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THE FIRST WIFE by Paulina Chiziane


by Paulina Chiziane ; translated by David Brookshaw

Pub Date: July 26th, 2016
ISBN: 9780914671480
Publisher: Archipelago

A man’s five wives band together, against all odds, to demand what’s rightfully theirs.

Rami has been married to her husband, Tony, for 20 years. They live in southern Mozambique, and they have five children. Tony’s been a good husband to Rami: as chief of police, he’s a successful, professional man, and he’s provided well for his family. But lately he’s been absent—conspicuously so—and Rami sets out to discover his whereabouts. She finds that she isn’t the only woman in his life. Tony, it turns out, has been stringing along not just one or two, but four other women, each of them with a trail of children. Rami is bewildered, devastated, and furious in turn. She confronts the other women, but they won’t be scared off: like Rami, they depend on Tony for their livelihoods. Rami tries a few different strategies. To learn to hold on to her husband, she takes lessons in love; she also visits a dealer in fortunes and then the wife of a seer. Then Rami shifts tactics. Instead of squabbling, she and the other wives agree to band together. They establish a conjugal rota, according to which Tony will spend a week with each wife, in prescribed order. They force Tony to grant each one of them legitimacy, which brings with it various rights, security, and comfort. Rami encourages each of the women to establish her own small business so they won’t be so dependent on Tony. They seem to be flourishing. But nothing in their world is really stable or fair. As Rami thinks: “To have only one love in life? Baloney! Only women, forever stupid, swallow that story. Men love every day. Every time the sun comes up, off they go in search of new passions, new emotions, while we wait forever more for a love that’s gone old and feeble. All men are polygamous.” This novel by Chiziane, the first published Mozambiquan female novelist, is daring, biting in its critique. It describes the plight of women caught between Mozambique’s traditional culture and its colonized societies. In that sense, it’s an effective work. But it begins to bow beneath the weight of its own responsibility. Chiziane aims for an emotional pitch that can’t be sustained for the entire length of the novel. Her metaphors are heavy, relentless, following one upon the other. She might have done with a lighter touch.

A brave but heavy-handed work about the plight of women in a patriarchal society.