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Dambudzo Marechera and The House of Hunger

Dambudzo Marechera and The House of Hunger

Picture of April McCallum
Updated: 12 October 2016
Renowned for his rebellious streak, in his short and turbulent life Dambudzo Marechera broke through boundaries in African literature and pioneered a particularly pugnacious style of writing that reflected his lifestyle.

Marechera’s debut The House of Hunger is as much a product of being down and out in Oxford, sleeping rough, being beaten up by thugs and policeman alike and struggling with alcoholism, as it is of the Rhodesia it describes. Marechera studied at Oxford and dressed like a dandy affecting a posh English accent, yet drank and fought outside pubs and railed against the authority of his professors. Forever an outsider, extrovert and trouble maker the tough years spent homeless after being diagnosed with schizophrenic together with his poverty stricken township childhood combined to inform the searing brutality of the semi-autobiographical The House of Hunger.

The ‘hunger’ of the book’s title does not refer only to the literal starvation which was ravaging post-independent Zimbabwe at the time. Rather it implies a more far reaching and metaphorical hunger of the soul – the vacuous yearning and emptiness within the national consciousness, aspiring for more but held back by poverty and corruption. The cynical and satirical vision of humanity exhibited within the book, is sadly a product of the world he saw around him. Equally, the book’s instant acclaim (he won the 1979 Guardian prize for First Fiction award) propelled him into the world of literary celebrity but rather than saving him, his spiral of self destruction continued and he saw nothing but hypocrisy in the celebration of his own work.

Though such destructive and alarming cynicism is obviously tragic and disturbing within so young and talented a man, it is what fuels the narrative of The House of Hunger. Previous literary output from Zimbabwe had been fairly conservative and writing as brave and avant-garde as Marechera’s had not yet been seen, nor was replicated with such strength by the many young writers who attempted to take up his mantle when he died. His style is characterized by anger and an aversion to all forms of authority, including that of narrative control which lends weight to his experimental prose nature, as does the tragedy of his restless and explosive life story.