Review: Paulina Chiziane’s “The First Wife: a Tale of Polygamy”

Statistics about polygamy are often inconsistent, depending on the source, but a realistic estimate is that about two billion people in the world today are polygamists, not quite a third of the world’s population. The majority of these people reside in Africa and the Middle East in, perhaps, 150 countries. Paulina Chiziane’s novel, The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy, was published in 2003, in Portuguese, in Mozambique, the writer’s birth country, where the practice is still widespread, though if Chiziane’s story is an accurate reflection on the practice, women are slowly rebelling, refusing to be the second, third, fourth, or fifth wife of a man—no matter how wealthy he is and how successful he may be in supporting all those wives (and their multiple children).

Rami, the narrator of Chiziane’s burdened story, has been married for twenty years to Tony, and born him five children. She’s his first wife, and he’s become fairly invisible in recent years, visiting her only occasionally. She knows that he’s taken younger women, and when she finally gathers enough strength to confront one of them, they physically fight, and in the strange aftermath Rami discovers that she is not the only unhappy woman Tony has left for another. The second wife knows of a third wife; the third reveals a fourth; and, eventually, the fourth reveals a fifth. Even that wife knows of still another woman currently involved with Tony, who is the city’s chief of police, a position that presumably is lucrative enough for him to support all of these women and their sixteen children.

That’s a large number of people involved, and the writer’s point is that these women are not alone. Rami observes, barely a few pages into her story, “In my street, most women have been abandoned, their husbands decided to get out almost at the same firstwifetime.” Of her own situation, she laments, “My life is a dead river.” Julieta, the second wife, will describe her situation this way: “He stuffed me full of children and then left.” Their statements about polygamy are almost totally negative, including these: “Polygamy is a fishing net that has been cast into the sea. In order to catch women of all types…. Polygamy is a solitary howl under the full moon…. Polygamy is an army of children, lots of half brothers and sisters growing up happy, innocent, future reproducers of the ideals of polygamy…. Polygamy is being a woman and suffering until the cycle of violence begins.”

Tony has abused all of these women, who have been left to fend for themselves after he and other men have abandoned them for the next one. Collectively, their encounters with men have included rape, forced marriage to old men when they were still preadolescent, and sold for sex on street corners. All are worn out, but being women in a polygamous society has left them with few options. Only Rami has a modicum of stability since hers is the only legitimate marriage among the six identified women, though she—like the others—has developed a totally negative attitude toward men that might be summed up as follows: “In love, all men are betrayers.”

Chiziane also suggests that colonialism (Mozambique was a Portuguese colony with a significant European population) has contributed to the circularity of women’s abuse: “The string always breaks at its weakest point. It’s the cycle of subordination. The white man says to the black man: it’s your fault. The rich man says to the poor man: it’s your fault. The man says to the woman: it’s your fault. The woman says to her son: it’s your fault. The son says to the dog: it’s your fault. The dog barks furiously and bites the white man and the white man, once again angrily shouts at the black man: it’s your fault. And so the wheel turns century after century ad infinitum.”

The First Woman is an encyclopedia of ills inflicted on women by men. Thus “polygamous love” is this: “To have a man in your arms while he yearns for another. You wash the gentleman, darn his socks and underpants, polish the heels of his shoes, pamper him, make him smell nice, so that he can look good in front of other women. Loving a polygamist is to chew pain by way of nourishment, to fill your belly by swallowing your saliva. Loving a polygamist is an endless wait. Endless despair.”

The novel is much longer than it needs to be. The story that Chiziane unfolds is repetitive to the point of extremity. And yet, in this lengthy diatribe, there is an escape that is provided at least for Tony’s six women: economic freedom. It takes a while for that to be achieved by all of them—and, sadly, such freedom may not be possible for many women living under polygamy—but Rami and Tony’s other wives realize that if they can support one another, instead of being jealous of each other, an opportunity will be presented for their freedom from a man who has been adept at keeping them unaware of one another and, thus, creating anger about women instead of men.

Thus, the lengthy prognosis for alleviating women’s domination under polygamy has a clear solution. It’s women who must act and take their lives into their own hands because men—as in virtually every situation involving women—are never going to fight for change. They’re perfectly content with the status quo.

Paulina Chiziane: The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy

Trans by David Brookshaw

Archipelago, 494 pp., $18

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.