Pages about Doris Lessing on this site:
mainly on the book "The sweetest dream"
on the book "Grandmothers"
on the books "Time Bites" and "The story of General Dann..."
Rounding the cape of lost hope
Doris Lessing is at the top of her game in four intense novellas
Reviewed by Martin Rubin
Sunday, February 8, 2004
Four Short Novels
By Doris Lessing
HARPERCOLLINS; 311 PAGES; $23.95
Going on 85, Doris Lessing shows no sign of running out of steam as a writer of memorable fiction. Described variously by her publisher as novellas, stories and short novels, the four pieces that make up "The Grandmothers" are masterpieces of artistry and intellect. Whether she is describing the London tha thas been her home for 55 years, a lost civilization that existed 7,000 years ago, a present-day postcolonial beauty spot or World War II in Cape Town (which she experienced as a young woman) and India (which she did not), her touch in all four narratives is sure.
The first novella (this seems to me the category into which these splendid stories best fit), which gives the book its title, is a daring story of love that transcends accepted norms: two close female friends fall in love with each other's teen sons. Told with great verve and conviction, it is a story that might have been simply preposterous. It is a measure of Lessing's authoritative style and authorial presence that she succeeds in making the title piece not merely plausible but profoundly believable.
What raises it above the shock piece it might have remained is not only the intelligence and sensitivity with which the story is rendered but also the serious attention given to the consequences -- internal as well as societal -- of such a transgression. Only the ending is a little disappointing, although it does seem inevitable, given the dramatic way in which the author has chosen to begin her tale. Also it must be said that the force of much of the story's plot and narrative drive raises such high expectations that even Lessing may have simply been unable to come up with an ending that would not seem anticlimactic.
The next two novellas, "Victoria and the Staveneys," about a poor black girl who bears the child of the son of a white, liberal middle-class family, and the fantastical "The Reason for It," both display Lessing's formidable political intellect. Whether she is exploring what went wrong with a culture thousands of years ago or showing the deficiencies of the one in which she is an alert if uneasy inhabitant today, her vision is far-reaching and devastating. In "The Reason for It," that old society fell because of bad leadership, and she leaves no doubt as to what constitutes deficiencies in that regard, then or now. To say that her tale of yore has resonance for today's global economy and consumer culture is to understate the on-target acuity of her judgment. And she never forgets the human qualities that are so important in any society: kindness, duty, honesty, integrity.
Her gift for caricature is sharp: "Victoria and the Staveneys" contains a portrait of an updated version of Dickens' Mrs. Jellyby that indeed merits the comparison. And when she describes the worldview of the son of her Mrs. Jellyby, you taste the asperity of Lessing's devastating judgment on a mind led astray: "so conscience-driven, agonized, accusatory of his own world, passionately admiring of anything not Britain."
But Lessing is equally adept at getting into the mind of a frightened little girl abandoned at the school gate when she is not collected as she should have been, or when she is catapulted into a home very different from the one in which she has been raised.
The longest of the novellas that constitute "The Grandmothers" is titled "A Love Child" and is in many ways the most satisfying of the four. Its centerpiece is an idyllic affair that takes place during a brief shore leave in Cape Town during World War II, an encounter that for the rest of his life haunts the English soldier who is passing through on his way to India. As beautifully as this idyll is rendered, it is almost overshadowed by the events that precede and follow it.
What an imagination Lessing possesses! She makes you feel what it was like to be trained as a British soldier in the late 1930s and what it was to serve in the military in the vastness of the British Empire: "Hundreds of thousands of young men, stuck like flies on a flypaper in India -- not to mention Rhodesia, South Africa, Canada, Kenya, defending the bad against the worse." But perhaps the most remarkable passage in the book is the lengthy description of traveling from England to India round the Cape of Good Hope in a horribly overcrowded troop ship. Lessing may not have endured this ordeal firsthand, but she enables the reader to feel that she -- and now he -- actually experienced the manifold discomforts and terrors of doing so. It certainly puts the much-praised sections in Evelyn Waugh's "Sword of Honour" World War II trilogy to shame: Waugh was a soldier on such a ship, but Lessing's imagination and skills as a writer have enabled her to far surpass in intensity and immediacy his admittedly memorable evocation of the World War II-era converted luxury liner.
How many writers are at the top of their game in their mid-80s? Given the impressive level of Lessing's art in "The Grandmothers," with any luck, we should be able to look forward to more fine fiction from this literary treasure-house.
Martin Rubin is a California biographer and critic.
