SCRIBBLING THE CAT
by Alexandra Fuller
Other pages on the author in this site O O O
Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier
Picador, £16.99, 257 pp
White man's burden
Harry Mount reviews Scribbling the Cat by Alexandra Fuller
If you want travel books to be full of wide-eyed pleasure about distant lands and intoxicatingly tropical customs, this one isn't for you. If you want them really to be misery books, full of the comfort that comes from knowing that exotic is just another word for dangerous, Alexandra Fuller's your woman.
Alexandra Fuller is only 35 - and a supermodel 35 at that - but she's already had an old woman's complement of woes. Her childhood in Rhodesia, Malawi and Zambia, described in her first book, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, could have filled several memoirs with wall-to-wall tragedy: alcoholic parents, mother a manic depressive to boot, three out of four siblings dead by drowning and disease, and all to the backdrop of civil war.
For this second portion of hellish misery, Fuller, who now lives in Wyoming with her husband and two children, returns to Africa, which has an endless supply of the stuff. If anything, she's intensified the misery by finding a new, untapped source of the blues - a divorced and cuckolded veteran of the Rhodesian war, known only as K, with a dead child (natch), living on his own in a cement bedroom on the bank of a remote river. He is battered and tattooed, with the name of his blood group scratched into his right forearm during his war service with the Rhodesian Light Infantry, the only all-white unit during the war and the most bloodthirsty of them all.
When Fuller accompanies him on a tour of his old war haunts in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, she really hits the mother-lode of sadness as she meets the ghosts from his past, some dead, some just alive. Like K, the other veterans are divorced, practising or ex-alcoholics, with another sprinkling of dead babies. They talk about killing with all the casualness of accomplished assassins, and have a million jocular terms for killing: "plugging", "stonking", "slotting" and "scribbling"; thus the title of Fuller's book.
Curiosity may have scribbled the cat. It doesn't scribble Fuller. It just makes her into a terrific writer, with an acute ear for the 1950s Molesworth-meets-Mowgli lingo of white Zimbabweans: parents are fossils; AIDS is Henry the Fourth (as in HIV); an early start is mashambanzou, "when the elephants wash", and the evening is marirangwe, "when the leopard calls out".
The slang is also often just downright horrible, particularly when it comes to blacks, or "gondies" as the veterans call them. K laughs his head off at his new plan to stop being burgled: "I'll get my electric fence and then hokoyo! Zap! One time, fried gondie."
Somehow, despite all this, you warm to this desperate band; precisely because they are so desperate. Brought up to feel superior to the majority and to rule the land from horizon to horizon, they did horrific, haunting things to hold on to it all. Now they've lost it. As their farms are expropriated, they are slung from country to country, scratching out livings on more and more desperate little pockets of bush.
But they'll never leave Africa. And why the hell not? Most of them could find a sister in Bedfordshire or a cousin in Toronto to lodge with. But then again, although we think white Africans are much more like us than they are like black Africans (and they're certainly much more horrible about blacks than we are), they are still exactly that - African - and they're going to stay in Africa, however bad it gets.
Harry Mount is the author of 'My Brief Career: The Trials of a Young Lawyer' (Short Books).
A writer's life: Alexandra
The author tells Graham Boynton she became obsessed with a brutal Rhodesian soldier.
"Aaaaaahhhh! I can't believe this! Listen to this…" Alexandra Fuller is sitting in her Savoy hotel suite alternately groaning in despair and shrieking with mirth at a review of her latest book, Scribbling the Cat.
"Oh, I love that. It's such a load of bollocks."
The reviewer, a Fleet Street foreign correspondent who has covered many of Africa's brutal little wars, accuses her of being typical of the kind of "literary-Leftie-type female writers who go weak-kneed at meeting a real live soldier-man".
The soldier in question is K, a former iron man from the Rhodesian war who served with the notorious whites-only Rhodesian Light Infantry and now – 20 years after the end of that conflict – finds himself living a somewhat monastic life in the Zambian bush, communing with God, growing bananas and hanging out with one or two other misfits from that other time. These are white Rhodies haunted by the war they fought and eventually lost, who as time passes go deeper and deeper into the African bushveld as if trying to shake off all traces of their past.
