Grant Hamilton reviews Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ’s captivating new novel.
Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, Unbury Our Dead with Song (Cassava Republic Press, 2021), pp.256.
“Tizita, light of my fire, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Ti-zi-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Ti. Zi. Ta.” Nabokov wrote of a passion that overwhelms, that recasts desire as seduction, that ultimately turns the predator into prey – and this is what the reader encounters in Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ’s new novel, Unbury Our Dead with Song.
The set-up is simple enough: John Thandi Manfredi, a journalist working for a low-end Kenyan newspaper, attends a Tizita competition at a spit-and-sawdust venue in Nairobi. Enthralled by a musical style that he says allowed him to see “the world in colour for the first time” (41), he embarks on a quest to learn everything that he can about the Tizita. His teachers are to be the four renowned singers taking to the stage at the competition.
First is “The Corporal,” an emotionally savaged soldier who sings through his experiences of war. Then comes “The Diva,” the glamorous superstar who enchants all with a voice that digs “deep into an abyss” (26). “The Taliban Man” is the young musical radical who struggles to bring new form, new breath to an ancient music genre born in the Ethiopian highlands. And lastly, there is “Miriam,” the world-wise elderly lady who serves drinks behind the bar.
Under the guise of writing a series of tabloid-style exposés, John interviews each singer in order to try to understand better the Tizita. It is in these conversations that the novel blooms into a beguiling, but also (and impressively so) unassuming, work of genuine merit. Along with John, the reader learns the historical, cultural, and philosophical significance of the Tizita.
From the Amharic, tizita translates to something like “memory,” “reminiscence,” or “nostalgia.” But it is the complex of emotions that describes these enigmatic concepts, the contours of the play of memory and experience, memory and life, which informs the composition of the Tizita.
Understood like this, John learns that the Tizita emerges from something deeper than music; it emerges from the very tenor of life itself. At its most profound, it holds the capacity to grant the listener rare access to the numinous. And it is within the numinous that life and death, separation and isolation, fear and regret, loss and defeat melt away to be replaced with a vital kinship that reminds the individual of their proper place within the cosmological force that we have come to call humanity. In this way, the Tizita plays the important role of reintroducing us to the restorative energy of simple human connection(s) – a beautiful message that many would do well to reflect on today.
The novel is not without its problems. There are unexplained and, for that, unconvincing alliances between certain characters. There is also a rather unbalanced engagement with each Tizita singer (John spends much longer talking with “The Diva” than he does any other character). However, none of this detracts from the skill and grace with which Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ writes of the music that overwhelms his narrator. Such is the mark of an outstanding writer. There is more to come from Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, and I look forward to it with great interest!
Unbury Our Dead with Song is a captivating novel, and one that adds significantly to the growing reputation of Cassava Republic Press.
Grant Hamilton is Associate Professor of English Literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He teaches and writes in the areas of twentieth-century world literature, African literature, and literary theory.