Harare North
Brian Chikwava
(Vintage/Random House)
We never learn his name. We only know that he is a young man from Zimbabwe and that he got into England by flying in and then petitioning for amnesty. Like many immigrants from Africa, he settles in a poorer part of London. He moves in with his old friend Shingi in Brixton.

He spends his time looking for "graft" (work) and quickly picks up on tricks needed to survive as an immigrant. For example, his housemate Tsitsi has a baby boy that she rents out to other immigrant women "to apply for council flats as single mothers."

    For £50, any woman can take Tsitsi's baby to the Lambeth Housing Department and play out to be a single mother, fill them forms and take baby back to salon as soon as she have been interview.

He also learns how to keep what little money he has. He spends much of his time in Brixton between jobs sitting on his suitcase and smoking. In the suitcase is £1,745 he made working in a fish-and-chips shop and bumming meals from his housemates.

§     §     §

This is a picaresque novel like Lazarillo de Tormes or Kim or Huck Finn.(The word "picaro" is roughly translated as "scamp" or "rascal.") It is also, like Huck Finn, a "dialect" novel. Unlike most such novels, Chikwava knows just how much impenetrable vocabulary the reader will put up with, and before long, we are there with him in that squat in Brixton, worrying about whether the immigration police will be breaking down the door, and whether any of them will come up with another "graft."

At times, the language positively sings, which is part of the joy of Harare North. One day, our narrator decides that he wants "no bad air inside our house," so he brings home a bottle of vodka. The "landlord," Aleck, stands around "not knowing what to do and being like district administrator that want to taste the villagers' brew that is passing around in calabash but don't know how to join in the group because he is now big important man." So they pour Aleck a shot, then another, then another.

    This time we clap like you do when some minister has just cut the ribbon to open some new building or something. All of us is all toothy mouths as I pour Mister Aleck another.

Or this on the English language: "It's not accident that 'skill' and 'slaughter' start with a crooked letter."

    Every jackal boy know that too. Remove the crooked touch from each of them those two words and suddenly you kill laughter.

Our unnamed hero turns out to be a thorough picaresque scoundrel. When his friend Shingi gets beaten up on the night streets of London, he pops open his suitcase and steals the letters and the money that have been secreted there.

His cousin Sekai and her husband Paul live in a classy neighborhood, far from Brixton ... and during a visit, our hero discovers that Sekai --- she works as a nurse in a London hospital --- has a new lover, a Russian doctor, Yakov. "Poor Paul," he says, "he doesn't know that he is pounding front bum that have already be thief by this pointy-headed Rasputin." He then embarks on a relentless blackmail of Sekai, demanding payments to get him back to Zimbabwe.

Some of this is over my head: the references to Zimbabwe and comrades who are "Green Bombers" under Robert Mugabawe are beyond understanding. But the final pages of Harare North turn deliciously spooky as our hero drives everyone else from the squat, becomes obsessed with a rat in the kitchen, tears up the floorboards seeking the beast, and writes letters to the "Ancient & Honourable Society of Rat Catchers:"

    Me I give detail of everything that is about to start in the house because some of my plane ticket money is in danger of being eat now. Now I feel cold like I start to catch fever, so I wear my twelve-pocket coat and sit on floor by the window to finish writing letter.

Reviewers in the English press have called this book "hilarious" and "witty," but the denouement is an extended mad scene right out of Brönte or Tennessee Williams. One longs to return to the earlier, merrier parts of Harare North, such as the letter our hero sends back to Shingi's family in Zimbabwe (pretending he is Shingi, although Shingi is dying in a nearby hospital). We have an excellent portrait of the picaresque master ... along with a touch of his coming slide into lunacy:

    Dear Mother:

    Time and ability plus double capacity have force my pen to dance automatically on this paper. I hope this letter find you in good health, if so, doxology...

    Me I have good news. My long time here now pay me back. I'm confirm to you that I now work for the House of Commons. It is House of Parliament here. Tell Aunt MaiAngirayi. Me I see important people. Even the prime minister. Maybe now you can say that you is mother of Member of Parliament!

    Me I love you spontaneous and as I sit perpendicular to the ground and parallel to the wall I only think of you, since you is good mother even if you are not my real mother. I love you more than my shoes love my feet. I will send pair of top-notch English shoes.

    Me I have to pen-off here because I have to cook.

    Yours faithfully, your son.

--- Deb Das
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