Nation's grey eminence
NEW Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee, in his latest novel Elizabeth Costello, created a character that rang bells everywhere. Ms Costello is an elderly Australian novelist revered for one early work, now noted for her frequent appearances at seminars and conferences, and for her reserve and intellectual hauteur - a public figure and an icon.
Coetzee has dropped broad hints that one model for Costello is Doris Lessing, now in her 80s and mostly revered for novels such as The Grass is Singing, published half a century ago. There is, however, one big difference: unlike Costello, the redoubtable and publicly frosty Lessing has by no means stopped writing. With two dozen novels, operas, plays, stories, poetry, essays and an autobiography to her name, Lessing is going strong, even if her reputation is now a troubled mixture. This collection of novellas continues the mixture.
The great triumvirate of white South African novelists - Lessing, Coetzee and his fellow Nobel Laureate, Nadine Gordimer - share obvious preoccupations in the new South Africa. The post-apartheid world is only in the background in Lessing’s four new stories, but familiar themes re-emerge.
‘The Reason for It’ revisits the fantasy-science fiction that Lessing explored in her ‘Canopus’ novels, and is an unoriginal tale of a sort that every sci-fi writer produces eventually. It describes a foundering civilisation, soon to be overrun, with the obligatory postscript from a future archaeologist noting that the ruins sit upon evidence of yet another culture. So far, so hackneyed: Arthur C Clarke and JG Ballard were there decades ago. Reading with South African glasses adds interest, however. The fictional people were themselves invaders once, who swept in over simple rural folk. They bring about their own destruction through arrogance and stupidity, turning from their academies of learning to place their faith in walls and an army to put down the barbarians outside. Like white South Africa, yes; but also like Rome, Byzantium, Russia and even the US. In Lessing’s tale, the chief agent of decline is a monarch who turns out to be nothing but a fool.
Here is a theme Lessing shares with her compatriots. In Nadine Gordimer’s recent novel The Pickup, white South African culture seems secure and smug, while the barbarians are pathetic illegal immigrants. But, for the rich white heroine, only a journey to the land of the barbarians gives her own life any meaning. JM Coetzee’s 1980 masterpiece, Waiting for the Barbarians, portrayed an empire skulking behind its walls, its decaying civilisation sustained by the menace of the barbarians beyond. Coetzee’s starting point was the eponymous poem by the Alexandrian poet CP Cavafy in which, again, an expiring empire needs the threat of barbarians in order to cope with internal decay.
doughty communist, Lessing now offers no workable solutions to decadence.
Coetzee, reviewing Lessing’s autobiography, observed that, in considering her
own career as a young activist, Lessing "must be admired for broaching...
unfashionable questions… She knew she was behaving badly [but] cannot get to the
bottom of why she did what she did". But at least she acted. In this new story,
there is no action left that can stem the rot.
The other three new stories are more personal, the best being ‘The Grandmothers’ itself. Two white women in the Tropics, inseparable childhood friends, become glamorous young mothers and both produce dashing sons. As their marriages fade, both begin passionate affairs with each other’s teenage boy, affairs which endure for years. The story has a cool restraint, a calm clarity in its prose: "He lay face down on the rock and sniffed at it, the faint metallic tang, the hot dust, and vegetable aromas from little plants in the cracks."
Lessing’s prose has been criticised as flat and grey. To me, such precise, evocative and unpretentious sentences are the work of a long-practised expert. There is also a lack of moralising. Lessing’s work has sometimes been marred by the author telling us what to think, but there is none of that here. If there is a morally limited character, it is the young ‘outsider’ wife that one of the boys eventually marries, a girl who cannot cope with what she discovers about the past.
‘Victoria and the Staveneys’ tells of a black girl in grim, rainy London, entangled with a family of wealthy white liberals. She has a child by one of the sons, watching sadly as her daughter drifts away from her, seduced by a world in which the comforts and the opportunities are infinitely greater than anything she can offer. The tale is muddled in its telling, with a clutter of secondary characters. There is poignancy, though, in Victoria’s realisation that, while the arty, liberal Staveneys are enchanted by the half-breed child - "my little crème caramel" crows the grandfather - they want nothing to do with Victoria’s other baby, Dickson, who is black and wild and who "sweated easily. Sometimes sweat flew off him as freely as off an over-hot dog’s tongue".
Lessing’s grasp of black Britain is not so sure as it is of South Africa. She describes "the wave of immigrants invited… after the Second World War… to take on the dirty work." But they weren’t: the ‘wave’ of Jamaicans came in the 1950s, and they came to run London Transport: not especially dirty, just ill-paid. Of contemporary mores, however, she is a wryly funny observer, noting how people dying in hospital are now "suspected of knowing everything that was going on around them, even if in a coma or half-dead. Or even dead."
