SCRIBBLING THE CAT
by Alexandra Fuller
Another page on this author here
On the book in Europe, here
By LAURA MILLER
Published: May 9, 2004
Alexandra Fuller's first book was subtitled ''An African Childhood'' but it could have been called ''A British Memoir of an African Childhood,'' so powerfully did it recall the genre of which the Mitford sisters' writings are prime examples. ''Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight'' featured many classic elements -- the disorderly, impecunious household; the ''well-bred'' and oppressively eccentric parents; lots of booze, lots of dogs and lots and lots of tea -- all rendered with the dry tang of a gin and tonic. Tonic with extra quinine, that is, since ''Dogs'' juiced up the old formula by transplanting it to a perilous setting, plagued with civil war, poisonous reptiles and tropical diseases. This gave Fuller the ideal vehicle both to celebrate her family's dotty, stiff-upper-lip gallantry and to portray the casual racism of the white Rhodesian milieu in which she was raised.
Following up a successful memoir of childhood is never easy; those who try often seem to be scrounging for material. Fuller has decided to attack the task by chasing down the grimmest aspect of ''Dogs,'' the role of her family and their friends in the brutal effort to put down black insurgents fighting for control of the former British colony. Fuller, who learned to clean and load an FN rifle when she was still too small to shoot it without being knocked over backward, grew up watching her farmer father head off with police reservists to hunt guerrilla fighters in the bush. She wore T-shirts with jingoistic slogans and was taught at school to pray for victory. Those prayers went unanswered, and Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980 under Prime Minister Robert Mugabe.
''Scribbling the Cat'' begins with Fuller, who currently lives in Wyoming with her American husband and two kids, on a visit to the Sole Valley in Zambia, where her parents now run a fish and banana farm. The Rhodesian war and its legacy gnaw at her, but her father won't talk about it much: ''Scared to death. Bored to death'' pretty much sums up his take on the experience, and he dodges her questions about having any regrets. Not so K, an otherwise unnamed banana farmer who lives nearby. He is a veteran of the Rhodesian Light Infantry, an all-white unit with a reputation for lethality. He fought for five years against rebel forces across the border in Mozambique, and when he first meets Fuller he admits to having done terrible things in the war, weeping freely in front of her. ''It's not hard to find an old soldier in Africa,'' Fuller remarks. ''What is harder to find are old soldiers who will talk about their war with strangers.''
K is a remarkable man, well worth a book, but soon after introducing him the winningly blunt narrator of ''Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight'' becomes disingenuous. She sets up K's character as a mystery requiring an ''answer'' and herself as so possessed by the riddle that she proposes a road trip through land-mine-studded Mozambique in search of the origins of K's ''spooks.'' But K could hardly be more transparent. He readily tells Fuller about his hard-luck childhood (his mother had polio), a harrowing stint at boarding school (where he was raped), his episodes of berserker-style rage, his nightmares about the war, his failed marriage (she cheated on him with his best friend), the death of his 5-year-old son from meningitis, his conversion to born-again Christianity and his conviction that God killed his child to punish him for the deaths he has caused -- all before they hit the road. His darkest wartime secret, that he tortured a young African woman into revealing the location of an enemy ambush, Fuller hears about even before they reach Mozambique.
What this contrived quest does provide is a narrative line for Fuller's book, that old chestnut of the physical journey that mirrors an inner one. But it's Fuller's soul that needs searching, not K's. K doesn't deny or repress his memories of the war; he wrestles with them every day, and he doesn't have to go to Mozambique to do it. He agrees to the trip because he's smitten with Fuller, although he knows she's married and, even worse, an unbeliever. As for the horror of war, what K -- and, later, some of his former comrades -- has to tell Fuller is, unsurprisingly, just what soldiers have been telling noncombatants for some time now: that the dehumanization of the enemy that makes organized killing possible eventually dehumanizes the killers; that the longer a conflict goes on, the greater the drift toward atrocity; that soldiers carry terrible psychic scars resulting from what they've witnessed, suffered and done.
''I own this now,'' Fuller writes after hearing of K's worst sins. ''This was my war too. I had been a small, smug white girl shouting, 'We are all Rhodesians and we'll fight through thickanthin.' '' As confessions of culpability go, this one is fairly abstract. Who really blames little children for believing whatever their parents tell them, however vile? When it comes to less grandiose and more personal transgressions -- say, exploiting the emotional vulnerability of a lonely man desperately trying to overcome a past of violence and hatred to build a decent life -- she refrains from self-examination. Though Fuller describes K in the fetishistic language of romance novels (he is ''beautiful, but in a careless, superior way, like a dominant lion,'' with lips that are ''full and sensual, suggesting a man of quick, intense emotion''), she avoids discussing whether or how her attraction might have affected the book or her marriage.
''Dogs'' benefited from Fuller's refusal to sentimentalize or explain much of her chaotic childhood, but with ''Scribbling the Cat'' that reticence has become a fault. Fuller telegraphs her disapproval of K's values and politics, without laying her own open to scrutiny. She doesn't seem to respect his faith despite the obvious good it has done him. She accuses herself of indulging in a reckless curiosity (''scribble'' is African slang for ''kill''), but she's strikingly incurious about any questions that might really challenge her settled view of herself. However wild the trip, she winds up more or less where she started.
Laura Miller writes the Last Word column for the Book Review and is a staff writer for Salon.
Sunday, May 9, 2004
Africa's demon -- war
Ties to a fighter pull an American woman back home to Zambia
Reviewed by Martin Rubin
Scribbling the Cat
Travels With an African Soldier
By Alexandra Fuller
PENGUIN; 257 PAGES; $24.95
Born in England in 1969 and taken to Central Africa at age 3, Alexandra Fuller grew up in Zimbabwe, Malawi and finally Zambia before coming to the United States. Judging from "Scribbling the Cat," she appears to flit back and forth between Wyoming, where she lives with her husband and two children, and Zambia, where her parents still live and where she herself seems to be deeply rooted.
At the surface level, she appears effortlessly to be contradicting Thomas Wolfe's celebrated dictum that you can't go home again, but as she makes clear at one point in her memoir, the very speed and seeming ease of travel these days engender their own particular problems:
"I was dislocated and depressed. It should not be physically possible to get from the banks of the Pepani River to Wyoming in less than two days, because mentally and emotionally it is impossible. The shock is too much, the contrast too raw. We should sail or swim or walk from Africa, letting bits of her drop out of us, and gradually, in this way, assimilate the excesses and liberties of the States in tiny, incremental sips, maybe touring up through South America and Mexico before trying to stomach the land of the Free and the Brave. ... Now I felt like a trespasser in my own home."