In one particularly powerful passage in the book, K describes to Fuller how he and his "stick" of RLI troopies raided a Mozambiquan village looking for a group of guerrillas. They ended up torturing a village girl in the most brutal manner. Yet the incident is so well-described by Fuller that one understands something of the sordid, dehumanising processes of war that drive people to such acts.
The strength of Fuller's storytelling, in my view at least, undermines the charges of exploitation and unthinking hero-worship levelled at her. What hurts her most about that particular review, she says, "is the suggestion that I cynically swooped down on K clutching a book contract".
Fuller's rationalisation of her role as narrator of K's journey into his past is passionate, if slightly confused. "It's all very well sitting here in London moralising, but I wanted to understand people like K and unless I walked in his footsteps, how could I know what he went through? For me, here was an extraordinary human being. He is inconvenient, he is not pleasant to be around, and I wanted to understand him. It wasn't that I was in love with him… it was never physical. It was that I was utterly obsessed with the amount of pain he carried around with him.
"The reason I was so honest about my behaviour as well as K's… if you remove yourself from your centre of gravity or point of power, how do you know how you are going to behave? You see, to critics like that one I'm also inconvenient, because I'm a woman and a mother and a wife… and I dared to break all the taboos."
Scribbling the Cat is the follow-up to Fuller's successful, critically acclaimed memoir of an African childhood, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, which describes the life of her chaotic farming family at the end of the liberation war that transformed colonial Rhodesia into Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. The two books have in common a fresh and inventive prose style, and a remarkable ear for the dialogue of a particular moment in African colonial history.
Where they differ is that the first book is a memoir whereas this one is an exercise in participatory journalism, and it has opened her up to critical attacks. With good grace but a heavy heart, Fuller is expecting more political criticisms on this book tour, particularly on her next stop, South Africa; there she will face white liberal critics and black, pro-Mugabe activists. It is clear she would rather be out tramping through the African bushveld or mountain-climbing in the Tetons in Wyoming, where she lives with her American husband, two children, six horses and three dogs.
Fuller is an extremely likeable, unaffected young woman, and she reminds me of the bright young things of my own youth in Rhodesia. She is well-read, but not that well-read, and often appears politically naive. Her inspiration comes from the newer generation of African writers – she names the Zimbabwean Alexander Kanengoni's Echoing Silences as "one of the most chilling and most beautiful things I have ever read". She dedicates Scribbling the Cat to him, although she says that now Mugabe has given him a farm in Zimbabwe "he probably won't bother to write any more". She also mentions the exiled Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiongo and says that reading his Petals of Blood (which she mis-identifies as "Rivers of Blood") when she was 17 had a profound effect on her.
All of which goes some way towards explaining her own writing style, which is instinctive rather than intellectual. She doesn't pretend to aspire to the scholarly rigour of JM Coetzee or the literary refinement of VS Naipaul. Her constant references to contemporary black African writers suggest she would rather be compared to them. "My pigmentation means nothing… it's quite obvious I am African," she says.
"The noise coming at us from black Africa didn't get through at first because we whites were so bloody superior. It was as if I had been deaf through my early teenage years and then suddenly started hearing it like music. African literature is so important because, even in translation, it comes across as the sound of the continent."
Fuller writes quickly – "horribly quickly" – and while she is writing she neither smokes nor drinks alcohol, even though when off-duty she says she is an enthusiastic smoker and drinker. It seems when she writes her only craving is for tea. She does most of her work in a corrugated iron shed on her 20-acre farm in the Grand Tetons, the magnificent range that straddles Idaho and Wyoming. Surrounded by a further 1,000 acres of open farmland, she admits she has found a patch of North America that provides her with the space and tranquillity that she associates with the African bushveld.
At this point she scuttles over to a bag in the corner of the suite and retrieves a clutch of colour photographs of her farm, her children, horses, dogs and cats.
