Drew Johnson: The Last Book I Loved, The House of Hunger

By

‘A writer drew a circle in the sand and stepping into it said “This is my novel,” but the circle, leaping, cut him clean through….’

—from The House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera

Looking at the way most African literature is presented to Western readers, you’d be forgiven for believing publishers think African literature has just two things to offer: importance and a lasting sense of virtue. Both?  For the price of a paperback?  Where do I sign up?

If there’s anger between these covers—we’re told—that anger will be stately, dignified, and Oscar-worthy.  If there’s unattractive, antisocial behavior, there will be a strict, straight line drawn between the cause, oppression and the result, blameless suffering.  This sort of constraining expectation has been with African literature in the West for decades; nothing could be farther from Dambudzo Marechera’s bright white-phosphorous novella, House of Hunger.

The House of Hunger—the novella plus eight short stories—was published in the U.S. in 1979 and the U.K. the year before.  Currently out-of-print here but not there, I hope that someone (NYRB Classics? Dalkey Archive? Melville House?) will take it upon themselves to make it available again.  In Africa, Marechera is a cult figure for some among the younger generation of writers—apparently he’s seen as unique.

I can’t speak to that, but I can say this book is one of the angriest I’ve ever read—and it’s an anger that’s doesn’t know the answer, the question, or any convincing reason not to punch you in the face.  Not just Dostoevsky, Hamsun, or Rimbaud, but Céline himself, Céline concentrated and with all the ellipses elided.

Even when Marechera describes the weather,

That rain: it chattered its sharp little teeth; it foamed at the mouth against everything.  The argument of it left us stunned.

Even when Marechera depicts childhood,

People were moving about the room. Edmund farted and Stephen shouted something about Kwame Nkrumah.  The girls had already gone.  Most of the boys soon left.  Something fell onto the open pages of my book; I choked back my scream when I realized what it was and swiveled round in anger.  Tricks again!  Harry was laughing sympathetically.

‘It won’t tempt you.  It’s not real, man,’ Harry said.

And he reached forward to retrieve his rubber snake.

Whatever he depicts seethes.

Marechera was famously erratic—his parlor-piece consisted of throwing plates at a chandelier in London in 1981 during the button-down Guardian first book award (which he had won) dinner—and he met as bad an end as any posthumous author cult could ask for.  But although Marechera was perfectly willing to draw his fiction straight from his life, that isn’t any important part of what makes his fiction compelling.

What you get in the novella’s ninety-page dead run but is not flat autobiography but a kinetic series of episodes, an explosion in a small room.  The narrative seems to only just hang together, and the characters seem willing to tear the narrative apart in order to vent what ails them, to break whole paragraphs in each other’s faces.  There’s a genuine experience of chaos here—and if you wind up taking away a better sense of what it was like to exist in a 1960s township in Ian Sinclair’s “White Rhodesia,” it’s a sense that isn’t documentary, responsible, or complete.   The social isn’t substituted for the psychological and the individual isn’t substituted for a) every Zimbabwean or b) every African everywhere.

I do not quite know what happened next. Something seemed to split my mind open.  The floor rushed rapidly upwards to meet me; out of the corner of my eye I saw Harry rushing anxiously towards me.  I opened my mouth to say something.  There was this dark pit.  I was falling gently into it.  A tiny star erupted and the flying sparks of its minute explosion and the overpowering smell of blood woke me hours later.  My head seemed encased in a fiendish ice-hold; but when I explored with my hand, ripping off the bandages and feeling around the wet stinging wound, it was only the cold cold stitches they had used on the gash.  Stitches enough to weave webs from the one wall of my mind to the wall of the House of Hunger.

Marechera’s knack for surprise and ambush would be the envy of any airport thriller writer, yet here it’s entirely divorced from plot.  Surprise is managed in a way that I don’t know how to explain or what exactly to compare it to—it’s just genuinely unexpected.  The House of Hunger shocked me, not because it brought me the news about some bit of brutality or another—literature from every continent and era has made that more or less routine—but because I was shocked by the words on the page, the book in my hands.  Marechera seemed to be coming at me with everything, yet with an enormous artistry.  His life seemed to be at stake in his words and, while I was reading, so did mine


Drew Johnson’s fiction has appeared in Harper’s, the Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, Swink, and StoryQuarterly and was cited in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009. Against his better judgment, he is working on a novel set partly in the Hindu Kush. More from this author →