Fuller is not taken back to Africa only by family ties. The heart of this odd book is her relationship with "K," a gnarled, grizzled veteran of the civil war that transformed white-ruled Rhodesia into Zimbabwe. They're truly an odd couple, these two: the lovely young Americanized Fuller with hostages to fortune back home in Wyoming and a brutalized, battle-scarred veteran of a nasty counter-insurgency war. Yet there is this strong connection and the beauty is ineluctably drawn to this rough beast:
"And, uninvited, K strolled around the back of my head and talked his loneliness out of himself and straight into me and would not let me rest and by the end of this, there were pieces of me and pieces of him and pieces of our history that were barbed together in a tangle in my head and I couldn't shake the feeling that in some inevitable way, I was responsible for K and he for me."
Part of the attraction seems to lie in the very awfulness of K, his harshness, the roughness that characterizes his sensibility and his diction alike. It must be said that Fuller, obviously, discerns in him more positive qualities, which some readers may have difficulty in recognizing. She seems to value him as an antidote to the artificiality of the American life she has chosen for herself in a fashionable resort. Unlike many immigrants, she betrays a grudging attitude toward the United States, her stance having more in common with those people in the rest of the world who sneer at what is after all a distorted partial view -- or a simplistic parody -- of a large and protean society and culture.
In a gesture of apparent Pan-Africanism which is in fact a monstrous indictment of the continent, she pays K the twisted compliment of considering him a true African. Some clue to this aspect of her worldview appears in her use of this quote: " 'Why is it,' asked Graca Machel, former Mozambique education minister, widow of the President Machel, and now the wife of Nelson Mandela, 'that the worst of everything that is evil and inhuman is to be found in Africa? What is wrong with us Africans?' " But where Graca Machel cries out in an anguish of self-criticism, Fuller seems too ready to accept atrocity as the true, the authentic face of Africa. This is a subtext to her laborious renderings of K's endless self-justifications and her acceptance of K as he is -- warts and all -- lends a whiff of something distinctly unpleasant to the book itself.
If the people in this book are uninviting, the landscape is not, and Fuller is adept at evoking the big sky of her landlocked Central African homeland so different from the North American heartland where she is writing:
"I'd forgotten how October eats at the landscape in the lowveldt. It is the most discouraging time of the year: long enough after the last rains so that they are barely worth the ache of remembering and too far until the next rains to waste the energy on hope. All signs of the memorable excesses of ten months ago had disappeared and it was hard to believe that the same valley could accommodate such disparate worlds. The sky was cloudless but stained wildfire yellow and the deep haze caught the heat waves. ... The ground around the villages was exposed, brick hard and grazed clean of vegetation."
Fuller's ability to produce passages such as this will come as no surprise to those familiar with her previous memoir "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight." In that searing book, Fuller managed to present private and public catastrophes alike with vividness and power. This was in no small part because she was as unflinching with herself as she was with others. Here she seems to be holding something back, specifically about her relationship with K, so that when she writes these lines near the end of the book, they seem disproportionate to the dynamic between them as we have seen it:
"K and I met and journeyed and clashed like titans. And, at the end of it all, he asked me not to contact him again. Instead of giving each other some kind of peace and understanding, we had inflamed existing wounds. Far from being a story of reconciliation and understanding, this ended up being a story about what happens when you stand on tiptoe and look too hard into your own past and into the things that make us war-wounded the fragile, haunted, powerful men-women that we are. K and I fell headlong -- freefall -- into terror, love, hate, God, death, burial."
The reader is left feeling that there must be more to this story than we have been told; and certainly the e-mail from K to her (which is some sort of apology for the break between them) fails to really clear up the mystery. Or could there in fact be less to all this than meets the eye? That such a suspicion should enter the reader's mind is fatal to Fuller's role as a convincing teller of tales and is evidence of the failure of her enterprise in this disappointing and dispirited book, which manages the unlikely distinction of being at once overheated and flat.
Martin Rubin is a California biographer and critic.
Alexandra Fuller's memorable tangle with a heart of darkness
By Malcolm Jones
May 17 issue - Alexandra Fuller remembers precisely the moment that "Scribbling the Cat" got tricky. "I was sitting in the Denver airport three years ago," she said in a phone interview from outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where she lives with her husband and two children. She was reading over a draft of a story that would run in The New Yorker about a white African—an ex-soldier in the Rhodesian Army and a born-again Christian. "The magazine had asked for 6,000 words and already I was up to 30,000, and sitting in the airport I felt sick when it hit me that to tell the story, I was going to have to write about myself the way I'd planned to write about this man." Doing it right, she realized, meant telling the reader, "There's a piece of him that you see as vulnerable and only I saw that piece, because he had decided he was in love with me. And in a bizarre way, it was this love story. Part of me felt true love for him. And part of me was utterly, utterly horrified."
"Scribbling the Cat" describes the racked friendship of Fuller, 35, and the man she calls simply K, as they travel through Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique. An extended version of The New Yorker article, it is no more a simple profile of an ex-soldier than Fuller's first book, the acclaimed best seller "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight," was merely a memoir of growing up. That book was all about growing up wrong asthe child of parents on the white-supremacist side of the Rhodesian civil war in the '70s. "Scribbling" is about what happens when the fighting stops. K was a soldier who killed, he said, "as many [people] as I could." Today he is a peaceable Christian farmer. Yet for all his macho taciturnity, he is a damaged man who can never escape what Fuller calls "the extended heartbrokenness of war." But beyond that, this book is about the weird intertwining of reporter and subject, and how each bends the story's reality. "I was so deeply invested in the story that I would stop at almost nothing to get it," Fuller says. "And he was so deeply invested in me that he would stop at almost nothing to get me. It was this contest, this struggle of wills—that's the story that I tried to write."
"Scribbling the Cat" is not quite the equal of Fuller's indelible debut. It sputters in the first half. But when Fuller and K make it to Mozambique, where he also fought, the story catches fire. There they meet an old comrade of K's, a man so twisted that he lives alone on an island with only a pet lion for company. Superficially, these old soldiers are off-the-rack tough guys. But their sleep is punctuated by screams, and their days are bulwarked by prayer, booze—anything to keep the past at bay. In the end, Fuller wanted only to "wash their words and their war and their hatred from my head, and I wanted to be incurious and content and conventional." Since she was none of those things, she sat down to write "Scribbling the Cat," one of the strangest, best books ever about the ravages of war.
