Reviewed by Carolyn Silveira
What do you do when you discover that your husband of twenty years has been cheating? You might decide to stay together for the kids; you might want to start couples counseling; you might ask your divorced friends for attorney referrals. But for Rami, a woman living in the capital of Mozambique and the protagonist and narrator of Paulina Chiziane’s The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy, these are not the thoughts that come to mind. Though her reaction to marital crisis at first feels very foreign, as the novel follows her Christian union’s progression into a polygamous constellation, the story ironically becomes an increasingly relatable investigation into the personal and social calculus of women in matters of love and marriage.
Rami, a self-described obedient housewife, feels blessed to be married to Tony, the chief of police in southern Mozambique. She has money, security, and—most importantly—social legitimacy and standing. Women, in this intensely patriarchal and misogynistic society, are considered untrustworthy at best and unworthy in general. Her supposed good fortune is in jeopardy, however. No longer able to ignore the fact that her husband is never at home, she seeks out her husband’s mistress and discovers that Julieta, her “rival,” has a home and an entire family with and by Tony. A literal fistfight ensues. Rami alternates between blaming herself for her shortcomings as a spouse and the other woman for “stealing” her man, with nary a word about Tony’s responsibility. In the beginning, Rami is a difficult pill for a modern feminist reader to swallow. Her internalized sexism is deep, though it’s clear it’s the fault of a patriarchy of the highest order. When confronted, Tony responds:
Betrayal? Don’t make me laugh! Purity is masculine, sin is female. Only women can betray, men are free, Rami.
It soon becomes clear that Tony has in fact taken a second mistress. And a third. And a fourth. The book’s first interesting turn is when Rami begins to feel compassion for their own suffering and betrayal. And if she at first feels frustratingly helpless and retrograde, she also narrates her tale with the voice of a poet-philosopher:
Possession is one of the many illusions of our existence, because human beings are born and die empty-handed. Everything we think we have, life lends us for only a short time. . . . Yours is what you were born with. Yours is your husband when he’s inside you.
Like when watching a horror film, the reader may be tempted to scream at the page, “Run! Save yourself!” In the American rom-com version, Rami would pack a bag, book it to Hawaii, weep into her piña colada, and have a fling with the bartender/surfer. But Rami takes a different tack, enrolling in a love school and seeking magic spells. “No, No! He’s not worth it!” this reader moans.
Chiziane’s complicated, urgent, and overflowing novel really is written more like a “tale” than a novel. As a five-hundred page novel-as-tale, the style is unusual and at times challenging. Its first-person, usually present-tense voice could feel intense and immediate, but in fact often feels distant. It favors summary over scene, and at times the action is so summarized it’s easy to miss. While there is much stunning and beautiful writing, the frequency of lyrical, metaphor-laden passages can be overwhelming. Some of it feels like absolute poetry, gorgeous, surprising, and sensual; while some of it feels like being at an endless spoken-word poetry reading.
The plot’s many twists and turns, however, do not disappoint, and for the reader who persists, brilliant things lie in wait. It turns out that before the Portuguese brought Christianity to Mozambique, polygamy was part of the local culture, and evidently persists still, only one of many fascinating sex-related traditions readers will see mentioned in passing and be tempted—or afraid—to look up online.
Rami, unwilling to give up on love or lose all that her marriage confers upon her, begins to take action and becomes, essentially, a union organizer. The mistresses become wives in the polygamist tradition, coming out of the shadows of an informal economic/romantic system and stepping into new protections and power. Rami even has her own Norma Rae moment when she proposes this radical return to the outmoded tradition:
We are lost mares galloping across life, being fed crumbs, enduring vicissitudes, waging war on each other. Time is passing and one day we’ll be forgotten. Each one of us is a loose branch, a dead leaf, at the mercy of the wind. There are five of us. Let us unite, and together form one hand.
Using tradition to their own advantage, they give Tony a taste of his own medicine. If he wants to be a polygamist, he will be expected to pay each of their bride prices, follow their conjugal schedule, and support them even more financially. But not only do they gain leverage against Tony, through their relationships with each other, they each grow and evolve in heartening, feminist ways.
Chiziane explores the economics of love and marriage in a country burdened with a history of violent conflict, where men are few and women not necessarily educated or welcomed into the workforce. In such a society, she says, men are the breadcrumbs women must fight over. She also explores the conflict between the matriarchal culture of the North and the patriarchal South, where women are still expected to serve their husbands on their knees. Rami realizes that in her own household she has perpetuated this culture, always giving her daughters less and worse than their brothers.
As first wife, Rami holds more power but also suffers the most, even as she and her fellow wives take back the reins of their lives. The effects on their destinies and on Tony’s are surprising and gratifying. The end of the book drives aggressively toward a new, feminist chapter and a message of female solidarity. For better or for worse, so many of the questions about gender, marriage, and money feel familiar and relevant, even to readers for whom polygamy feels profoundly foreign. While the book opens with the epigraph, “A woman is earth. If you don’t sow her, or water her, she will produce nothing,” ultimately, it is a passionate testament to the life, love, creativity, and resilience all women can produce.
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