Before her memoir was published she had written "more than a million words of fiction that have now been consigned to the Teton County land dump". She says the novels she wrote were disasters. "It was The Grass Is Singing 400 times over. I love that book, but my attempts to copy it were dismal."
When I ask her if she can see herself writing a book that is not about Africa, Fuller is silent for a long time. Then she says that she would need to feel as driven as she did by the loneliness and pain of K, and I get the impression that her search for a subject outside her beloved continent will be long and hard. What is so striking about her two books is that they exude the passion and searing honesty of the true believer. She claims to breathe, smell, feel the heartbeat of Africa. So, clearly America could not offer the same dramatic canvas for her exuberant prose.
Alexandra Fuller takes Peter Longworth on a hunt for demons in Scribbling the Cat, a grim journey through Zimbabwe's past
Saturday September 11, 2004
Scribbling the Cat: Travels With an African Soldier
by Alexandra Fuller
269pp, Picador, £16.99
Look back too much and you are wiped out by the tree in front of you says Alexandra Fuller's dad, but she ignores him and heads full-throttle into the past looking for demons. She missed the tree, but the trip "bloody nearly killed me", she tells us afterwards. Dad was right, and not just about Fuller's journey. Too many Zimbabweans see the past as the key to the present and it's nearly killing them as well.
For the leftovers of Ian Smith's killing machine who people Fuller's new book, the past is all there is. Yesterday's world had rules of engagement. Remaindered from the Rhodesian war, all they have now is their ghosts inadequately repressed by extreme religion, alcohol, purple pills or a penchant for tearing down bars. Don't believe these guys don't exist. Spot them at the end of a Harare Rhodie bar or even worse stumbling towards you across the terrace of a bush hotel and it's time to grab the bill.
I should have stayed to listen. It might have helped me understand where President Mugabe was going when he told me (as British high commissioner), just before pulling up the drawbridge, that the winds of change were irrelevant to Zimbabwe and he would take the country back to its roots and rural strengths.
For Mugabe, the past is a comfort zone, full of certainties, free of challenge. That's why he abolished the present and left his enforcers and Henry the Fourth (HIV infection to you) to take care of the generation shift.
Scribbling the Cat is a grimmer title than it sounds: "scribbling" is a term current among Rhodie veterans for the act of killing. Preferred targets were fighters of the liberation movement (gooks), but nobody (gondie, munt or even honkey) could feel safe in the Rhodesia/Mozambique border country. If the vocabulary (Fuller thoughtfully provides us with a glossary) is disturbing, try telling K, the white African veteran who, when not exchanging atrocities with the enemy, tries to scribble Father Christmas by forcing his beard down the back of his throat.
For Fuller, the too-curious feline of the title, these easy pseudonyms reflect the casualness of killing in conflict and the virtual irrelevance of human life to the protagonists. But as the book progresses they increasingly come across as necessary euphemisms for former combatants trying to minimise their guilt and quiet the demons that variously bring them to tears, keep them cursing though their dreams or drive them howling into the bush.
"Don't let the ghosts in Mozambique bite you," says one old fighter to another: some hope! Fuller's objective is to get the ghosts talking through those they possess, to make some sense of war and its impact on warriors and ultimately find the answer to the "splinters in my own psyche". She carries her own demons from schoolgirl days when she cheered on the troopers and sang the anthems of supremacy.
She accordingly asks K to take her on a journey back to the zone and relive his past. It is a high-risk project. Once a silent killer, hard-drinking street fighter and bar brawler of awesome violence, now a born-again Christian with visions and a special line to God, K is Desperate Dan with an attitude. "Don't blame me if we get scribbled," he says.
Most everything that could happen on their safari does happen, helped along by corrupt officials, thieves, the local fauna and forces of nature. K's on/off death wish doesn't help. With hindsight it is an ironic journey. Mount Darwin, 80 miles northeast of Harare, had K scribbling like fury in his day. It was an iconic location for Rhodies and rebels. Today it is hard-line Party country where, 22 years after the peace, Border Ghezi, my one-time lunch mate and governor of the province, led the first brutal attacks on commercial farm workers.