Title: Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier
Author: Alexandra Fuller
Pages: 255 pages
Africa trip reveals horrors
By Karen Algeo Krizman, Special To
May 7, 2004
Wyoming author Alexandra Fuller follows up her best-selling memoir, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, with a beautifully written story of friendship and war.
Returning to her childhood home in Zambia a few years ago, Fuller formed an unlikely bond with a lonely Rhodesian War veteran, a white man who she only identifies as "K." He "looked like his own self-sufficient, debt-free, little nation," she writes. ". . . As if he owned the ground beneath his feet, and as if the sky balanced with ease on his shoulders. He looked cathedral."
In a quest to understand what made K who he was, Fuller convinced him to return with her to Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and Mozambique, the battlefields of his troubled past. She then documented their strange journey in Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier.
Fuller is at her prosaic best here. Her rich and distinct dialect resonates from the first page of this book, as does the hardship of the African people.
"Because it is the land that grew me, and because they are my people, I sometimes forget to be astonished by Africans," the author writes.
"But I was astonished, almost to death, when I met K. For a start, K was not what I expected to see here. Not here, where the elevation rises just a few feet above ennui and where even the Goba people - the people who are indigenous to this area - look displaced by their own homes, like refugees who are trying to flee their place of refuge. And where the Tonga people - the nation that was shifted here in the 1950s, when the colonial government flooded them out of their ancestral valley to create Lake Kariba - look unrequitedly vengeful and correspondingly despondent. And where everyone else looks like refugee workers; sweat-drained, drunk, malarial, hungover, tragic, recently assaulted."
In addition to the brutal nature of the land, this part of Africa has been ravaged by man-made bloodshed for decades. Yet few in the U.S. recall the horrific details of the Rhodesian War, which raged from 1972 to 1979.
During the conflict, white-led government forces, for which K fought, battled black guerrillas. Fuller explains that the blacks were fighting for the "freedom to vote, to own land, to receive a good and equitable education, and to walk the streets of their own country without fear."
Both sides were guilty of atrocities, and by the time a truce was called, an estimated 20,350 war-related deaths had been documented.
K did his share of the killing and was "still tortured, angry, aggressive and lost" because of it. When the local barkeep notes that K doesn't drink, someone else points out that it's a good thing, since the man with such a domineering presence is "a violent enough teetotaler."
However, it wasn't just the war that created K and others like him. As Fuller notes, "K is what happened when you grew a child from the African soil, taught him an attitude of superiority, persecution, and paranoia, and then gave him a gun and sent him to war in a world he thought of as his own to defend. And when the cease-fire was called and suddenly K was remaindered, there was no way to undo him. And there was no way to undo the vow of every soldier who had knelt on this soil and let his tears mix with the spilled blood of his comrade and who had promised that he would never forget to hate the man - and every man who looked like him - who took the life of his brother."
Although K claims to love all people now, his prejudices are still evident in the derogatory terms he uses to describe those who are not like him. He also says he did what he had to during the war to stay alive.
"Look, the life I've lived . . . I wouldn't be here . . . you might not be here - a lot of people might not be here - if I, if we, couldn't (kill) people faster than they could (kill) us," K tells Fuller early in their friendship. "I was good at what I did. . . . It was my job. I did it . . . I'm sorry."
K, a born-again Christian, seems sorry about many of his choices during the war, despite his attempts to justify his actions.
While describing in great detail how he forced a woman to tell him where rebel fighters were hiding by pouring hot porridge into her genitals, K becomes overwhelmed by the savagery he committed.
"Why? Why did I have to do that? I had the knowledge and the skills and the ability to find the gooks," he says. "I could have smelled them out. All I had to do is walk out of that village and start walking in ever increasing circles and I would have found them . . . That's what I should have done. I should have walked away from her . . . I didn't need to do that to her. I was an animal."
This walk down memory lane uncovers old, festering wounds for both K and Fuller, who was a child living in Rhodesia during the fighting. Both physically and emotionally it was a dangerous path to take.
"I own this now," Fuller admits after hearing K's gruesome tale of torture that eventually led to his victim's death.
"This was my war too. I was a small, smug white girl shouting, 'We are all Rhodesians and we'll fight through thickandthin.' I am every bit that woman's murderer . . . I said (to K), 'I had no idea . . .' But I did. I knew, without really being told out loud, what happened in the war and I knew it was as brutal and indefensible as what I had just heard from K. I just hadn't wanted to know."
As much as Scribbling the Cat focuses on K and Fuller, the importance of this book lies in the messages it delivers about the evils of war.
"What is important isn't K himself, or me myself, or . . . the whole chaotic, poetic mess of people that turned this journey of curiosity into an exploration of life and death and the fear of living and dying and the difficulty of separating love and judgment from passion and duty," Fuller explains in her author's note.
"What is important is the story. Because when we are all dust and teeth and kicked-up bits of skins - when we're dancing with our own skeletons - our words might be all that's left of us."
Karen Algeo Krizman is a freelance writer living in Littleton.
Back to the bush
BY DAVID HERNDON
David Herndon, a journalist in London, has lived and worked in Africa.
May 2, 2004
SCRIBBLING THE CAT: Travels With an African Soldier, by Alexandra Fuller. Penguin Press, 256 pp., $24.95.
Based on her two books so far, one has
the impression that Alexandra Fuller is on a campaign to claim the title of
world's most eccentric people for the white Rhodesians who came out on the
losing side of Zimbabwe's war for majority rule in the 1970s.
In "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight," the subject was her own dysfunctional family and childhood during those crazy years, and now she revisits some of the war's nonfatal casualties in "Scribbling the Cat: Travels With an African Soldier." The soldier in question, a rare bird whom we know only as K, agrees to take her on a strange safari back into the Mozambique bush where his troop operated, on a mission to satisfy her curiosity about "why that particular African war had created a man like K." (The title is a pun on the saying "curiosity killed the cat," "scribbling" being Rhodie slang for "killing.") It winds up being quite the hysterical trip, covering the full spectrum from the comic to the psychotic.
Fuller leads with two sentences that dangle the bait and set the hook with lethal efficiency: "Because it is the land that grew me, and because they are my people, I sometimes forget to be astonished by Africans. But I was astonished, almost to death, when I met K."