Lastly, ‘A Love Child’ describes a modest English lad called up in 1939. He is a poetical soul and, on the sea voyage to India, he falls for a broody girl in Cape Town looking to get pregnant. He is there just four days, but the intoxication he experiences is all that gets him through years of tedium as an Army administrator in India. He becomes an emotional mollusc, shut down to war, suffering and end-of-Empire politics. Nothing touches him except the belief that the Cape Town girl has born his child, for whom he later searches without success.
This is Lessing in her bleak, grey mode. Critics have complained that her emotional range is narrow and hard, that she describes human circumstance without empathy. In this strange tale, though, we have the obverse: a man charged with emotion who cannot find the one point of contact that might allow his deep springs of love to flow. It is a chilling portrait, for which we may be rather frigidly grateful.
Jonathan Falla is author of Blue Poppies
Doris Lessing is on target with 2 of 4 new novellas
By Alan Cheuse. Alan Cheuse is a book commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered," a writing teacher at George Mason University.
January 11, 2004
By Doris Lessing
HarperCollins, 311 pages, $23.95
Toward the end of his career, Pablo Picasso, when dining out, sketched on napkins and tablecloths, signed his name and bestowed the gift on fortunate diners at neighboring tables. For who would not want any artifact, however small, however frivolous, from the Master?
And of this uneven collection of four novellas, or short novels as she names them, from Doris Lessing, the greatest living English writer (and now 84), who would not want every page? After nearly 40 works of fiction, after memoirs and autobiography and plays and operas, here is yet more evidence that this writer of enormous insight and prodigious talent should have won the Nobel Prize decades ago.
At her most serious (as in her ground-breaking 1962 novel, "The Golden Notebook") and at her most frivolous (her book on cats), at her most speculative (her ambitious science-fiction series "Canopus in Argos"), at the height of her craft (in the multiple volumes of her collected stories) and even in the ebb tide of some of her recent fiction, she remains one of the most important and interesting and valuable writers of her--our--time.
Two of the four short novels in this new collection show Lessing at her intense and moving best. "Victoria and the Staveneys" dramatizes some of the difficulties of England's growing multiracial society by means of a touching story. The Victoria of the title is Victoria Stevens, a young black girl of immigrant stock who in the schoolyard one day becomes involved in an incident with a middle-class boy whose liberal parents, the Staveneys, have decided he ought to attend a neighborhood school. As a result, her life, and subsequently the life of Mary, her out-of-wedlock daughter by one of the Staveney boys, are forever changed. And from the serious and at the same time unsentimental representation of Victoria's and Mary's relations with the Staveneys it becomes clear how England is changing also, family by family.
A child again plays a pivotal role in the longest work in the volume, the marvelously detailed novella "A Love Child." Beginning in the late 1930s, the narrative carries young, provincial James Reid into army training camps and on a long, arduous voyage on a troopship from England to India, during which a brief stopover in Cape Town, South Africa, becomes a fatemaking event. There, on the slopes of Table Mountain, he meets the married Daphne Wright who, with a friend, has been hosting hospitality stays for troops in transit. During his intense four-day shore leave, James and Daphne fall in love, and his life changes forever.
Despite Lessing's dogged experimentalism with her material, there's no marked style other than a workable realism in these two long stories. Her use of detail, and the way the compilation of details creates a certain mood of interest, hope, aspiration and acceptance, seem almost plodding at times. In fact, one of the distinguishing characteristics of most of Lessing's best work is its essentially characterless style.
By contrast, the other two novellas in this volume immediately call attention to themselves by means of style, not always a good sign. The title story, which recounts how two women, lifelong friends, fall into affairs with each others' adolescent sons, reads like an extension of the work of D.H. Lawrence. The women marvel at the overpowering nature of their passions. "It was mad, his demand on her" not to grow old, Roz, one of the older women thinks. "Mad! But perhaps lunacy is one of the great invisible wheels that keep our world turning." The boys wrestle in the surf and one, in fact, takes a bite out of the leg of the other.
The fourth novella, "The Reason for It," falls into the realm of speculative fiction, one of Lessing's great passions, and, as in the work of her American writing cousin Ursula K. LeGuin, an interest that has consumed a good part of her aesthetic life. This story purports to be a document, recently unearthed by archeologists, pertaining to the fall of a great and hitherto unknown ancient civilization. It has some amusing and appealing details, such as the College of Storytellers and the College of Songmakers established by the wife of the dictator whose essential stupidity brings down the roof of the culture on the heads of its inhabitants. But the teller, the last surviving member of a group of seers and advisers called The Twelve, writes as though he never completed his bachelor's degree, and the entire enterprise falls rather flat.