K and a cast of crazed former hunter-killers give us a dark, often hilarious, ultimately unforgiving moral travelogue with regular sorties into politics, race and the like, but always returning to war and the perpetrator. For Fuller's chums, it's to do with self-justification and legitimacy. "We didn't choose war, war chose us," rationalises one former fighter. "No one would choose war deliberately but if it's the hand you're dealt, then... fuck. "
Perhaps tired of the special pleading, she comes off the fence: the war hadn't created K. He 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 is a world he thought was his to defend". It's not easy to accept K's casual rationalisations without anger or at least indignation. But reading is one thing: meet the bereaved and the torture victims of present-day Zimbabwe for yourself and wonder at the shoulder-shrugs as the torturers pass themselves off as agents of freedom - don't be surprised if you wonder what it is they have won and what it was that K lost.
But the biggest shiver for me comes when K describes the fear he instilled in the psychiatrists checking him out after a particularly awful act of torture against a young Shona girl. "They were so scared of me," he says. "They knew that if they had been in my position they might have done the same thing. They were so shit scared of being who I was." Maybe the demon is with us all.
Peter Longworth was British high commissioner to Zimbabwe, 1998 -2001.
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05 September 2004
Alexandra Fuller produced in 2002 one of finest books I have read in the past decade, if not ever. Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, a memoir of growing up with feckless but charming settler parents in white Rhodesia as it became Zimbabwe, evoked place and people and pain with spare but exquisite prose. Three of Fuller's siblings died young, one - in the book's most compelling but almost unbearable section - drowning in a duck pond while in the care of the young Alexandra. It is one of those books that convince you that some writers have a God-given gift for words which the rest of us jealously labour away to approach but never quite equal. The book won prizes - here and in the States where Fuller now lives - and was a word-of-mouth best seller.
After such a debut, Fuller is inevitably facing an uphill struggle with her second book, especially as she has chosen to write another first-person tale of Africa. One life surely cannot contain another story as dramatic and poignant as that which she has already told. In Scribbling the Cat, her parents are here again, now running a fish farm in Sole Valley in Zambia and dottier than ever. The African landscape once again is so powerfully evoked that it plays the role of a principal character. "Sole," she writes, "had been so parched that its surface curled back like a dried tongue and exposed red, bony gums of erosion". Later, as she journeys through Zimbabwe, she shows again that, though she is white, she is every bit an African. "Places have their own peculiar smells, and here in Murewa the smell was sun on hot rocks; it was the nose-stung scent of goats; it was the smell of Africans, which is soil-on-skin, sun-on-skin, wood smoke and the tinny smell of fresh sweat; it was the smell of home-brewed beer and burned chicken feathers and kicked-up dust."
This new book is more travelogue than memoir, though she is retracing the war that brought down Rhodesia. Fuller's companion is a white veteran of that conflict, a man she calls K. He is a neighbour of her parents, an angry, energetic, divorced, bereaved and evangelically Christian man. He is brutal and babyish at turns, prone to violence and weeping. She draws him out as they cross Zimbabwe about his memories of confronting guerilla insurgents. And she accompanies him into Mozambique as he visits other leftovers from the losing side in that battle: eccentric, crazed white Africans living in a vacuum, talking constantly of the past.
Her mission is to understand why they did it, what they were defending, what was lost and at what cost to the combatants. All good and timely questions - both for her, shaking loose the ghosts of her past, and for the reader. In a world dotted by conflicts, Scribbling the Cat is an unflinching portrait by an acute and insightful observer of the psychological damage done to those who participate in war, who daily take life and fear for their own. "Those of us who grow up in war," Fuller concludes, "are like clay pots fired in an oven that is overhot. Confusingly shaped like the rest of humanity, we nevertheless contain fatal cracks that we spend the rest of our lives itching to fill."
