The House Of Hunger's Opening Lines: A Sentence Balancing Optimism Against Hope

When Dambudzo Marechera published what would turn out to be his Magnus Opus in 1978, very few people could have guessed just how much impact his debut book would go on to have. Consisting of one novella and nine short stories, The House of Hunger has proved to be one of the most significant works of African literature, even winning the prestigious Guardian Fiction Prize the year after its publication.

Aside from being praised for its distinctive style and stark, burning depiction of life in the slums of post-independent Zimbabwe at the time, the opening line of the titular story- ‘I got my things and left’- has been described by legendary writer, Helen Habila as ‘the coolest opening line in African fiction’; an assessment that I cannot help but agree with.

But Marechera’s opening line is more than just ‘cool’, for in those six words, he managed to deliver one of the most loaded opening sentences in the history of African literature, the significance of which can only be appreciated when you consider the circumstances surrounding the writing of the book.

His country, Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), was going through one of the most turbulent periods in its existence; the Rhodesian Bush wars, a conflict between the country’s black majority and its predominantly white ruling minority, was picking up. Violence, poverty, and discrimination were rife. And there was Marechera himself, impoverished and eccentric, bouncing erratically across schools and countries, unable to settle properly into any group because of his notoriously disruptive nature and his vocal and often violent opposition to authorities wherever he went. It is even believed that he wrote some of the stories in The House of Hunger on park benches after being repeatedly kicked out of hostels and apartments by exasperated school officials and irritated landlords. It was in the throes of these chaotic conditions that his debut work was birthed.

In The House of Hunger, he tried to paint a picture of the intense despair, the bleakness, and the harsh crudity of his life and that of his country. To do this, he chose to begin his work with a sentence reflective of the intense frustration and resignation of a character who realizes that his situation is never going to change. To survive (or perhaps escape), he must ‘get his bags and leave’.

Only Marechera was not just an incorrigible pessimist. He wasn’t only running away from problems he considered insurmountable- he was also running towards something or someplace he believed to be a solution, towards something or someplace he hoped would lead to a better life. It is that faint optimism that is represented in the sentence directly following the first line- ‘ the sun was coming up.’

By writing his opening two sentences the way he did, Marechera not only sets the tone of his book but also places its message in tight balance. The House of Hunger would go on to be a grimly honest work about the severely vile conditions of life in Harare slums in the 70s; it was a work that would divide critics but strike a chord in everyone who read it.

But the opening lines subtly tell us that this is a work about a poor, desperate person unwilling to stew in hunger and misery, a person brave and optimistic enough to venture in search of a reprieve, no matter how elusive it seems, even if he ‘couldn’t think where to go…’

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