What makes Brian Chikwava’s 2009 debut novel Harare North so extraordinary is that as a reader you end up embracing his unnamed narrator, who is not only a pro-Mugabe supporter but a killer too. It’s a mark of Chikwava’s skill as a writer that he has crafted an unforgettable voice novel driven by an unreliable and mesmerising narrator, a rewarding follow-up to the promise of his short story Seventh Street Alchemy, which won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2004. Chikwava then began Harare North during a fellowship in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.
When comrade turns on comrade in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, even the patriots have to beat a hasty path to the UK, from where they lick their wounds and begin a new life. Chikwava’s narrator arrives in Brixton (known as ‘Harare North’ to its burgeoning Zimbabwean expat community) with nothing but a single suitcase and a burning need to raise money through whatever means it takes. “No one bother to give me proper tips before I come to England. So on arriving at Gatwick airport I disappoint them immigration people because when I step forward to hand my passport to gumchewing man sitting behind desk, I mouth the magic word – asylum – and flash toothy grin of friendly African native. They detain me.”
He lives in a squat brimming with refugees in various states of desperation and spends much of his time reminiscing about his days in the ‘Green Bombers’ (Mugabe’s youth militia). When he discovers that his understanding of the motives that drive the political cause which he has sworn by is as thin as his grasp of the reasons for his flight from Zimbabwe, his reality begins to unravel on the streets of London.
Harare North is the story of a stranger in a strange land muddling through a world which most locals would struggle to recognise. Chikwava exposes a sometimes terrifying and always challenging reality, and in doing so expertly manages to upend every misconception and expectation that his protagonist (and – by extension – his reader) has. Chikwava’s tale is of youthful naivety, self-deception and the duality of the self, but it is also unexpectedly hilarious. His narrator often draws attention to quips, anomalies and truths that shock, provoke and sparkle. Hopelessness and longing rise to unfathomable levels in this largely unfamiliar environment.
Written in an extraordinarily memorable style, Chikwava’s novel is as dazzling and darkly comic as it is unnerving. His narrator’s wholly convincing – yet, ultimately, deeply unreliable – voice drives the story onwards, resulting in what I think is one of the finest recent literary debuts.