There is definitely something special going on around the Zimbabwean author Dambudzo Marechera (1952-1987): his legacy has recently been celebrated and commemorated publicly (1); there has been talk of a "Marechera cult" (see Veit-Wild 379-92), "Marechera-mania" (see Chirere, "Zimbabwean Literature" and "Zimbabwean Writers") and "Marecheranism"; (see Tapureta); he has inspired several Zimbabwean writers (2); internet fan sites dedicated to him have been set up; and scholarly undertakings have been initiated to compensate for the wrongs done to his critical reputation. This is because, to quote Drew Shaw's words, the earlier unwelcoming African critiques were based on "mistaken assumptions" (17) as a result of which Marechera became "condemned" (3), "marginalized" (4), and "censured" (6) during his lifetime in Zimbabwe. Shaw's choice of words is illustrative of the phenomenon, as it implies that the author has been subjected to a wrongdoing that requires rectification. (3) Given these different celebratory practices, the notion of "cult author" is applicable to Marechera. To define the concept of "cult" exhaustively is not only difficult, but also probably useless since it is appropriate to settle on its meaning in the specific context of the phenomenon (Davidhazi 7). Nevertheless, there are some common factors in cultic phenomena in general. Basically, cults assume a "devoted following" (Whissen xv), which means that they demand investments and commitment--at least emotional, but also temporal and/or financial--on the part of the adoring audience. Central to the concept of cult is that in "exchange" for their investments in the cult object, the devoted ones acquire a distinct identity and a sense of collective belonging (Saresma and Kovala 9-14). Besides the empowering aspects that cult construction can engender, it must be noted that admiration may also be motivated by guilt. Obviously, cult phenomena cannot be separated from their contexts:
In order for a cult to emerge, there must be a cultural "text" and an audience and more importantly a strong enough bond between these two. The bond is based on functions given to the chosen text and these functions may vary from, for example, identity work to political propaganda or social bonding. Functions are based on the needs of audience and special contextual elements. (Rautavuoma et al. 12)
As the contextual dimension implies, cults are inevitably connected to "the loci of power, as well as influence, canons, institutionalization, and ideology" (Rautavuoma et al. 16). When studying cults, analysis can be focused either on the cultural text, the audience, or the context. While the main focus here is on analyzing the features of the cult object, questions related to audience and context are also given some attention.
Literary cults often tend to blur the boundary between the author and the work (Contat 123-24), which certainly has happened in Marechera's case. His work is famous for its autobiographical dimension: throughout his production, the reader can be prepared to encounter an array of the writer's alter egos, who immerse themselves in literary creation. (4) Ultimately, the autobiographical aspect results in a metadiscourse on the meanings of authorship. From this it follows that the construction of Marechera's authorial image is not accessible only in the realm of the extraliterary, such as interviews and journal articles, since the alter egos actively bring the writer to the fore in the fictional works. The blurring of the boundary between the literary and the extraliterary in Marechera's authorial image results, as David Buuck has so aptly suggested, in Marechera's authorship being approachable "as a creative fusion of sorts, a 'life-as-work', or 'life-in-work'" (120). It is difficult to discuss Marechera's work without referring to his person, which, certainly partly due to his own active contribution has, in Memory Chirere's words, become "public property" indeed ("Zimbabwean Literature"). In a way, this can be problematic because there is the constant threat of causing confusion between concepts such as fiction and life, or, narrator and author. For the purposes of this specific essay, however, I am inclined to renounce any attempt to work within a tradition in which maintaining clear-cut boundaries between these concepts is of primary importance. What I want to propose here is that it might be fruitful to see Marechera as a wholesale cultural phenomenon through which specific meanings find their articulation. Hence, the present essay makes a move from traditional, formalistic literary studies towards a cultural studies-oriented approach in which Marechera both as author and text becomes an object of analysis.
Marechera is a man with a reputation: this controversially received enfant terrible of the African literary scene was famous for acting in a manner that was deemed particularly unconventional, even to the extent that his mental stability was frequently questioned. (5) The Marechera figure embodies the notion of the romantic artist: a misunderstood, suffering, alienated, and unconventional individual, giving his all to artistic creation and seeing further than "ordinary people"--and all this with a typically Marecheran ironic twist. On a general scale, Marechera's reception was somewhat polarized. His debut work, The House of Hunger (1978), was received with enthusiasm internationally: he figured as the new star on the African literary scene, and his debut work became the co-winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1979. However, on the African continent and locally in Zimbabwe, Marechera was often criticized for being too Westernized and individualistic, lacking "serious commitment" to the anticolonial struggle and to the construction of empowering national identity. Marechera's writing was considered unintelligible and obscene, springing from the "decadent" tradition of European modernism. Ultimately, the writer encountered some problems in getting his text published locally, with the exception of Mindblast, the last volume published during his lifetime.
After the author's death at thirty-five years of age, his earlier negative reception by some of his contemporary African critics has become widely challenged. Further, scholarly efforts have been made in order to, so to speak, rectify the wrongdoings to which Marechera is seen to have become subjected. Nowadays, his place in the canon of African literatures is self-evident and the earlier unwelcoming reception by the African critics is attributed to Marechera's being ahead of his time (see Chennells and Veit-Wild xii). The antecedent negative critiques together with the early death of the author--today celebrated as a prophet and a genius (6) --have grounded an atmosphere of loss and guilt that feeds Marechera's current reception (Toivanen). Marechera is seen as a wasted talent, betrayed by his community: he was "a young man who was profoundly talented, and he would have done better had we (society, Zimbabwe, Britain, himself ...) not let him down" (Mukomana). While acknowledging the importance of the scholarly undertaking of rectifying Marechera's critical reputation, the aim of the present essay is not to contribute to this project. Instead, I set out to analyze Marechera's representations of authorship as one important element in the cult construction. Consequently, it should be stressed that the essay is not, as such, interested in evaluating Marechera's literary achievements. Still, whatever opinion one has about Marechera's literary value, most can certainly agree on his significant contribution to diversifying and complicating the understanding of literature and being a writer in the African context.
The essay acknowledges that Marechera's critical reception has undergone change. While the essay takes a certain critical distance from the contemporary celebrative discourses that occasionally tend to further mystify the Marechera figure, it certainly has no wish to reiterate the dogmatic critiques, influenced by the nationalist political agendas of the 1970s and 1980s, which accounted for the hostility some African critics initially showed toward Marechera. I want to argue that the changes are significant in that they indicate the transitions taking place in the contexts of interpretation: optimistic nation-building ethos has turned into a severe postindependence crisis. These changes provide the backdrop for the analysis of Marechera's representations of authorship, in which the notion of misunderstanding--capturing the idea of Marechera being downgraded by some of his contemporary African critics--represents a particular kind of condensation of meaning. It must be acknowledged that there is indeed a very particular ironic twist here: Marechera obviously …