So at their worst, some of these pieces, despite the writer's hopes for them, read like sketches of ideas and emotional situations rather than the full-blown thing itself. But the best of the work stands shoulder to shoulder with the best Lessing has done before.
Lessing is more
Saturday, Apr. 10, 2004
By Doris Lessing
HarperCollins, 311 pages, $36.95
The four short novels in this collection provide familiar settings and styles for seasoned Doris Lessing fans, and an enticing introduction for readers new to the 84-year-old's work. The Grandmothers of the title tale inhabit a colonial beach, a garden of Eden with an oedipal serpent and an incestuous apple. Victoria and the Staveneys live in Lessing's London, white and black, poverty and wealth. In The Reason for It, Lessing obscures reality in an allegorical dystopia, and The Love Child is conceived during his father's Second World War leave in Cape Town.
Despite differences in territory, time and form, the pieces share Lessing's brilliant exposure of politics, hierarchies and hypocrisies, and add a new, pensive, examination of beauty.
The Grandmothers blurs boundaries of societal taboos, drawing the reader's acquiescence to the sexual relationship Roz and Lil have with each other's sons. The women are childhood best friends, and their sons Tom and Ian are raised like kittens in a barn, with shared mothers and distant fathers. In adolescence, Ian turns to Roz for consolation and their embrace escalates. When Roz's son Tom finds out, he hops into Lil's bed, and so it goes, for years, until the women turf them out, Lil fearing that "such an intense happiness must have its punishment" and Roz joking about "a love that dare not speak its name." When the sons marry, their wives discover the secret, but Lessing withholds the results, forcing us to consider whether her characters are twisted or sensible, or if "perhaps lunacy is one of the great invisible wheels that keep our world turning."
Victoria and the Staveneys examines the class clash. The privileged and hypocritical Staveneys profess a liberal ideology toward the disenfranchised, like Victoria, who crouches in a council flat, with an unknown father, a dead mother and a dying aunt. In an emergency, she is overlooked after school by Edward Staveney because he cannot see her. "He had not really seen her because Victoria was black," so she is locked in behind the gates. Edward returns, Victoria slips through the bars and crosses over for a glimpse of his world. Lionel Staveney, "an old-fashioned socialist," sends his children to a state school to see "how the other half lives." Victoria remains in the decaying system long after the Staveney boys have fled to private school, their education uncompromised. She nurses her aunt through her final illness only to learn she has no legal right to the flat. Given no control, even of the funeral, Victoria wonders: "If I'm too young to sign the forms, how is it I wasn't too young to look after her?"
The Reason for It is blatant and blunt. Lessing uses a stilted, wooden writing style for barely literate characters, who nobly attempt to maintain oral history and ancestral skill in a dying culture.
She prods us uncomfortably about our global and exploitive world, and cautions about democracy. Take care with political choice, she warns, "how potent a spell good looks do impose," and though "admirable qualities" count in a leader, "what is left out, the shadow, has to be understood."
In the final novella, A Love Child, James Reid, a "lower middle class" literary Englishman, is conscripted into the Second World War, refuses to sit officers' exams and earns a wretched berth in a Dantesque troopship bound for India. Lessing meticulously details the enemy subs, high seas, suppurative salt-water sores and the unceasing stench of vomit in the lower decks. Interjecting, her narrator judges the vessel "a neat symbol of the society they were defending, the two top layers, the best, where their officers would go, with the ship's officers, then down, down, down, deck after deck, until a mass of soldiers would fill the worst parts of the ship. Just like the world, if it comes to that -- to be tedious."
They eventually perch in heavenly Cape Town to sun, fruit and the hospitality of Daphne and Bets, who echo the grandmothers of the first novel. James and Daphne leave the garden briefly for her beach shack in scrubby land, and the memory of their tryst sustains James throughout the war. Though he returns to England and marries, he never relinquishes this early passion.
In all the tales, Lessing questions beauty. Daphne deceptively blossoms from an English rose in "little white gloves" to a South African protea in "strong colours." Lil and Roz see "a poetic aura" in their boys they cannot later find in photographs. Victoria's beautiful daughter is consumed by the Staveneys as "crème caramel . . . chocolate éclair," and the city in The Reason for It crumbles when a leader is elected whose beauty obscures his stupidity. "Beauty," we are told, "is a terrible thing."