In the space of the first four pages, she effectively airlifts the reader into southern Zambia, where her parents and K have wound up in exile from Zimbabwe. This is a place "where the elevation rises just a few feet above ennui"; a place where "tight tongues grow soft with drink and the unavoidable sadness of the human condition is debated in ever decreasing circles until it sits on the shoulders of each individual in an agonizingly concentrated lump." More than any other contemporary writer, Fuller captures how the world looks and sounds and smells to marginalized white Africans, and how they talk about it, coloring everything (but their love of nature) with black humor.
She zeroes in on K precisely because he defies the bush- cowboy stereotype - in a land of sodden fatalists, he's a teetotaling born again Christian - and he's hunky, too. When she first turns her considerable descriptive powers upon him, it's a moist, Leni Riefenstahl moment: "Even at first glance K was more than ordinarily beautiful, but in a careless, superior way, like a dominant lion. ...[a]s if he owned the ground beneath his feet, as if the sky balanced with ease on his shoulders."
But K is also an obvious case of severely damaged goods. Yes, he's famously tough - an accomplished brawler and killer - but he breaks down crying all the time. After the war, he lost a 5-year-old son, his wife cuckolded him with his best friend, and he now lives as a solitary banana farmer in a pitiless environment thick with thieves and snakes and man-eating crocodiles.
Compared to the living hell of his personal life, the war was his prime time. But, of course, he was hard-bitten by that experience, too, and here we are confronted with the haunted suffering of the perpetrator of an atrocity. Fuller observes that "K was what happened when you grew a child from the African soil, taught him an attitude of superiority, persecution and paranoia, and then gave him a gun and sent him to war in a world he thought of as his own to defend. And when the cease-fire was called and suddenly K was remaindered, there was no way to undo him."
When Fuller and K arrive in Mozambique, they meet another ex-soldier, a charismatic wild man who lives on an island with a smelly pet lion. Their visit gets out of control in a rather predictable way involving alcohol and testosterone, and K tries to sabotage Fuller's book project. She concludes that their arrangement had been "a broken contract from the start" - he sought her love, she wanted his story.
So here we have a multilayered psychodrama that elucidates some of the sad and strange personal aspects of the grand political tragedy that is the history of Rhodesia-Zimbabwe. Normally, fiction does this kind of work, and Fuller acknowledges that she is blurring the distinctions of form. In a prefatory author's note, she says, "This is a true story. ... But it is only my story. ... It is not supposed to be an historic document of fact." I, for one, would be curious to know how her version of their fandango squares with K's, or better yet, honest historical fact.
But if we grant Fuller the memoirist's license to tell her own truth and let the chips fall, the undeniable result is another richly evocative and thought-provoking corker of a tale that could have happened only in white man's Africa.
E L L E
On the Road With K
On the heels of her best-selling memoir of childhood, a daughter of Africa revisits home—and gets more adventure than she bargained for
At the end of her spellbindingly candid memoir of growing up in the 1970s on a Rhodesian farm, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (2002), Alexandra Fuller wrote that it is about neither politics nor empire, but is rather “the story of how one African came to terms with her family's troubled history; it is a love story for the continent.” Fuller's harrowingly splendid follow-up, Scribbling the Cat: Travels With an African Soldier (Penguin Press), may be read as a love story from Africa, baring its own troubled history page by fascinating page.
While on a return visit to her parents' fish and banana farm in Zambia, Fuller meets a neighbor—a violence-haunted, God-fearing, charismatic former soldier whom she calls K. Together they travel from Zambia down through Zimbabwe and Mozambique, where K fought in the 1970s with the notorious, all-white Rhodesian Light Infantry. K is a failed romantic whose embrace of an almost Christ-like asceticism both attracts and repels Fuller because his demons are still so demonstrably alive. By his own admission, K was trained in fighting from boyhood, yet he sobs when telling Fuller of his horrific sexual violation of a Rhodesian teenager, or the evening he and his “troopies” shot scores of wild dogs whose howls lasted for hours afterward. He introduces her to his old, odd warmates, one of whom lives alone with a lion on an island in a lake and goes by the name Mapenga, which roughly translates from the Shona as “crazy bastard.”
But beyond the abundant local color, it is Fuller's hallucinatory yet rock-solid narrative that lends Scribbling the Cat its unforgettable power and its vivid, thought-provoking charms. Her fraught relationship with K eventually unravels in the damp heat of mutual misunderstanding—she's a married journalist with two children back in Wyoming, he's an unattached, devastatingly handsome, larger-than-life loner looking for his next partner. One night toward the end of their journey, he destroys all her notes, tapes, and film, leaving her to travel home to America, where she proceeds to write this eye-opening, heartbreaking story anyway.
Nossiter. Adam Nossiter is the author of books on Mississippi and France and now
covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press
May 16, 2004
Scribbling the Cat: Travels With an African Soldier
By Alexandra Fuller
Penguin, 256 pages, $24.95
Africa commands distinctive means from its chroniclers: reporters who patiently document coups, academics who tell about underlying causes, memoirists and sui generis figures like magic realist-journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who focuses obsessively on obscure details to illuminate an entire continent. It's as if, given the existence of these separate, uninterlocking methods, Africa itself is telling of the exceptional difficulty of conveying its reality to outsiders.
Still, distant readers can choose. Facts about grotesque dictators are not as effective as other narrations at bringing us closer to what might be Africa. Outlandish stories, even if true, make the continent seem even further away, so removed are they from our experience. What must be done is to make us feel, in as precise and unemphatic a way as possible, the full harshness of the African reality. And the most effective at doing this are not outsiders, who are too often (understandably) overimpressed by the shock value of what they have to relate. The most compelling are chroniclers who have intimate knowledge, who can evoke calmly for us an unforgiving landscape, yet who have the distance that comes from experience of other realities.
Alexandra Fuller is such a writer. She was born in 1969, grew up in what is now Zimbabwe during its war for independence, and has been living in the U.S. for 10 years. In two books she has shown herself to be the revealing explicator of her underreported tribe--whites who lost out in the independence struggle--and of the mystery and struggle of the African way of life. She is an original and authentic writer because she doesn't waste words in bringing us this African strangeness. Her language is simple and direct, unselfconsciously salted with the pungent dialect of her own tribe.
The first book, "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight," was the absorbing account of her lonely childhood in Rhodesia as it turned into Zimbabwe, of her isolated farm family caught up in the quixotic and racist struggle to preserve white hierarchy, of the effect of war and privation and tragedy on their life. Fuller's tools couldn't have been more modest--words that convey the irony and sadness of her family's existence--yet the effect is searing. There are terrible family events here, but they are narrated with no trace of bathos or self-pity.
