With its title, “The Death of Rex Nhongo” suggests a nod to classic crime fiction. Yet this is no ordinary mystery where clues are laid, suspects assembled and the identity of a killer is ultimately exposed.
Instead, quiet tales of domestic breakdown are strung on a thread of psychological suspense that tightens around the title character’s death. Rex Nhongo was the nom de guerre of Solomon Mujuru, a former independence warrior and a key figure in Zimbabwe’s political landscape. In real life, Mujuru had a turbulent career as a powerful army general, who would later challenge Robert Mugabe’s influence within ZANU, the Zimbabwe African National Union. Mujuru’s death remains controversial to this day, with some suggesting that Mugabe ordered a hit on his opponent. Burned beyond recognition, Mujuru’s body was found in his Alamein farmhouse not far from Harare.
So begins C.B. George’s cleverly plotted, suspenseful new novel. But we learn nothing about Rex Nhongo or who his enemies may have been — why gunshots were heard at the farmhouse or why Nhongo’s death was deemed an accident when he died in a fireproof home with multiple means of egress. And there is no overarching explanation of the current state of Zimbabwean politics.
That’s just as well, as the novel quickly settles into a deft commentary on the nuances of race and culture in a politically corrupt post-colonial society. A character named Jerry sums up one variant of this post-colonial thought: “What was it about the white people in this country, foreign and local alike, that made them profess their love of the place, before complaining about its horrors and then, finally, sanctifying their various roles in its redemption?” The push and pull of race relations and of privilege vs. economic deprivation are found in the simpler moments of everyday life: at mixed dinner parties, in the cost of airtime for a mobile phone or of gasoline to run a taxi, and in the paradoxical necessity of lifesaving/life-ending prostitution.
As we consider these unvarnished realities, we become aware of a weapon that is quietly present throughout: the gun that may or may not be associated with Rex Nhongo’s death. This mystery begins when a taxi driver named Patson takes on a fare he hopes will rapidly forget him: Mandiveyi, a dead-eyed intelligence officer, who leaves his gun under the seat of Patson’s taxi. From there, the gun will weave its way through the lives of several other couples, who differ wildly from each other in origin, outlook, race and socioeconomic status.
Jerry and April are Britons stationed in Zimbabwe’s capital city of Harare. April holds a steady embassy job that enables her to look down on the locals. Jerry, without a work permit, ends up volunteering as a nurse rather than struggling through the obfuscations of Zimbabwe’s permit system.
It turns out that Patson is also Jerry’s occasional, unreliable driver, a man who appears to be living out the dog days of his marriage to Fadzai, a practical woman who runs her own moderately successful kitchen. Fadzai’s brother, Gilbert, is a charismatic intellectual from the countryside hoping to wheel and deal his way through the big city, placing more stock in philosophy than in the hard-bitten lessons of his country’s history. Gilbert is still in the stages of a blissful affection for his wife, who works with a head-down steadiness as Jerry and April’s maid, completing a tiny, troubling circle that is soon to spiral out of control.
“The Death of Rex Nhongo” paints a somber picture of the minor degradations and inarticulate sorrows of married life. Everyone in the story attempts to pass on risk to everyone else. The gun left in Patson’s taxi is a deadly piece of evidence, implicating and endangering anyone who comes across it. Through the author’s careful crafting of plausible scenarios, we understand the gun may fall into anyone’s possession at any moment — through loose talk, as a means of defense, by the deliberate attempt to trace it or simply through the random vagaries of life.
As marriages break apart and re-form on the tides of survival in Zimbabwe, we can only speculate with horror as to which of these characters’ lives will be destroyed by the presence of the gun. Perhaps that’s the point. In this painfully resonant story we see the absurd fragility of our own humanity.
By C.B. George
Lee Boudreaux. 311 pp. $26