Yet, for all her extraordinary gifts as a writer and the merits of what she is seeking to discover, Fuller hasn't quite written another classic to sit alongside Don't Let's Go... Her whole journey feels slightly contrived - the chance meeting in Zambia with K and the will-they-won't-they tension that she uses to make their relationship more interesting but which ultimately feels a bit cheap. The main problem, however, is the characters. In her first book, Fuller's parents were drunken, foolish, impetuous racists but somehow she made you see another side and warm to them. K, by contrast, for all his contradictions, loses his fascination for the reader long before Fuller decides he is not the man for her.
That said, this remains a remarkable book. Fuller is particularly good at conveying the sense of having turned her back on safety - her family back in the States - and put herself at the mercy of chaotic events and unpredictable people. "I shut my eyes tightly and tried to unpick my thoughts and actions that had landed me here," she writes, trying to sleep on a bunk on the caged-in veranda of an almost derelict house, guarded by an untamed lion, on a lonely island in the middle of a lake in Mozambique, "so that I might retrace my steps back to wherever it was I had left off a perfectly safe platform and dived into the space that resulted in this free fall into insanity."
There is no happy ending. Fuller emerges from her trek if anything more confused, more aware of her own damaged state, and therefore, I hope and expect, with the seeds of her next book.
Culled, plugged and just plain murdered
Christopher Hope reviews Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier by Alexandra Fuller
There is murder and there is mirth in Africa – it's just that sometimes you can't tell them apart. Alexandra Fuller is tough enough not to try. In her first book, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, she drew a savage, very funny portrait of a white Rhodesian family contemplating its extinction. You can't be "Rhodesian" any longer – just as you can't be "Yugoslav". But then, according to the despot of Harare, white "settlers" can't be true Zimbabweans either. So who are they, these pale phantoms who persist in odd corners of Africa, in a limbo of exploded illusions?
Scribbling the Cat takes the search for identity and culpability off the farm and into the bush. Fuller fans will be glad to know that Mum and Dad make a brief appearance, imperturbably sexing their fish and fending off hippo on their farm in eastern Zambia. Their land is skewered, in the dry, wry style that marks Fuller's prose, as "a v-shaped slot of goat–dusted scrub". Fuller's gift for laconic, tender portraits of terrible times is still beautifully intact, but this is a much darker book than her first.
On a visit to her family, escaping her comfortable exile in America, Fuller meets an ex-soldier who fought in the bush wars that wrecked the old Rhodesia. The huge, manic farmer she calls K is a visionary, a dried-out alcoholic and a born-again Christian. But it is K's previous life as a superb killing machine that intrigues, entrances and seduces Fuller. And it is her father who warns his daughter that "curiosity scribbled the cat".
In Africa, people have words for murder in the way that Eskimos have words for snow, and Fuller runs through the lexicon of euphemisms for violent blood-letting that is so familiar across the subcontinent: "scribbled, culled, plugged, slotted, taken out, drilled, wasted, stonked, hammered, wiped out, snuffed".
Fuller's real interest is in words; what they mean, and what people do with them. Scribbling the Cat looks at the bleak fact that death is everywhere in Africa: people are just corpses waiting to happen. And it looks hard at the even more unpalatable thought that a lot of people seem to like it that way. Mother Africa has few maternal instincts but an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction – from hunger, Aids and tyranny to white folks who once believed killing Africans was good for the soul and black folks who believed the same and, when you get right down to it, still do.
Fuller and K set out on an unsentimental journey from Zambia through Zimbabwe into Mozambique. She finds an Africa knocked sideways by flood and famine, eaten by drought, exhausted by Aids. A place worse in some ways than it was under the old white rulers. Along the way they team up with K's old comrades-in-arms from the Rhodesian war. Some are drunk, some are on Prozac. One keeps a lion; another sees visions of God. This remarkable book opens a door into the heads of soldiers who learnt to kill, and loved it. In their waking dreams they're still "stonking" the "gondos" and "wasting the munts".
Fuller draws utterly convincing portraits of Southern White Males who are still hunting the dark, yet somehow beloved, enemy. These men are high on hysterical energy and turn in a trice from dreams of murder to tear-sodden mawkishness.