What we get is something that seems at this remove truly African: the unforced mingling of the quotidian and the grotesque. Central to this story, for instance, is the slow descent of Fuller's mother into alcoholism, under the crush of deep misfortune and the external menace of the guerrilla war around her. Yet the enfeebled mother is still of a toughness and resilience that would seem mythic were it not so much a part of its time and distant place. Lunging to protect her family, she splatters a menacing cobra against the back of the family pantry with an automatic rifle. The reader is grateful to Fuller for not exaggerating the force of these plainly narrated episodes. She doesn't need to.
Her new book, "Scribbling the Cat," brings us this same intimate and believable Africa. If it doesn't have quite the spontaneity of the earlier book, it's only because Fuller has become more self-conscious as a writer. Yet this second book--its title drawn from her tribe's vivid lexicon--has a power of its own. It comes from the same virtues that distinguished the earlier effort, and it again shows her to be a writer of rare gifts.
With nonchalance she conveys the intensity of the African continent on nearly every page: air that "seemed softly boiling," alive with insect life; small mopane flies encrusting her face; a chorus of malnourished children shouting after her, "practicing their English"; an "endlessly black" sky; a road trip with sudden descents into warm pockets of air; murderous crocodiles and a hungry pet lion. This is the real subject of Fuller's book, a place she has the gift of invoking with ease while preserving its strangeness for us, the far-away reader.
But there is a second subject: the hopeless and dirty war that marked her childhood and that continues to obsess her. This kind of war has turned out to be as much a part of the African landscape as hordes of stinging insects. In "Scribbling the Cat" she sets out to discover its essence in the company of one of the war's prototypical actors, a white, ex-Rhodesian warrior-turned-farmer now living near Fuller's elderly parents in Zambia. She travels with this man to Mozambique, which borders on Zimbabwe, to revisit his wartime haunts. Her father, a veteran of the war, warns Fuller:
" 'Curiosity scribbled the cat.' " Get too close to K and you'll wind up "scribbled," killed.
What gives the ensuing road-trip narrative its tension, though, is not the feeling that Fuller is in physical danger. Instead, we're confronted with the destabilizing portrait of killer as sympathetic and human. The man she calls K is convincing in these guises, thanks to Fuller's economy. K, once a dedicated servant of the savage war, is a loser on the wrong side of history. In his own description he's a man who " 'could hunt gooks better than anyone because I could think like one.' " But by the time we get to his harrowing memory of an appalling atrocity he committed--the book's spiritual core, because it forces Fuller to admit her own complicity--we are not able to hate this man.
K, we have learned by this point, is both brutal and weirdly tender, deranged and yet lucid about his own condition and that of the landscape of wrecks--ex-fighters like himself--that he guides Fuller through. He is consumed with remorse and proud of his past. He has suffered terrible personal misfortune and inflicted ghastly suffering on others. By the time Fuller gets to him, he is more likely to burst into tears than to blow someone's head off.
She has the gift of rendering this striking portrait in K's own words, of telling a story through someone else's language. " 'But what the hell am I going to do? The nanny was drowning. I had to go after her," K tells her, recalling his rescue of a black African woman from a crocodile. Racism and humane fellow-feeling are all bound up in this picture, and Fuller gives it to us refreshingly free of cant.
There's a kind of melancholy about K's self-recognition. He has sounded his own worst instincts, and he's not sure they don't predominate. Stuck with Fuller in a hopeless traffic jam, K says, " 'I'd get out there and do something, but I'd only end up killing someone.' "
Fuller comments: "He sounded helplessly resigned, the way other people might say, 'I'd help you do the dishes, but I always seem to break plates.' "
Because K is free to tell his own story, and because he has looked in the mirror, Fuller provides something far more valuable than a political commentary: an examination of the aftermath of one man's descent into barbaric comportment. In the process, she is able to tell us something deep about the nature of barbarism itself.
AT 12:12 PM EDT Saturday, May. 22, 2004
Once were (white) warriors
By DANEET STEFFENS
Scribbling the Cat:
Travels with an African Soldier
By Alexandra Fuller
Penguin Press, 256 pages, $37.95
Several years ago, Alexandra Fuller, whose memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight so searingly described her childhood during the Rhodesian-Zimbabwean war of the 1970s, went to visit her parents on their fish and banana farm in Zambia (Fuller had relocated to Wyoming).
Back in her Africa, surrounded by its "careless, extravagant beauty," she meets K, a white Zimbabwean farmer who had fought in the same war Fuller grew up in, and "too curious -- too amazed -- to look the other way," she is instantly drawn to him.
"I tried to picture K elsewhere and failed. Like the African earth itself, he seemed organic and supernatural all at the same time, romantic and brutish, a man who was both saviour and murderously dangerous. And he was much, much more complicated than the stereotypes it was so tempting to use to describe him. Seeing him on this farm, I couldn't decide if the Man had shaped the Land or the other way around."
They bond over pots of tea, an unexpectedly rainy Christmas season and a shared appreciation of their homeland. K is a deceptively gentle giant of a man whose past life of drinking and violence has morphed into teetotalism and God. But neither, it seems, offers a complete escape from the five war years he had spent as part of the Rhodesian Light Infantry, an elite, all-white unit of what he terms "killing machines."
Riveted as much by his singular personality as by his story -- which, because of the war they shared, is her story too -- Fuller finds that when she returns home to her family in Wyoming, K haunts her. He has reawakened her childhood nightmares, stirring up memories and sensations of life during wartime: "There were pieces of me and pieces of him and pieces of our history that were barbed together in a tangle in my head and I couldn't shake the feeling that in some inevitable way, I was responsible for K. And he for me." He cast a shadow, a living, breathing larger-than-life symbol of one of the more sinister parts of her history.
Returning to Africa nearly a year later to write about Zimbabwe, she sees him again and they agree to take a road trip through Zimbabwe and into Mozambique, where he was stationed during the war -- a geographic and emotional tracking of his past. Along the way, they meet a motley crew of other ex-soldiers, "mad bastards" all, balming their psychological war wounds with everything from alcohol to Ritalin to religion, still bosses of black Africans, still mistrustful of them, still ineluctably tied to them. They are chronically displaced people who can't quite release the sense of belonging they felt they had in the heat of battle, but who now desperately field the damage that situation inflicted on them, every minute of every day. Fuller finds herself worlds away from the stability and predictability of Wyoming, battered by "a storm of emotion and intensity," until she longs to be "incurious and content and conventional."
