The projected versions of Dambudzo Marechera
With its new edition, Penguin Classics disfigures Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera’s novel 'The House of Hunger.'
Dambudzo Marechera was always fighting being published out of context. The publishing history of his work was fraught with so much tension, which James Currey partly chronicles in his book, Africa Writes Back. They had an uneasy relationship that tested a publisher’s obligations and the author’s responsibilities. Where do we draw the lines? Who draws the lines?
In 2022, Marechera’s The House of Hunger was quietly re-released in the Penguin Modern Classics series. Though an important gesture, it is an edition that disfigures the book by mixing his fiction and unrelated autobiographical essays to complete a fictitious “House of Hunger cluster” made up of materials from unassociated periods of his life. Original stories were removed and replaced with no editorial explanation. The new book presents a false version of Marechera’s prize-winning collection of stories, or the place it represents. The reissuing of classics is meant to fulfill what American academic Henry Louis Gates Jr. talks about when he says, “these titles in the Penguin Classics form the canon—the canon of the texts that a truly well-educated person should have read, and read carefully and closely, at least once.” Thus, we must critically scrutinize this new edition, lest we fail to understand how diasporic African literature is sometimes distorted, or published out of context. It is profane to offer this mangled book as a classic.
Even though Marechera’s book was published as number 207 in the African Writers Series in 1978, it is often read as an indictment of modern Zimbabwe under former strongman, Robert Mugabe. The book was primarily set in Vengere township in the small eastern town of Rusape. In order to feed into the political narrative this Penguin edition has included three short and fragmented autobiographical essays on Harare written in 1985/6 with no full explanation. It is a form of rewriting to adjust the persistent misreadings of Marechera’s famous book. His book was never about Harare, but rather a small town where he grew up witnessing the trauma and violence of colonialism.
This is no oversight. Zimbabwe is often read as a one-city country comprising Harare, and by erasing the small town of Rusape in his fiction, Penguin is shapeshifting the cartographic imagination of Zimbabwe to fit into the prevailing media narrative of a “failed African country.” The Penguin Marechera is a case of a book being published for a decidedly European and white audience with disregard for authorial integrity.
The unsigned introductory note in the Penguin edition mentions that: “The first edition included the title novella with nine sketches and stories but … some of the makeweights have been omitted in favor of later pieces written to complete The House of Hunger cluster.” What is “the House of Hunger cluster?” Except for Black Sunlight (1980) and Mindblast (1984) which remain as they were originally published by Marechera himself, all the other Marechera books bear the imprints of Flora Veit-Wild, a German literature professor and short time lover of the author, who has “single authored” the entire posthumous Marechera corpus. The versions of Marechera that circulate were mainly constructed in rapid succession by Veit-Wild after the author’s death, and have been subjected to little critical scrutiny. They’re projected versions of Marechera rather than Marechera himself.
The House of Hunger has had a history of editorial distortions. In 1977 when Marechera submitted the manuscript to Heinemann for the African Writers Series, its original title was At the Head of the Stream. The replacement of the title for marketing reasons at the urging of James Currey was a major form of structural displacement that sucked out the life to dry land filled with abject poverty and hunger. With this action, black people were thus contained, confined and controlled after being displaced from their magnificent, sacred natural setting along the Rusape River. The water people were forced to be homeless, trespassers on their own land, pushed to the verge of destruction. In the text Marechera remembered corners of his childhood that used to be but were no more. In Robert Muponde’s recently published memoir, The Scandalous Times of a Book Louse (2021), he also remembers a place that no longer exists, and he too remembers the Rusape River, which courses through his narrative.
The publishing of House of Hunger was a form of violence in itself that Marechera protested at the 1979 Guardian Fiction Prize where he threw cups and plates at his hosts and accused them of celebrating his people’s poverty. In a recent interview with the filmmaker, Neil Jordan who shared the prize, he confirmed that Marechera’s “unhappiness” with his publishers more than anything else was the cause of the now famous commotion.
The tension embedded within the publishing process is a kind of war in which the final, printed version, becomes an aggressor against the author’s intentions: it is exploitative, and plunders and appropriates only what it can use. The tyrannical published version conceals the vulnerability and caricatures it instead. Marechera frames his drafts as the living memory of the conflict because they tell everything, in their imperfections they provide the story that without them we could not possibly know. This is the grudge that festers in Marechera. The Faustian bargain, which he used against Heinemann, over and over, making demands for endless royalties. That is why he laughs in Chris Austen’s film, The House of Hunger (1983) that when he was detained at Pentonville Prison in London he was asked, who is your next of kin, and he said “Heinemann. Good god, imagine being buried by Heinemann.”
There have been at least eleven editions of The House of Hunger published from 1978 to date. The Zimbabwe Publishing House edition was released at the height of Marechera’s fame to coincide with his return to Zimbabwe, but the other reproductions have all been for external markets in South Africa, the UK and the US.
The phenomenon of “Global Marechera” confirms and extends the biases of literary scholarship as modeled on the Western canon. African writers are imagined as objects of study, often read and seen as derivatives of European masters. Thus Marechera is described as the African James Joyce or the African Shelley, which ignores that his work questions traditional ways of understanding the bases of human reality. In order to do that he looks at specific conditions (Zimbabwe or UK), and to his credit, he innovatively utilizes centuries of history and philosophy from America to Europe, from Asia back to Africa.
Following his death in 1987, Marechera’s “archive” was carted off to Berlin, Germany. In her recently published memoir, They called you Dambudzo, Flora Veit-Wild writes:
You had not written a will but I had the key to your flat. On the day you died I collected all your papers. Some were clipped together; others were still in their envelopes. There was a rejection letter, hastily read, thrown into the cupboard with piles of typed sheets, crumpled clothes, dirty underwear. I rummaged through it all… I shoved everything chaotically into a suitcase: notebooks, letters, every bit of paper that bore traces of your writing or that of someone else.
Through death, Marechera, who has not been credited enough for being his own archivist, had lost control. The archive remains a matter of debate and contestation and unfortunately remains out of reach to a generation of young Zimbabwean readers and scholars who have been denied access to critically engage with one of their most brilliant writers. Marechera studies is a popular genre in the European academy with many dissertations written on the writer whereas in his home country, Zimbabwe, young people have to rely on secondary interpretations that ignore the context he writes about.