Imagine the worst student housing possible – cramped, dark and mouse infested, with piles of decaying washing up, cupboard doors hanging off hinges and the stench of a collection of long neglected bin bags littering the kitchen. It was this setting, in the depths of East London, which I first embarked on reading Harare North. To my surprise, it immediately made me feel good (however probably not quite yet happy) about my own living situation. Chikwava’s depiction of migrant life in London is compelling from start to finish. The unnamed protagonist steps into London with the expectation of a new life of ‘hard graft’ and the promise to repay a debt he owes back in his home country. Predictably, not all goes to plan, and a gripping story unfolds about life in a squat in the depths of Brixton. Chikwava conveys the political and social paranoia of a Zimbabwean migrant convincingly and wittily with the perfect anti-hero. The protagonist is, at once, dishonest to those around him, (seemingly) honest to the reader, and as a result of these, dangerously unreliable. Conversely, rather than hating this instability, I liked the protagonist. The voice was so compelling and completely new that I couldn’t help but want to identify with his journey. Throughout the novel there is a constant preoccupation with the life he has left behind in Zimbabwe and a contradictory denial of the conditions that forced him to leave.
Betrayal is given the light hearted title of ‘spinning smooth jazz numbers’. The protagonist’s own identity of being a ‘jackal’ takes on new form and allegiances shift. This book should be a tragedy – crack addicts, rat infested housing, stabbings, aids, and treachery – yet Chikwava employs the comedy of the matter of factly grotesque and transforms it into a fresh, exciting narrative. The protagonist’s journey into the unknown of London sees him reconnecting with an eventually disastrously declining best friend, Shingi, a girl who is seen to rent her baby out to strangers for money in order to commit tax fraud, Tsitsi, and fellow squatters who he views as more parasitic than him.
This bittersweet novel left me asking questions about the lack of worth I had placed on my own living conditions. It made me grateful for my London, certainly, and made me consider the political stability of other countries I had previously glossed over on the news. Zimbabwe had never been top on my list of news stories to keep up with before reading this novel, and the situation of migrants in London had certainly been a periphery. This novel inspired me to read further into the field and try to understand what other people’s lives in the capital must involve.