Gracefully folding a mixture of southern African languages and slang into her supple prose ("Scribble" is slang for "kill"; when her dad sees her growing fascination with K, he warns, "Curiosity scribbled the cat"), Fuller captures the rhythms and wounds of her subjects, cannily allowing the horror of their stories to speak for itself.
K, after his war experiences, remains "tortured, angry, aggressive, lost." When one puts this damage into the context of, say, Mozambique's recent 28 years of war, or the ongoing conflict in Iraq, the effects Fuller reveals through K take on a larger, even more abysmal meaning. In one sense, this book is an eloquent testimony to the unseen but all-encompassing devastation and utter helplessness that war engenders, and Scribbling exposes this with knife-sharp specificity. As one ex-soldier explains: "Sixty pounds of gear, bored to death, and shit scared. That's what war is. Until you're dead."
The book is also a clear-eyed apprehension of her homeland. Bringing Africa to vivid life, slipping effortlessly back into her comfortable homeland skin, Fuller captures the varied landscape -- cruel, ugly, languid, lovely -- without shying away from the wretchedness in places like Zimbabwe: "It was a land of almost breathtaking beauty or of savage poverty; a land of screaming ghosts or of sun-flung possibilities; a land of inviting warmth or of desperate drought. How you see a country depends on whether you are driving through it, or living in it. How you see a country depends on whether or not you can leave it, if you have to."
For Fuller, the landscape takes on a presence that encroaches on conversations, insinuating itself into tales being told, and she clearly revels in her affinity for it, savouring "the humid swell of the African air, which [she] swallowed in hungry, happy gulps." Which is precisely how to enjoy a book by Alexandra Fuller.
Daneet Steffens, a veteran of several road trips in Africa, is currently living in Ghana.
A former Rhodesian searches for truth about the war that created Zimbabwe.
by Adam Fifield
Sunday, May 30, 2004; Page BW07
SCRIBBLING THE CAT
Travels With an African Soldier
By Alexandra Fuller. Penguin Press. 256 pp. $24.95
On a Christmas visit to her parents' fish farm in Zambia a few years ago, Alexandra Fuller first heard talk of a mysterious neighbor, a white African veteran of the Rhodesian War of the 1970s whom her father described as a "tough bugger." The man whom Fuller calls K happened by her parents' farm the next morning -- and she was immediately fascinated.
"Even at first glance, K was more than ordinarily beautiful, but in a careless, superior way, like a dominant lion or an ancient fortress. . . . He looked like he was his own self-sufficient, debt-free, little nation -- a living, walking, African Vatican City. . . . He looked cathedral." He was also the embodiment of the white minority oppressors who ruled Rhodesia until a nationalist uprising led to its becoming, in 1980, black-ruled Zimbabwe.
The author's curiosity about K grew into an obsession, and as his contradictions emerge, it becomes clear why. A racist and a war criminal with a penchant for shocking violence, K was simultaneously a born-again Christian and a good Samaritan (he once rescued a nanny from the jaws of a crocodile) who had sworn off alcohol, ran a medical clinic and easily burst into emotional tears.
Fans of Fuller's bestselling debut memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, an often outrageous account of her white African childhood, can expect some of the same searing, at times intoxicating, prose in Scribbling the Cat. But while her portrait of K is striking, intimately revealing a soul tormented by spectres of war and guilt and loss, the book on the whole is unsatisfying. It is based on a contrived premise and results in an anemic narrative.
The premise, conceived by Fuller, was that she and K would travel over his old battlefields of more than 20 years ago -- from Zambia through Zimbabwe and into Mozambique. K would face his ghosts, and she would write about the journey. The tour essentially served its purpose, stirring in K a series of dark recollections -- which are usually far more interesting than the trip itself -- and ushering this unlikely pair into the company of a cast of eccentric and unstable characters (including an old war buddy of K's who lives alone on an island with an untamed lion). A strange, pained friendship grew between them, and it became colored by K's sexual attraction to Fuller; their already precarious relationship nearly fractured after her brief flirtation with another veteran.
Fuller can flat out write, and her rousing portrayals of the African landscape and the people and creatures that inhabit it can, as in her last book, rise to the level of lyricism:
"Out here, beyond the reach of the electric glare that spread from the rondaval, the witching darkness was so turbulent and vaporous with freshly hatched life and with its immediate contemporaries, death and decay, that the air seemed softly boiling with song, and with rustling wings and composting bodies." It is one of Fuller's great assets that she does not soften or shy away from the unseemly or the uncomfortable or the self-incriminating.
But in at least one instance, she greatly exaggerates her own complicity in an ostensible attempt to draw parallels between herself and her subject. After hearing K recount how he had brutally tortured an African teenage girl who later died of her injuries, Fuller says she thought: "This was my war too. . . . I was every bit that woman's murderer." That's a lot of guilt to assume, given that Fuller was a small child at the time.
This book is steeped in a medley of other vexing issues -- from the anguish of veterans living with their sins to the elusiveness of faith to the possibility of redemption. Fuller tries mightily to fathom K, but, with a few exceptions, refrains from judging him and the other veterans she encountered. Some readers may question whether she adequately deals with the pervasive racism that motivates these men.
In short, while it has several intense passages, Scribbling the Cat suffers from a slack story line -- a deficiency that will be all the more apparent to those who have read Fuller's stunning first book. Instead we are given a leisurely procession of anecdotes and musings that nonetheless illuminate the restless, haunted, often maniacal world of men whose wars still churn inside them.
Adam Fifield is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the author of "A Blessing Over Ashes: The Remarkable Odyssey of My Unlikely Brother."
Fuller and K take a road trip—but
does she blaller his skop?
by Lenora Todaro
May 28th, 2004 4:20 PM
Alexandra Fuller evokes her thirsty love of Africa, brawny men, and the hard life with the parched tongue of the expat. In her new memoir, Scribbling the Cat, verbs erupt, bugs "dash themselves to death," wounds are "wept open," tears "swell and tremble." Her geographical descriptions swoon: Her parents' town is a "low slink of a land on the edge of perpetual malaria," ruined by a drought "that didn't stop gorging until it fell into the sea, bloated with the dust of a good chunk of the lower half of Africa's belly." Her writing crackles, consumed by the memory of war.
