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Characters linked by mysterious death in Zimbabwe

13/08/2016 00:00:00
by Winpeg Free Press

THERE are mysteries and then there are mysteries in the fascinating, multilayered noel The Death of Rex Nhongo.

First: who is the author behind the bland-sounding pen name C.B. George — an author who has spent many years working throughout southern Africa but who now lives in London? Britain’s Spectator newspaper reports George is keeping his identity secret for "personal reasons".

The second mystery: George has no apparent publishing history, yet this book is not billed as a debut and reads as if written by an experienced, sure hand. If it is a debut, it bodes well for George’s career.

Third is the mysterious 2011 death of the title’s real-life Rex Nhongo, the nom de guerre of Solomon Mujuru, the Zimbabwean general whose charred body was found in a farmhouse that was built to be fireproof. Shots were heard before the fire, but no gun was found.

The death was commonly believed to be political, as Mujuru was seen as President Robert Mugabe’s most credible challenger and likely successor.

It is that real-life death that links the fictional exploration of five linked and troubled marriages in the political, economic and moral bankruptcy of Zimbabwe’s police state.

British diplomat April and her husband Jerry, a nurse, speculate about the strange city outside their compound while enjoying barbecues around the pool and being waited on by African servants.

African-American Shawn has moved to Harare because his wife, Kuda, wanted to return to her homeland with their daughter Rosie. Oh, and he has dreams of becoming a gold smuggler.

Zimbabweans Patson, a taxi driver, and his wife, Fadzai, who runs a food stall, open their home to her brother, Gilbert, who has come to the big city because his wife, Bessie, is the live-in maid for April and Jerry.

Secret police officer Mandiveyi loses a gun in Patson’s taxi — perhaps the missing gun — and becomes a drinking buddy of Jerry. While we learn little of Mandiveyi’s home life, we do know the aftermath of the missing gun costs him his marriage and his mistress.


There is little description in the novel of Zimbabwe itself, as George hones in on the characters as their lives intermingle through adultery, domestic service, expat parties and hand-to-mouth labour. He has an eye for the kind of detail that brings a character to life.

George also has a keen eye for the white colonial attitude that doesn’t easily change just because Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe. Jerry describes "the typical expat: hapless victim of cheap child care, boredom and burgeoning self-importance."

The author captures the interlopers’ innate sense of entitlement that allows them to operate in an environment they can neither understand nor really tolerate, so they try to recreate a stereotype of home. Anyone for tennis?

The Zimbabweans Patson and Fadzai, and Gilbert and Bessie, while living lives of poverty and uncertainty, shine compared to the condescending, greedy Brits and American.

As Gilbert says as he plans to return to his home village with Bessie and become a farmer, "I will be the best poor African I can be."

For Zimbabweans surrounded by political turmoil and economic uncertainty, everyday life still goes on. It has to.

Not all characters get their due, but overall they are well-crafted, each with their own strains in life to deal with, and each viewed from their own perspective.

As their lives intermix, they move inexorably towards tragedy. It is a strong, character-driven novel in which individuals try to beat the odds stacked against them.

Anyway, whoever you are, C.B. George — first-time author? Established writer? Screenwriter? — may you be busy at your keyboard writing another novel.

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