The Wrath of Napolo by Steve Chimombo

In many ways, The Wrath of Napolo reminded me of The Luminaries: it’s an epic unravelling of a tragedy that involves a re-evaluation of nationhood. Though set in the fictional country Mandania, this is a very obvious veil for Malawi, and the tragedy of the novel, the sinking of the Maravi, is a representation of the historical sinking of the M. V. Vipya off Florence (now Chitimba) Bay, Lake Malawi, in 1946.  This national disaster was buried by the politics of several governments, colonial, independent dictatorship and newly democratic. Ignored for 50 years, freedom of speech and a need to expose historical truths encourage the protagonist, Nkhoma, a journalist from the South, to investigate what really happened in 1946 and to uncover who could be considered responsible for the deaths of so many Mandanians. Nkhoma’s interest in discovering the truth comes at a time when other events of previous administrations are under scrutiny, and other leaders see the Maravi as a political tool for gaining power. The search for truth is rarely unmotivated by personal gain and this struggle with the past becomes a personal as well as a national journey.

The whole novel is about unravelling Malawi’s identity. How do you uncover the past and forge the future of a country using colonial tools and with previous administrations’ influence, both colonial and independent dictatorship, still at work? What does it mean to take responsibility for your own and your country’s actions? Heroism, racism, sexism, slavery, tribalism, religion, infidelity, AIDS – all of these are explored through Nkhoma’s search for the truth about the sinking of the Maravi. In the end Nkhoma recognises that redressing the past of his country requires redressing his own past, and the novel ends with him intending to start a truth commission into his own life.

There were things in the novel that worked less well for me. I felt the dialogue sometimes ran away with itself and there is a tendency to speechify. My main issue, however, is with Chimombo’s invention of a country, Mandania, to talk about his own Malawi. It felt disingenuous, especially when the acknowledgements and dedications make it more than clear where the novel is really set. Although being ‘accidentalised’ (murdered if you were thought to speak or act against Banda’s Life Presidency) must still feel fresh to Malawians, the fictionalisation was so overt I wasn’t sure what the point was. I’d be keen to hear other people’s views on this, though of course the likelihood of anyone getting hold of copies of this novel is very slim. I read The Wrath of Napolo sitting in the British Library.

Whatever minor quibbles I might have with character or style, The Wrath of Napolo is an impressive novel of substantial weight that tackles the rebirth of a nation. There is intrigue, danger, beauty and myth. Napolo is a creature of Malawian folk law, an underground serpent, a conflation of ancestral spirits, that causes earthquakes, tornadoes, destruction and death wherever he goes. Why is he angry? Who is he angry with? The Wrath of Napolo suggests that whatever answers you give, his destruction forces the land to be reforged. This is a novel that deserves a wider readership. It saddens me that literature from the developing world, unless published first in America or the UK, is so hard to access. If any English publishers read this, please consider adding Steve Chimombo to your list.

Next week I will be reading Feral Youth by Polly Courtney, followed by The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough. As always, please do suggest ideas for future reading.