They make an odd couple, the abstemious ex-killer and his fond but merciless feline companion. Chancing her arm and her nine lives, Fuller follows a dusty road under the African sun and walks a fine line between sex and death, until the inevitable betrayal happens. Perhaps it is just a simple reversion to type: K becomes the gangling, heart-sore farm boy he always was, and Fuller turns back into the frozen-hearted watcher that writers always will be.
Scribbling the Cat is troubling, funny and fiercely true. It does not give a damn for decorum. Fuller strips away the cant that chokes conversation about Africa, a place where there is no peace but, at best, an edgy truce between black and white, a truce that amounts, in people like K and his wild, demented friends, to a kind of helpless, loving loathing.
The TLS n.º 5304 November 26, 2004
In the remains of the Rhodesian war
Deborah L. Manzolillo
SCRIBBLING THE CAT
Travels with am African soldier
257 pp. Picador. £ 16.99
0 330 43327 X
In times of war, we must reflect on the damage sustained by those who sacrifice themselves for a cause, even if it is only the political designs of their leaders. For many of these men and women, the losses continue to mount long after the battle lines become blurred, and the genesis of the conflict is a hazy memory to the rest of us. Alexandra Fuller, in her disturbing second book, Scribbling the Cat, reminds us that “war is not the fault of soldiers, but it becomes their life’s burden”.
We assume that those who are sent off to wars lo kill, to die, or be maimed physically and mentally, understand the reasons for their sacrifice. We reason that those who pulled the triggers, lobbed the grenades, dropped the bombs and planted the landmines knew why. Our hope is that they can explain it to the rest of us. And it is one of the tragedies of war that, often, they simply cannot do so.
Fuller was a child during the Rhodesian War. That conflict, and its impact on her family, was the subject of her previous Don‘t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (2002). In that account of her childhood, her parents, definitely an eccentric pair, were casualties of the politics of the time: they had been on the wrong side of the winds of change. In Scribbling the Cat her parents provide the reader with some comic relief from the more difficult parts of the story. They are, in fact, considerably saner than everyone else in the book. On a Christmas visit to the folks, Fuller meets a man, K, whose burden of war has made him vulnerable to circumstances and forces that, earlier in his life, would have left him unmoved. A white veteran of the Rhodesian War, K has renounced his racist, sadistic and violent past, becoming a teetotal burn-again Christian, who sees God’s design in any number of random events. Consumed with guilt, he cries easily. As they grow closer, Fuller recognizes that the trauma inflicted un K by the war was also compounded by personal tragedies~ He now lives in a country beset by poverty, desperation and an AIDS epidemic.
Fuller’s parents left Zimbabwe after Independence, and have finally settled in Zambia where they breed fish for a living of sorts. Their house is more concept than reality: a roof-and-open-plan existence. Somehow this seems lo soil them. Fed by torrential rains, the river is slowly carrying away parts of the farm. They are unwilling to have anything permanent. Fuller’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown years before, after the death of one of her children. She seems to have recovered, apart from an obsessive urge to waste nothing. She reluctantly discards a dead bullfrog, his usefulness as a lampshade marred by his smell. Another fashion opportunity is missed when the swollen river throws up two crocodiles. They get into the fish pond and ingest a large proportion of the contents. After ordering them dispatched, Fuller’s mother is dismayed by the state of their hides — too full of holes to be reincarnated as a “sweet pair of shoes”.
The liberation wars in Southern Africa affected everyone, including Fuller who, even though a small child at the time, feels a nagging responsibility and ownership by virtue of her birth and ancestry. In a bid to understand K, and other men like him, as well as her own place in this historical landscape, she suggests that the two of them travel lo K.’s former battlegrounds in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. This they do, on the way meeting some of the veterans who fought with him, as well as a few who were on the opposite side. Sides, though, are no longer relevant; making peace with oneself is.
As in the first book, Fuller’s writing is astonishing and lyrical. You can hear the insects buzzing, and smell the rain hilting and breaking up the drought-hardened soil. The discordance between the beautiful landscapes she describes and the terrible massacres that occurred in them is remarkably evoked. The ageing warriors are attempting to come to a settlement with the remainder of their lives: they drink and womanize, they fish and pray, one lives with a lion. A veteran diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is convinced that they all suffer from the same affliction; he would like to see them all on Ritalin, Fuller included.