Fuller's acclaimed 2001 memoir, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, left her married to an American and living a conventional life in Wyoming with her two children—in drastic contrast to her youth in war-torn Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) during the '70s, when her hardscrabble, hard-drinking parents farmed tobacco, cooked on an outdoor fire, lost three of five children, and advised her not to "look back so much or you'll get wiped out on the tree in front of you." To have read Dogs first helps one understand the journey the now 35-year-old Fuller takes in her new book.
In Cat Fuller road-trips with K, a white African and veteran of the Rhodesian War (1966–1980), in an effort to suck meaning from the conflict, which gave her childhood nightmares of having her eyelids chopped off (as described in Dogs). K, a man of her father's generation, captivates her with his story as well as his beauty: "His nose was unequivocal—hard and ridged, like something with which you'd want to plow a field. . . . He looked bulletproof . . . his own self-sufficient, debt-free, little nation—a living, walking, African Vatican City." Hardy, born-again, and smitten with Fuller, he agrees to revisit scenes of his old battles. Sexual tension runs high, and Fuller permits the flirtation its tango. She poeticizes in homage to one of her heroes, Michael Ondaatje, and offers candid aches à la Mary Karr. She incorporates Zimbabwean slang ("they blallered his skop") with aplomb. She knows her masters (Achebe, Naipaul), but her Africa is a white one. Rarely do black Africans appear except as servants and shooting targets, a reality of which she is keenly aware.
K's story unfolds mostly before they hit the road. His tough-broad mom dies from polio; he joins an elite white military troop and inflicts horrific torture; his son dies of meningitis; his wife goes mad, and they divorce; K finds God. Once he and Fuller are on their way, the energy flags. There are anecdotes like the one about a vaudevillian fight among K's drunk former comrades on a remote island patrolled by a quasi-domesticated lion. K and Fuller travel over land swollen with unexploded mines (psychological and actual), but if curiosity nearly killed ("scribbled") Fuller the cat (as she claims), it remains unclear how. K prays, cries, rages; Fuller shuts down. This emotional disconnect becomes the memoir's liability. Fuller funnels feeling into the landscape beautifully—Mozambique lies "bleeding flatly into the lake"—but when she and K reach an emotional impasse, she declares she has nothing to say, no grand truths about war. K's shards don't satisfy her, as when he asserts, "Sixty pounds of gear, bored to death, and shit scared. That's what war is. Until you're dead." The trauma of war is untidy; one hopes that this journey continues for Fuller, and that the nightmares reveal themselves in ever brighter light.
Friday, May 21, 2004, 12:00 A.M. Pacific
A man damaged by war seeking redemption
By Valerie Ryan
Special to The Seattle Times
In her previous book, "Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight," Alexandra (Bobo) Fuller told the story of her young life in Africa. It began at 2, when her family left Derbyshire, England, for their new home, and ended when she left Africa for America at 21. It was a story of learning to clean, re-assemble and load a gun at age 5. The Christmas tree was full of beetles and flies, Mom was alcoholic and manic-depressive and Dad walked to the end of the driveway and went to war every few weeks. It was impossible to stop reading it. Now, in "Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier" (Penguin Press, 256 pp., $24.95), Fuller has done it again.
Fuller, living in Wyoming with husband Charlie and her two children, returns to Africa on assignment to write about Zimbabwe, her former home. To decompress from that experience of violence and corruption, she visits her parents at their fish farm in Zambia. During the visit, she becomes intrigued by their neighbor, a man she calls only K, a white African and veteran of the Rhodesian civil war. Her father has told her to steer clear of him because he's dangerous, and to remember that "curiosity scribbled the cat." ("Scribbled" is Afrikaans slang for killed.) Fortunately for her readers, she ignores her father and pursues her interest in K.
Her description of him: "Even at first glance, K was more than ordinarily beautiful, but in a careless, superior way, like a dominant lion or an ancient fortress ... He looked bulletproof and he looked as if he was here on purpose ... he looked like his own self-sufficient, debt-free, little nation — a living, walking, African Vatican City. He looked cathedral."
Both Fuller and K have been altered, in significantly different ways, by the war they lived through. Fuller asks K to go back to Mozambique, where he battled the incursions of black insurgents during the war, with her. When he asks her why, she replies, "I could write about it and you could get over your spooks." K has been through a war filled with racial strife, brutal torture and the murder of innocents, a failed marriage, a beloved young son lost to meningitis and an inability to wash the blood from his hands. Fuller spent her childhood believing, with good cause, that there were terrorists under the bed. Neither one of them has fully recovered.
He is an enigmatic and charismatic person: on the one hand, the "bulletproof" man that Fuller describes, on the other a man who weeps openly when he speaks of his son, or of the horrendous things he saw — and did — in war. He has adopted a born-again Christianity, reading his Bible daily and trying to stay out of fights, longing to meet the right woman and have another family. The journey they take together is to K's old battlefields and old mates — other men damaged by war. The refrain is always the same: "Man, if there was a war crimes tribunal, every damn one of us ... we'd all be up for murder. We'd all be in jail... "
What comes through on every page of this compelling story is Fuller's passion for Africa and her boundless curiosity about why we are the way we are. "K was what happened when you grew a child from African soil, taught him an attitude of superiority, persecution, and paranoia, and then gave him a gun and sent him to war in a world he thought of as his own to defend. And when the cease-fire was called and suddenly K was remaindered, there was no way to undo him ... he would never forget to hate the man — and every man who looked like him — who took the life of his brother."
When they are about to head back to Zambia, Fuller comes to the conclusion that after all the rage and sadness she has made K recall, after the revisiting of so much pain, what they are doing is "trying to patch together enough words to make sense of our lives." There are no answers here, which is made clear by the honesty of Fuller's prose, but Fuller and K have a firm command of the questions.
Sunday, May 23, 2004
In some respects, Alexandra Fuller's new book, "Scribbling the Cat: Travels With an African Soldier," follows in the footsteps of her memoir from 2001, "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight."
Both books are set in the Africa of Fuller's childhood. Both explore geography as a kind of destiny. And the books look alike, sound alike: Chapters begin with photographs, and Fuller's sentences are delightfully spiked with an intoxicating African Creole.
Appearances aside, however, "Don't Let's Go" and "Scribbling" are as different as, well, dogs and cats.
The former follows Fuller's colorful and harrowing childhood at the hands of parents who fought for white supremacy during the Rhodesian civil war in the 1970s, and the tone is unflinchingly honest.
