The unnamed narrator-protagonist of Harare North arrives in London with £4 in his pocket, planning to stay just long enough to earn the $5000 necessary to buy him out of his troubles back home in Zimbabwe. He has no notion of what to expect from life in the UK, but is absurdly, comically confident in his ability to get on. He takes all the challenges he encounters in his stride, but his eventual failure is not difficult to predict. He makes the wrong choice at every juncture, incapable of adapting and surviving.
This immigrant’s tale has many distressing elements to it; elements that, in their untempered state might lead one to despair at the state of the world and turn away from the ugly truths Brian Chikwava presents. The treatment the narrator receives at the hands of his illegal employers; the racism of local children; the lack of support within the immigrant community, even between family members; all these are enough to make Harare North a very depressing read. But Chikwava skilfully resists the temptation of didacticism, substituting humour in its place. His clueless, clownish narrator fails to rail against the system because it is beyond his intellectual reach to do so; the asylum seeker’s foolishness providing much-needed comic relief and distracting the reader from the painful realities of the illegal immigrant experience.
Chikwava’s coup was to have his narrator tell his story in patois, thus giving him an entirely authentic voice, albeit one that is less accessible to readers used to Standard English. Such is the success of the narrative voice, it is almost impossible to imagine the protagonist speaking any other way, but in fact Chikwava completed his first draft of Harare North in Standard English. He found however that it ‘wasn’t a cloak that hung comfortably on the character’ and ‘read very stilted’. The result is a prose that is foreign-sounding but also familiar, simplistic but powerfully evocative: a story the narrator intends to tell a friend will make him ‘go kak kak kak kak!’ (p. 12); hunger-induced light-headedness makes him ‘shiver like the winds. My skin look like that of chicken, but I’m not chicken’ (p. 122). Like the father of African literature in English Chinua Achebe, Chikwava draws liberally on proverbs to conjure up the imagination of the African sensibility: ‘When the past always tower over you like a mother of children of darkness’, the narrator says, ‘all you can do it hide under she skirt’ (p. 75).
By using patois Chikwava follows in the footsteps of writers such as Ken Saro-Wiwa and Sam Selvon, who both use it to symbolise the distance separating the protagonists from their contexts, whether that be in the midst of brutal civil war at home in Nigeria as in Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy or the Jamaican immigrant experience of Selvon’s Lonely Londoners.
Sozaboy is a particularly apt comparison in the light of what Chikwava’s narrator admits about his deluded involvement with the green bombers, Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF youth militia. Both boys, Saro-Wiwa’s Mene, and Chikwava’s protagonist, are taken in by the rhetoric of patriotism and power, victims of a regime far cleverer than they are. But while Mene has no way of learning the truth of his situation, the narrator of Harare North has ample opportunity to hear a more balanced view of the political situation in his homeland. It is striking how tenaciously he clings to the ideas instilled in him, refusing to believe the horrors that are reported about the actions of Mugabe’s party. Chikwava doesn’t condone his narrator’s views by giving him any sort of complex, reasoned argument, but occasionally there comes an almost throw-away line intended to open our eyes to the difficulties of understanding and representing a system not our own: ‘Me I want to know what give some BBC the right to dismiss them presidents of one whole continent just like that?’ (p. 123).
With the British National Party’s recent successes in the European elections bringing immigration policy and British attitudes to asylum seekers back to the forefront of debate, Harare North could not be published at a more apposite time. Chikwava’s first full-length work (his short fiction has been awarded prizes including the 2004 Caine Prize for African Writing) offers a fresh and humorous approach to a sensitive and knotty subject that is in more need of intelligent discussion than ever before.