In The Death of Rex Nhongo, C. B. George pretty much gets the chaos and corruption of Zimbabwe’s recent years down pat. It’s a maddening place to live, rife with murder and violence, though the elite are buffered from the worst of daily living. Robert Mugabe is still in power and likely to remain so for at least another fifty years—defying, one might say, the gravity of politics. Westerners are exasperated by his incredible staying power. How can the murderous henchmen and his flunkies stay in power? Years ago a white Zimbabwean said to me, “Europeans don’t know how to deal with African dictators.” I think she had it right. C. B. George’s novel gets the politics right but less so some of his international cast of characters.
Rex Nhongo was the nom de guerre for General Solomon Mujura, a hero of Zimbabwe’s Independence war. His wife, Joice Mujuru, was Mugabe’s Vice President and assumed heir should he ever die. Joice was given to making statements that she’d like to go out a kill a few white people, which should have kept her in Mugabe’s inner circle, but because of rampant infighting in ZANU-PF (the controlling party), others wanted her job and her husband was murdered. Ironically, he was killed at “Alamein, a farmhouse in Beatrice, about forty minutes” outside of Harare. He got his just desserts there on property of a white landowner, taken over by Mugabe’s government. “His body was burned to a state in which his remains could be identified only through dental records.” This was August 20ll. The autopsy released in March of 2012 said the cause of his death was smoke inhalation, but everyone knew that Rex Nhongo had been murdered, presumably shot, as the first move against his wife, Joice. In a two-page preface to his novel, George summarizes the events cited in this paragraph. Then he moves into his own story, which begins a few days after Nhongo’s death.
The publishers make the claim that The Death of Rex Nhongo is structurally similar to the movie, Crash. That’s true, because of the randomness of the events and characters whose lives might not automatically place them together were it not for these events. For example, a Zimbabwean taxi-driver, named Patson, discovers a gun in the back of his vehicle late one night after he picks up a man who works for the country’s murderous CIO (Central Intelligence Organization). In a country where guns are not as readily available as candy as they are in the United States, this becomes a problem for Patson. What can he do with it, namely how can he dispose of it? Will the man who left it there (a first-time rider in his taxi) recognize Patson if he sees him again? Will he begin searching for the taxi-driver? The gun will appear as a source of conflict for Patson, the CIO operative, and others throughout the story, rendering havoc for several of the novel’s characters.
The taxi offers any number of possibilities because of the randomness of pick-ups, though one of Patson’s most frequent customers relies on him so frequently that he calls the driver when he needs him, more or less daily. That man, Jerry, is the husband of a woman, named April, a British diplomat who works in the local embassy. Jerry’s a nurse by profession, though unemployed because Zimbabwe has denied him a work permit. There are other expatriates, such as an African American, named Shawn, who has brought his Zimbabwean wife back to her family because she has been suffering from psychological issues. Shawn needs a job also and is willing to work with shady characters in the country’s mining industry, rife with corruption and mostly a cash cow for Mugabe and his henchmen.
Inevitably these and other characters, plus their spouses and members of their extended families, are drawn together. I had a bit of a credibility problem with Shawn and his wife’s eight-year-old daughter, Rosie, who seems worldly beyond her years, spooky, even demonic. She has an invisible friend and qualities similar to the bad-child in numerous Western novels. She enjoys inflicting violence on others. Her mother’s family wants to have her undergo an exorcism, so there are the added tensions of African vs. Western traditional religious/healing systems.
I confess that I don’t understand what all of this is supposed to add up to. Was the gun that appeared in Patson’s car previously used to murder Rex Nhongo? I ask that because none of the expatriates are linked to Nhongo or concerned about his death. There is the following observation that appears late in the novel: “Mandiyevi [the CIO operative] knows that the West loves to report every radical and anti-imperialist statement emanating from the Zimbabwean government almost as much as the Zimbabwean government loves to see them reported—a mutually beneficial exercise that allows each side to retain a moral high ground above local political slurry.”
And Joice, Joice Mujuru in case you’ve forgotten about her? What about her?
Well, June 2nd, the day I finished reading C. B. George’s novel, The New York Times ran a front-page article about the lovely lady. She’s been expelled from Mugabe’s political party, and after keeping out of the limelight for some time, “Ms. Mujuru sees a political opening, vowing to take power as president in the 2018 election under the banner of her own party, Zimbabwe People First.”
In Zimbabwe, people have never been first.
B. George: The Death of Rex Nhongo
Little, Brown, 320 pp., $26