This is a road trip with no real destination. If there are answers, Fuller did not find them anywhere along the way. In one painful exchange with two veterans, she is told not lo ask questions. She concludes that war is something that can’t be rewound (or relived), it simply goes on and on, becoming distorted, contracted, until no one remembers the reason it began. But the war does not create people like K. They are brought op and nurtured in a toxic mix of paranoia and superiority. When they feel threatened, the result is a potent combination of loyally, cruelty and hatred. What Fuller tells us is that killing is also a sacrifice. II lays on a debt that is almost impossible to pay.
The understanding under which K and Fuller began their expedition was flawed and nearly came unstuck. They had based their partnership on different expectations: he hoping for love, and she for some kind of enlightenment. They finish their journey unfulfilled, and resentful. The narrative does not so much end as take a break for au undetermined length of time. It is the pause in a relationship that takes over; when we part company without knowing if we will meet or speak again, or under what circumstances.
The aftermath of civil war is a strange peace. Often, the antagonists carry on in a sort of cohabitation, with little change for those in whose name the conflict was waged. The victims, the perpetrators, bystanders and those who come after are bound to the war in ways that are difficult lo acknowledge. Scribbling the Cat tells a story that sheds light on these bonds. Alexandra Fuller avoids making judgements about causes and actions. But she shows us quite clearly the costs of aggression, whether justified or not.
Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier, by Alexandra Fuller,
A journey into romance and brutality
By Christina Patterson
03 January 2005
"Because it is the land that grew me, and because they are my people, I sometimes forget to be astonished by Africans" says Alexandra Fuller in this, her second book about Africa. Her first, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, was a powerful and moving account of a childhood spent in Rhodesia, Malawi and Zambia. It combined wry humour with fierce lyrical intensity and became an international bestseller.
Her new book, according to an "author's note", is "a true story about a man and about the journey that I took with that man". The man, whom she calls K, is a banana farmer who lives near her parents' fish farm in Zambia. K is known as a "tough bugger". Rumours of his violence abound and Fuller's father warns her to keep away, tells her, in fact that "curiosity scribbled [ie killed] the cat". Fuller refuses to be daunted. While her parents sex the fish and eye up the food potential of bullfrogs, she sets off to K's banana farm to find out more.
She is instantly mesmerised by this man, who "seemed organic and supernatural", "romantic and brutish", "both saviour and murderously dangerous". Confronted with the weight of his sadness - which includes the horrors of war and the death of his only child - she feels "ruined with pity". When she returns to hubby, home and children in Wyoming, she still can't get him out of her head. On her next visit, she meets him again and they set out together on a journey to Mozambique.
All of which sounds romantic, except that this is not a love story. Or at least, not for Fuller. K's feelings are abundantly clear from the start. An ex-alcoholic born-again Christian, he tells her, looking deep into her eyes, that "God will send me a woman when the time is right."
Looking back at the man she has, slightly jarringly, described as "cathedral", and a "living, walking, African Vatican city", she sees not a man, but material: a subject, at last, for a new book. And so, in this unequal alliance, they set out together on a journey to the heart of darkness and the landscape in which K witnessed, and perpetrated, numerous, nameless horrors.
The lyrical precision and visceral intensity are still there in the writing - and so are the sounds, smells and soul of Africa. There's eloquent anger, too: about the media who stay in five-star hotels and tell semi-starving locals to "try to look subdued", and a more generalised anger, against the brutality of a country, and world, that allows such "exquisite torment" to remain the norm.
Fuller is a hugely talented and passionate writer, but this book has a fatal flaw. While her first memoir read like a book that had to be written, this one reads like an interesting project. Interesting for her, that is. When K tells her that "you play with men and you play with their feelings", the reader can only agree. Fuller is honest enough to acknowledge that the whole idea was "based on a lie and on a hope neither of us could fulfill". But this was at the end of her remarkable journey with K. And when she had nearly finished the book, of course.