Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Brian Chikwava - Harare North (Jonathan Cape 2009)

When he lands in Harare North (a curious moniker for London), our unnamed protagonist carries nothing but a cardboard suitcase full of memories and an email address for his childhood friend, Shingi. Finessing his way through immigration, he spends a few restless weeks as the very unwelcome guest in his cousin's home before tracking down Shingi in a Brixton squat. In this debut, Caine Prize winner Brian Chikwava tackles head-on the realities of life as a refugee. Written in pidgin English and conversationally African, this story is narrated by a storyteller who uncovers a dark history and a darker heart as his desperation and confidence grows. He pushes himself to extremes exerting his power over his peers at every opportunity. Aleck, Tsitsi and Shingi, his housemates soon cower to his power as he strives to shift the power balance. He belonged to the Green Berets before moving to the UK and this scares them. His ambivalence and defence of Mugabe, his clouded politics and his guarded nature all make him an untrustworthy narrator, capable of doing anything to get what he wants, including blackmailing his cousin’s wife to extract money from her when he finds earning money through cash in hand jobs (called ‘graft’ here) doesn’t scale him up the economic rankings fast enough. He slowly uncovers his history in Zimbabwe and his reasons for being in the UK. We are painted a bleak picture of London, similar to the underclass-masterclass of ‘Dirty Pretty Things’. We see squat-living, desperation and the practicalities of refugees and asylum-seekers, vilified at every opportunity by Daily Mail and other papers. Here we see their human side, and there isn’t a human emotion more eloquent and sad than desperation. Chikwava’s style is mystifying in places, all delivered in a pidgin-English lingo that is awkward and clunky and sometimes impenetrable to the point where strands of naarative get lost. It’s a brave device though as you are immersed in the nameless protagonist’s world and oyu have to trust his thoughts, views, stories and justifications for every act he perpetrates to get what he wants. We are given a dark, often hilarious, political and ultimately moving piece of socio-economic writing about London’s underbelly and the asylum-seekers, refugees, immigrants and ethnics that inhabit its bottom rung.

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