Review of Harare North - Aminatta Forna
2009: (pp: 240)
25 April 2009
Reviewer: Aminatta Forna
Harare North is what Zimbabweans call London, a reference to the number of Zimbabwean immigrants who have chosen or been obliged to settle in the city. Johannesburg is Harare South. Brian Chikwava's unnamed asylum-seeking narrator arrives in Harare North with nothing to his name but a survivor's instinct. His is a parasitical existence, first in the house of his cousin and his wife, neither of whom wants him there. When the coldness of his reception finally moves him on, he goes to stay with his only other contact in London, an old school friend who lives with other Zimbabweans in a Brixton squat. Here the reason for the tension that existed between the protagonist and his cousin becomes evident. The young man is a pro-Mugabe thug, a member of the Green Bombers youth brigade, on the run from the police and his own people.
In his narrator Chikwava has created an utterly compelling anti-hero, who exploits and manipulates everyone around him while retaining a superb grandiosity ('I am a principled man!') and sense of entitlement. This is a brave thing for any writer, especially a first-time novelist, to attempt, but Chikwava pulls it off. At first the central character comes across as lazy, naive, cunning, loyal and disloyal by turns, the average teenage lout. Only gradually does Chikwava reveal the extent of his cold machinations and even cruelty – which includes hiring a Polish prostitute to seduce his sexually inexperienced friend Shinge and thereby killing Shinge's budding romance with a young housemate.
Chikwava's great skills are his humour and his ability to create a powerful and original voice. Sekai, the cousin's wife, is a 'lapsed African' who doesn't cook for visitors, keeps a dog instead of having children and looks at the narrator with a 'pointy eye'. But behind the humour are powerful themes: the connection between personal choices and wider events; the narrator's refusal to acknowledge what is happening in his country, even as the bulldozers prepare to move into his mother's village; the exploitation of asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants in London, including by members of their own community. The Brixton household, indeed the whole of Harare North, mirrors the Zimbabwean state, with pro- and anti-Mugabe factions, self-absorbed middle classes and those just trying to get by, like Shinge, by taking employment as BBC (British Bottom Cleaner) workers in old people's homes.
Though Harare North is described as a book about 'London as it is experienced by the dispossessed', it seems to me that it is almost entirely about Zimbabwe, just as Heart of Darkness was never about the Congo, but rather the rot in the heart of Leopold's Belgium. If there is a weakness, it is the lack of a driving narrative. But this is a minor criticism. Chikwava's narrator is mesmerising, an amoral chancer who meets his match not in a person, but a place – in Harare North.
© The author/publisher