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 Dambudzo died at the age of thirty-five, and left behind a large number of unpublished literary works.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 brutalized childhood and youth in colonial Rhodesia in a style that is emotionally compelling and verbally pyrotechnic. The narrative is characterized 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 changed 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. At the buffet dinner for the award of the Guardian fiction prize to him for House of Hunger, in a tantrum Marachera memorably began to launch plates at a chandelier. Nevertheless, Leeds University offered him a position as writer-in-residence.
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. Still, he lived in dire poverty and his physical health suffered greatly because he did not eat enough and drank too much.
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 criticizes 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.