera said of himself, “I think I am the doppelganger whom, until I appeared, African literature had not yet met.”

This is an accurate assessment of Marechera’s role in shocking the reader into looking at himself anew through the eyes of the other.

His individualism, literary experimentation, and iconoclasm ensure that his work resists narrow definitions; it is constantly shifting and crossing boundaries.

Dambudzo Marechera remains Zimbabwe’s most important cultural product on the creative writing front.

His work is also of great importance in the debate about postcolonial literature.

Since his death, dozens of younger writers and many of his colleagues have written numerous accounts and biographies detailing his troubled life and works.

In the 1990s, the most prominent were foreigners, especially the German scholar, Flora Veit-Wild, who has written both a biography and a sourcebook of Marechera’s life and works.

What Wild misses dismally is the fact that Marechera edited his own life as he went along.

Wild seems to take many of the things she got from Marechera as facts.

In an article in Wasafiri magazine in March 2012, Wild answered the question of why she “did not write a proper Dambudzo Marechera biography”, by saying: “My answer was that I did not want to collapse his multi-faceted personality into one authoritative narrative but rather let the diverse voices speak for themselves.

“But this is not the whole truth. I could not write his life story because my own life was so intricately entangled with his.”

She then described in detail her very personal involvement with him over an eighteen-month period

Many Zimbabweans feel Marechera’s legacy has been appropriated by foreign scholars and other wandering researchers for their own good.

His legacy will continue to be what it is: an unfinished story, in the same way that Marechera’s own life was an unfinished story in every sense.

Comments (20)

That Marechera was a literary giant is beyond dispute. However, his tragic personal life is not worth emulating by any sane individual. The young Marechera was just too reckless and too disorderly and that may have contributed to his early death.

Feldman Bandura - 11 December 2013

He was not reckless with his life but he wanted to decolonise his mind which was colonised by the imperialists.

Chedumba - 11 December 2013

Chedumba...! don't blame everything on the empirialists. That they colonised, undisputable but to justify one's recklessness by blaming them..... defies logic. Dambudzo just needed help of sorts to stabilise his character, he was just self distructive, like several of our young men and women today. Remember guys, self distruct will actually kill you!!

Onini - 12 December 2013

The problem with Dambudzo or rather the cause of his seemingly insane character was his talent to view society with several different eyes. If you are not like him or do not understand what it is like to see beyond the ordinary but have no power to change the inevitable,you can never understand him. He is my hero.

Talala - 12 December 2013

When all is said and done he remains a key contributor to the Zimbabwean social fabric. He achieved this through his works and the way he lived his life whether bad or good. For we can only know that something is bad if we see what it does to another person and we take a leason from there and avoid it. So even bad things serves a purpose of enlighting Society.

Tambudzai - 12 December 2013

Dambudzo Marechera made History when he became the 1st black student to attain 20points at A Level after sitting for 4 subjects.Marechera was such an intelligent,brilliant student who had thirst for knowledge.RIP Dambudzo Marechera ,the wonderful son of Manicaland.

Dr ZVICHAPERACHETE - 14 December 2013

Talala yu have said it, Marechera was an intelligent man of which can not be understood by analysing his life ordinarily.

zimbos - 16 December 2013

Lies, lies,lies:Marechera had 15points .he wrote 3subjects

Dr Chirenje Chaitezvi - 16 December 2013

Marechera just needed pill to stabilise his mind, many pple are insane kinda bt they take pills to contain the self destructiveness nature thy have

Dhudha - 17 December 2013

mdara mudhara, dambudzo wz brutally knowledgeable

TINA - 18 December 2013

There are lots of academic and ethical problems if a lover of a writer decides to write about the writer, especially with all the glorification and untruths biased by the love affair Flora had with Marechera. Good critics try to distance themselves from the 'ownership' of their object of study. Unfortunately, Ms Flora V-Wild did not succeed in academic neutrality and independence as regards her lover, Dambudzo Marechera. As Chairperson of the Zimbabwe Writers Union during the time of Marechera's turbulent life, I spent many days and nights working for his personal survival but then Flora portrays Chenjerai Hove as an enemy of Marechera when she is the one who always came to me for assistance when Marechera was in trouble. One day I would like to share a platform with Ms Wild and clear the air with the real truth, not the fiction she wrote about him.

Chenjerai Hove - 19 December 2013

over and above all the critiques that we may afford for this guy Dambudzo Marechera, l would really like and love to pay my greatest respect for this guy. Dambudzo Marechera was talented man, a lot might condemn him i.e his acts or behaviour but that just generally means that he saw the world or rather the society in a different manner which literally make him special and worth of recognition. he saw the world in an amazing way that should l be presented with a choice l would love to see the world the way he did because it was so challenging and inspiring. forever will his works be remembered. he was a guru

SYDNEY - 19 January 2015

dambudzo viewed the world in a way that most people do now......we cannot be subjected to unjust social orders an rule of unjust rule of law is no law at all

TINASHE - 1 June 2015

Dambudzo a giant in African literature... A brilliant son of Manicaland may yo soul rest in peace.. We are still following the legacy u left..

Tafadzwa Chimbarara - 21 October 2015

Dambudzo a giant in African literature... A brilliant son of Manicaland may yo soul rest in peace.. We are still following the legacy u left..

Tafadzwa Chimbarara - 21 October 2015

Dambudzo a giant in African literature... A brilliant son of Manicaland may yo soul rest in peace.. We are still following the legacy u left..

Tafadzwa Chimbarara - 21 October 2015

splendid marechera!

babajuju - 13 December 2015

splendid marechera!

babajuju - 13 December 2015

marechera is an inspiration to young writers in Zimbabwe. His personal life doesn't overpower his talent.

tanyaradzwa marabada - 14 March 2016

I salute this guy he was a great person he achieved great things in a few years his life was full of achievements many can not see and recognize his impact but indeed he was a great figure

WIDZO - 16 September 2016

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