Black Sunlight By Dambudzo Marechera
A Literary Review

United States of America By: Jase Luttrell on 24 May 2010
Category: Books > Reviews Comments View Comments

I had no idea what I was in for when I picked up this novel. Would it be frustrating? Captivating? Engrossing? Catastrophic? I can definitively say that it was all of these qualities, many more, and certainly far fewer. If you're confused, I am too. But then that's the nature of reading stream-of-consciousness writings, especially from one of Zimbabwe's most unconventional authors.

Black Sunlight By Dambudzo MarecheraAs a reader, I find stream-of-consciousness writing fascinating; it can either be incredibly difficult to comprehend or it can be magnificently engrossing and captivating. Unfortunately, this style of writing is certainly not for everyone and can drastically limit the financial success of a book and, more significantly, can limit the message the author intends to convey. I have only read a handful of books that are written in this style so I am certainly no expert on the efficacy of stream-of-consciousness prose as a vehicle for expression. I know good stream of consciousness when I read it, most notably certain sections of House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski, which was terrifying, hypnotising, and fantastic. I appreciate how labyrinthine this writing style can be; it is disorienting but, when done properly and well, the puzzle pieces connect in a mesmerising and beautiful way. By comparison, Black Sunlight had very few of these qualities and was a struggle to read.

The novel focuses on a photojournalist named Christian whose life very nearly mirrors that of the book's author, Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera. Each chapter is a segment of Christian's life and some of these chapters coincide with others, while others are completely separate from the narrative. The first chapter introduces Christian as a captive of a native tribe, interspersed with the stories of his love/hate relationship with a character named Blanche Goodfather and his relationship with his childhood sweetheart Marie, who is blind. After his escape from the tribe - you're never really sure of how these events unfolded - you are then thrust into chapters of his relationship with Marie, his struggles at the University of Oxford in the UK, and ultimately his involvement with a terrorist group.

At some point in the narrative Christian is captured once again, this time by the leaders of a terrorist organisation named Black Sunlight, into which he is being initiated, though captured may not be the correct word because you're not really certain of what is going on. During his stay in the cave dwelling near the coast that serves as the base of operations for Black Sunlight it appears as though Christian is hallucinating as he meets himself in a dilapidated prison cell. This apparent illusion is the point at which Marechera espouses a significant amount of moral and ethical statements, which I will discuss shortly. Some friends who are members of Black Sunlight, including Marie, then rescue Christian and yet it appears by this point that he is now a member of Black Sunlight.

In a later chapter, Christian is part of an act of terrorism as he helps Black Sunlight detonate explosives in the business district of a city. He photographs the destruction and sends it off to the publication he works for to earn a living wage. After a revelatory and descriptive orgy with the friends who rescued him, the final chapter is a long diatribe of philosophical inquiries and wanderings, ranging from Prometheus to notable Jewish author Chaim Potok, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Charles Darwin, in a horrible mess of disconnectedness, all of which seems to be Marechera lamenting and attacking those who criticised his previous work. And that's how the book ends.

It is probably not surprising, therefore, that I am no fan of Black Sunlight. Quite simply, I just didn't "get it". Without knowing anything of Dambudzo Marechera it is difficult to put this novel in any type of setting, other than Oxford, which is the only setting ever mentioned. There is no doubt that Dambudzo Marechera is a talented author, but I question Penguin's choice in republishing this book as part of the Penguin African Writers Series instead of one of his other, more critically acclaimed novels. Perhaps it is because Black Sunlight is more of a fictionalised autobiography, in which case it gives us an important introduction to a writer who is on the verge of being forgotten after his death. In fact, much of this novel could take place anywhere, and the characters are interchangeable with nearly any race or nationality. As a novel about coups, terrorism, political freedom, and nationality, Black Sunlight is tepid in its depiction of the struggles a marginalised group faces. If you really want to read about these struggles, books by Isabel Allende are far more lyrical and beautiful and biographies of Che Guevara are much more factual and compelling. The Black Sunlight chapters also include graphic and violent profanity repeatedly and often in all caps. For those who are offended easily, or don't want to read the "c-word" on every other page, you've been warned. My critique of this is not because I am prude in any way, but the use of such visceral language doesn't add anything to the story; it's actually very distracting and becomes too over the top. However, I do recognise that the publication of this language was certainly revolutionary, especially for a Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) author in 1980.

My understanding of Black Sunlight was not enhanced from reading about Dambudzo Marechera's personal life. He appeared to be as anarchist, opportunistic, and quarrelsome as his character Christian. Both author and character attended Oxford, had a miserable experience there, and became members of political groups that were in revolt against the government. It appears that Marechera adhered to the adage "write what you know": the depiction of Christian's life mirrors Marechera's, and while it is creative in its format, the novel doesn't create a story outside of what Marechera experienced, which limits the accessibility of the story.

Several sentences and paragraphs stood out to me, and these were the statements about morals and ethics I mentioned earlier. I left a sticky note on the pages that featured one of these moments of clarity and expression, and only used 16 stickies in 134 pages. While the overall narrative was distracting and difficult there were key moments that had significant merit. The majority of these focused on the question: "Is man naturally violent?", which was what Christian discussed with his hallucinatory self in the prison cell of Black Sunlight's cliff headquarters. One response to this question comes after Christian learns of the destruction he has been a part of and for which he begins to feel remorse. His remark is that " was the fear inside me of a world whose changes would never include a change for the better". Though these introspective thoughts exist in the book they are few and far between and lack the effectiveness and passion one would find in the writings of Paulo Coelho, as an example.

Without a doubt Dambudzo Marechera, who died in 1987 at the age of 35, was a unique character, famous for his exploits and thoughts. In this one excursion into his writing, I am not convinced that he was anything more than an eccentric person. In the future, I'd prefer to read about individuals (such as Johnny Golightly) who are just as eccentric, but fiercely intelligent, expressive, and inspirational.

The review copy of Black Sunlight by Dambudzo Marechera was provided by Penguin Books (South Africa). It is available from leading book stores and online retailers, including,,, and OpinionShare/Bookmark
Rating: 3/10

Key Facts (Review Copy)
Title: Black Sunlight
Author: Dambudzo Marechera
ISBN/EAN: 9780143026204
Publisher: The Penguin Group (SA) (first published by Heinemann Education Publishers in 1980)
Edition: First
Year: 2009 (1 August 2009); first published 1980
Format: Paperback
Pages: 134
Dimensions: 196x128x12mm
Genre/Keywords: drama, fiction, war

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