“The other thing I remember clearly from my childhood is a huge dog staring at me from the enclosed back seat of a car…Its eyes were black and clear. It was a clearness without any depth to it and this made me automatically trust it…And as it pressed against the window and let its great eyes pierce into me I irresistibly put out my hand to open the door for it to be free. The instant the door noiselessly clicked the beast, growing, rushed its massive weight against the door and was upon me with its bared fangs.”
Dambudzo Marechara’s story, The House of Hunger, is one of the most profound portraits of absolute poverty written in the English language, though not the most accessible. Where Dickens shrouded poverty in narrative, humor, and complex dialog, Marechera was biting and vulgar. Dickens wrote with an overarching hopefulness that good people, the gentlemen of English society, would one day repair the cruel, endless poverty that afflicted 19th century Manchester. Similarly, Steinbeck told about the grinding poverty of the Great Depression in the United States and filled his narratives with optimism that by sticking together the poorest itinerant workers would overcome desperation and scarcity. What Dickens and Steinbeck lacked was the painful confusion poverty engenders—the harsh deprivation that abolishes moral sense and makes even the near future seem a remote possibility. Marechera’s writing mummifies the reader in existential deprivation. Dickens’s highest value was redemption. Steinbeck’s was survival. Marechera’s was escape—escape through education, emigration, insanity, death.
The House of Hunger has no overarching narrative. Instead it’s a stream of confusing, horrific vignettes. It’s a story that confuses its characters and readers equally, then equally kills them.
My experience with the degree of poverty Marechara described lasted only 16 months, and it happened when my brain was still young enough to adapt. The nature of poverty is violence. Poverty is violence—relentless violence waged by civil society and the state against its own citizens. The targets are random, arbitrary, unsuspecting. That’s the point, actually.
At one point Marechera tells the tale of a magnificently successful whore. She catered to white Rhodesians and wealthy tourists, including famous men from the developed world. She was willing to perform any sexual act, no matter how degrading or fecund. She became pregnant in the course of her work, and bore a child in the dirt by a muddy river. She washed the child and herself in the filthy stream, a kind of baptism. She worked her profession while the child grew up. Her job eventually provided her with early retirement in a lavish home filled with opulent decor and souveniers left by her clientele. When the narrator and a friend show up to beat the woman’s son over an affair with the friend’s lover, she first scolds the adolescent, and then orders them to carry out the beating in the basement. She snidely converses with the narrator in her living room while the angry cuckold beats her son nearly to death downstairs. Her wealth and earned status cannot shield her from the society she was born into.
Marechera later describes the dog attack. Its imagery is distinct and brutal. The purity and appeal of the dog is reminiscent of Melville’s White Whale or Lovecraft’s tentacled Cthulhu. After the dog sets itself on the child the reader is left wondering how the attack ended. Who saved the child? Was the dog distracted? Was the child bitten only once, or visciously attacked? The answer isn’t hard to know but the knowing isn’t easy. Of course the child was mauled to death. This may be Marechera’s most powerful image of the violence that poverty is—a simple minded, sinless, domesticated monster mauling a child to death in a dirt parking lot. No adults who would care to intervene, no gods or superheros. Death, bloody and ruthless.
Dambudzo himself escaped, as he states in the first sentence: “I got my things and left.” His novels and story collections sold well throughout the West, particularly in the UK. They earned him enough that if he chose he could have lived well in a European city or in Harare. Dickens did this, living in wealthy areas of London and in the countryside when he became successful. Steinbeck similarly moved from rural California to New York City. But Dickens never stopped suffering from his childhood poverty, just as Steinbeck never stopped seeing the pain of the poverty he observed and experienced. The same was true of Marechera. The poverty and violence of his childhood engendered patterns of emotion, thought, and action that never left him. In fact, he came to embrace them. He lived homeless in London, Hamburg, and Harare almost his entire adult life.
The story collection of which the House of Hunger is part ends with a tale called Dread in Harare. In it, Marechera explains that Babylon isn’t a geographic place; it’s a thing that lives within each person. It can’t be escaped, only rebelled against. Rebel until there’s nothing left to rebel with, and maybe live free and happy for a burst of time somewhere between birth and death.
In 1987, in the hospital in Harare, Marechera died from pneumocystis pneumonia, a complication of AIDS. He was 35 years old. I feel aches of dread and hope when I consider it: Just like the rich whore, the child mauled to death, and Charles Dickens, he never overcame the Babylon inside him—but he never stopped rebelling against it.
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