Arriving at Gatwick airport from Zimbabwe, Brian Chikwava's unnamed narrator flashes the "toothy grin of friendly African native" and mouths the magic word – asylum. Hey presto, he is in a detention centre. Released some days later, he carries only a cardboard suitcase and the equivalent of £4 with which to begin what he hopes will be a temporary stay in Harare North – as London is termed, being the destination of choice of many expatriate Zimbabweans.
At first the 21-year-old veteran of Mugabe's fearsome Green Bombers youth militia - the "boys of the jackal breed" who mete out fatal "forgiveness" to perceived enemies of the state - relies on the grudging hospitality of relatives who don't share his dubious loyalties. He has come to Britain reluctantly: his aim is only to graft like mad to earn $5000 to pay off his debts, buy himself out of trouble with the police and meet family commitments.
Eventually he tracks down his maverick schoolfriend Shingi, whom he joins in a squat in Brixton with other luckless Zimbabweans struggling to better themselves and keep from going under by using every trick in the book. Teenage Tsitsi, for instance, rents out her baby to women posing as single mothers to apply for council flats.
Life is precarious. The shadow of the immigration people looms everywhere, employers take advantage of those without the right papers, and Shingi begins to talk of fake EU passports. Survival is a matter of using your wits and learning how to negotiate identity. In a foreign place, "who you are and your place in the world suddenly become as easy to see as any goat's tail," observes the narrator. Meanwhile, as the political situation in Zimbabwe deteriorates, the dispatches home paint an increasingly misleading picture of fortunes in Harare North. Can tragedy be far away?
Chikwava has the talent to find lightness and comedy in the darkest desperation, drawing humour even out of wretchedness. He is particularly good at the unexpected perspective of newly-arrived outsiders confronted by English mores. Clearly, the quiet faces of Londoners hiding behind newspapers on trains and buses mask many a big traitor ready to slaughter their royalty like swine, evidenced by the names of pubs – apart from the Hog's Head, the King's Arms and Queen's Head obviously commemorate their dismembered monarchs. If Chikwava's anti-hero is out of step with his fellow-refugees, he feels no more kinship with other "Africans in they colourful ethnic clothes... Many of them is also lapsed Africans because they have live in London from the time when it was OK to kill kings, queens and pigs."
Winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2004, and subsequently a fellow at the University of East Anglia, the versatile Brian Chikwava (he is also a musician) is indeed a find. Occasionally among novelists one comes across a voice so distinctive – whether a James Kelman or an Earl Lovelace or a Sam Selvon - that it grips in an unforgettable way.
For me, Chikwava looks set to be in that category. From first page to last, the vernacular narrative of Harare North is arresting, haunting, exciting, funny. Come to this novel with an open mind and, as well as giving you much to ponder about the nature of right and wrong, exile and belonging, it will surely make you go kak kak kak.
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