Her follow-up isn't so easily summarized. "Scribbling" arose out of Fuller's conflicted-to-the-point-of-twisted friendship with a former soldier in the Rhodesian army and the journey she took with him. The book is an attempt to speak to the unspeakable effects of war -- destruction, devastation, exile.
But at times Fuller also seems to speak from a remove, to cast the story more as a way to scratch a long-standing itch. She's "curious," as she puts it, about the war of which her parents never speak.
So curious that she blatantly ignores the fact that K., the former-soldier-turned-evangelical-farmer, falls for her at first sight while she's visiting her parents in Zambia. So curious that, on a subsequent visit, she invites K. to return with her to some of his killing grounds so she can write his story and he, she suggests, can exorcise his demons.
All of which makes the story sound more calculated than it ultimately is. True, for the first half of "Scribbling," Fuller doesn't own up to her role in her relationship with K. These chapters have a controlled, halting quality to them, as if Fuller isn't willing to let her past and present -- she lives in Jackson Hole, Wyo., with her husband and two children -- fully collide. Which is a pity, as the unblinking self-awareness Fuller brought to her first book was remarkable and startling.
But by the time she and K. meet up in Mozambique with a former compatriot of K.'s -- a man so bent by war that he chooses to live on an island with only a lion he fears as a companion -- Fuller drops the reins and the story rushes into still-raw madness. K. and his friend are men who survive by keeping the past at bay; Fuller is intent on plotting that very past on the page. "It was," she writes, "a broken contract from the start."
Broken, perhaps, but not unmoving.
"Don't Let's Go" was Fuller's first book, and the story had been "percolating through me since I can remember," she's said. Although "Scribbling" came faster and is, perhaps as a result, less fully realized, it is a timely reminder that war is not over when the last soldier goes home. What happens next is messy, complex, heartbreaking. War, Fuller argues, has a long reach. And all those involved -- whether they see direct combat or not -- are inexorably altered by its touch.
B.T. Shaw edits The Oregonian's poetry column.
THE PLAIN DEALER
Sunday, May 16, 2004
Special to The Plain Dealer
Both the whites and the blacks in Alexandra Fuller's Africa - the Sole Valley, in eastern Zambia - have deeply tangled roots in its bitter soil. When these roots are tugged and examined, as Fuller does with such brilliant verve in her second book, "Scribbling the Cat: Travels With an African Soldier," they bleed.
In 1972, when she was 4, Fuller's family moved from England to a farm in Zimbabwe (the former Rhodesia), right when the war between the black guerillas and Rhodesia's ruling white minority was ratcheting up. Over the next five barbarous years, more than 20,000 people would die. Fuller recalls being among the crowd that cheered on the troops, "a small, smug white girl shouting, 'We are all Rhodesians and we'll fight through thickanthin.' "
Some 30 years later, Fuller leaves her home in Wyoming to pay a Christmas visit to her family, which had been jostled from Zimbabwe during the rancorous aftermath of the war and now raises bananas and fish in Zambia. There, she meets K, a handsome, eerily charismatic banana farmer who had been such a fierce and volatile member of the Rhodesian army's elite killing unit that he was promoted; his officers knew they couldn't command him.
In this war-ravaged land, Fuller writes that "Soldiers of all colors and political persuasions were left washed up and anchorless in some profound way - like the survivors of a natural disaster. War is not the fault of soldiers, but it becomes their life's burden." In K, she finds a man whose burden is staggering.
A bond quickly develops between them, and 10 months later they set off on a road trip through Zimbabwe and Mozambique to revisit the sites of K's warrior past. They have very different agendas. K is now a born-again Christian - "happy-clappy," in the words of one of his old comrades - and hopes to enshrine a wife in the new house he's building in the backcountry, in the shadow of the mountain he's named Peace. He's hoping God has sent Fuller to be his bride, even if she doesn't realize it yet.
For her part, Fuller imagines that by probing K's past, she'll understand what turns ordinary people into monsters who can kill, or "scribble," someone as dispassionately as they fell a tree. For K has done terrible things - things that make him shout in his sleep, things that make him weep and long for his own death.
The journey seethes not only with sexual tension, but also with danger - from the land mines that threaten the unwary and from the simmering despair of Africans whose lives still are ruined by the war. And from K himself. The reader often wonders whether he will explode into violence again, whether the golden thread of faith that keeps him from mayhem and murder is strong enough to still his hand.
Ultimately, "Scribbling the Cat" is a powerful exploration of the cost of war to the soldiers who have to leave their humanity behind and of the culpability of those who wave them off to their task.
Ohlson, author of "Stalking the Divine," lives in Cleveland Heights.
Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier
By DANIEL DURCHHOLZ
"Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an
By Alexandra Fuller
is not the fault of soldiers, but it becomes their life's burden" writes
Alexandra Fuller, who in the course of her new memoir "Scribbling the Cat"
reveals how much that burden weighs down some old soldiers.
Fuller grew up in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), Malawi and Zambia. She wrote about her childhood in her first book, the best-selling "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight."
In "Scribbling," she returns to Africa to visit her parents and begins to hear tales of a local banana farmer and Rhodesian war veteran known only as K - a "tough bugger" whose many contradictions intrigue her. He is a beautiful physical specimen, though closer inspection reveals various battle scars and tattoos; he is cocksure and righteous (being a born-again Christian) yet capable of sudden and terrible violence. He doles out empathy and scorn (though neither in a measured fashion), and despite his toughness, has many regrets, weeping openly and often at the slightest recollection of his failed marriage or the brutal acts he committed while in uniform.
Fuller's father warns her against getting mixed up with K, because, as they say in the local parlance, "Curiosity scribbled the cat."
Braving K's unwieldy psyche, plus the fact that he sees her as a possible love interest, Fuller talks him into retracing his steps of 20 years ago in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It is a journey fraught with peril, in part because of the volatile state of Africa and a people afflicted with all manner of disease, natural disaster, hopelessness and violence.
Fuller is especially adept at paralleling the condition of the ruined land with the damaged psyches of soldiers like K and his friend Mapenga, a veteran whose "spooks" have driven him to live with his pet lion on a small island in the middle of a lake. She becomes K's confessor, but at a price: Eventually, she is made to feel complicity for his war crimes; it was, after all, for her sake and the sake of other white Rhodesians that K and numerous others took up arms in the first place. In the end, they've borne something far more terrible and cumbersome.