South of the river

Harare North

By Brian Chikwava

Just as Jacob Polley does in Talk of the Town, Brian Chikwava injects his reader into the mind of his protagonist with nothing but language. His character’s style is so distinctive and so natural that one feels what he feels. This is an altogether new kind of unreliable narrator, as the reader is forced to take the narrator’s viewpoint. And Chikwava’s subject matter only makes this more emotive. At a time when immigrants remain the folk devils for various problems in society, Chikwava’s novel forces you to be one.

His novel is Being John Malkovich, inspired by Polly Toynbee’s politics, drawn with poetry. We follow an unnamed man from Zimbabwe as he arrives in Brixton, south London to earn enough money to pay off his debts and start a new life back home. That the novel leaves his ambition unresolved is probably its most tragic but nevertheless realistic element. Elsewhere, the book has drugs, parasitic landlords and the baffling interfaces between clients of the welfare state and the authorities charged with helping them.

The entire affair is mesmerising, forcing this white, working/middle-class British professional into the mind of someone newly arrived in this fair country. It’s a kind of trippy response to all that reactive Daily Mail-style anti-immigrant propaganda.

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