Connected by problems with politics, hierarchy and ambiguous beauty, the four novellas do not tie up solutions into neat packages. Rather, Lessing's detailed and convincing prose elegantly peels back the wrapping and gives us a peek at the mess inside society.
Barbara McLean is the author of Lambsquarters: Scenes from a Handmade Life.
Tell me about your mother ...
Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook uses psychoanalytic talk because of its interest in sex - or rather, in problems with sex, says John Mullan
Saturday January 20, 2007
You can still sense in The Golden Notebook how intriguing a discovery psychoanalysis must have been for novelists in the 1960s. This is not just a matter of writers making use of their own experiences of psychoanalysis or psychotherapy (though Lessing makes clear in her autobiography that Anna's analyst, "Mother Sugar", has her original in Lessing's own therapist of the 50s, Mrs Sussman). It is also a question of finding a form of fictional dialogue that licenses a special kind of self-exploration, of truth-telling.
Lessing's protagonist, Anna Wulf, recalls her sessions with her analyst in one of her four notebooks. "I shall keep a diary," writes Anna at the beginning of her blue notebook. The second entry records her lack of feeling for her husband, from whom she has now separated, and, in perplexity at the fact that she ever married him, ends: "I think I shall go to a psycho-analyst." The very next entry, dated three months later, duly records her first exchange with Mrs Marks, who becomes her necessary, sometimes resented confessor, dubbed Mother Sugar.
Anna's accounts of herself are full of dreams, used, as they traditionally have been by novelists, to reveal a character's deepest fears. The difference is that dreams in this novel are not only recounted but busily analysed. Anna tells Mother Sugar that one of her dreams is "the nightmare about the principle of spite, or malice - joy in spite". Analysis will allow this notebook to be the least deceitful of all, she thinks. Just look at your repressed desires. But Lessing's heroine is to be disappointed. "The blue notebook, which I had expected to be the most truthful of the notebooks, is worse than any of them," Anna decides, as she reads it back to herself.
Anna's scepticism about psychoanalysis is what enables her to relish it. She is familiar enough with the claims and procedures to spend a good deal of her time with her analyst arguing about what ideas she might have. "As far as you are concerned, I've gone beyond the childish, I've transmuted it and saved it, by embodying it in myth." Anna is invariably and credibly aggressive in the presence of Mother Sugar, who always smiles back. Though the novel keeps particular psychoanalytic theories at arm's length, its heroine has been reading something. She cannot use the word "personality" in conversation without adding "whatever that word might mean".
Many of the characters regard themselves as au fait with the culture of psychoanalysis. Anna's best friend Molly also sees Mother Sugar. Saul, Anna's usually sullen lover, responds with a resentful reference to psychoanalysis when Anna tells him that "it's no good locking things up": "He said, suddenly abrasive and hostile, 'You sound like a bloody psychoanalyst'." Saul is an intellectual American, but this familiarity would have been unusual in the late 50s, the novel's "present day". When Anna finds his behaviour unintelligible she rings a psychiatrist who hazards the explanation that "it's all due to the times we live in". This time the reader might sympathise with Saul's retort: "Why should I waste money on a psychiatrist when I get treatment from you, free?"
Psychoanalysis has long had a presence in fiction. F Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, first published in 1934, was one of the first and best novels to exploit the potential for truth-telling of the psychotherapeutic dialogue. Philip Roth's notorious Portnoy's Complaint (1969) was imagined as a confession of its narrator on the psychoanalyst's couch, sanctioning a string of American novels that use such self-revealing talk. Like Fitzgerald's novel or Roth's, The Golden Notebook uses psychoanalytic talk because of its interest in sex - or rather, in problems with sex.
"I've known too many sexual cripples," observes Anna in her blue notebook. "Sometimes I think we're all in a sort of sexual mad house," says Julia, a character in the yellow notebook (the novel that Anna is trying to write). "We've chosen to be free women," Anna's heroine Ella observes "drily", echoing her creator's ironical label for herself. Being "free" to pursue sexual satisfaction, and to talk about it, means encountering men's problems. "Of the ten men I've been in bed with during the last five years eight have been impotent or come too quickly," Ella tells Julia. And these men often know about psychoanalysis too. After their first, unsatisfactory night together, Anna's lover Nelson tells her that "his wife is 'castrating'". There is a grim comedy in the novel's post-coital conversations. The married men whom Anna meets are always ready for sexual infidelity, and invariably keen to talk about their wives once the deed is done, or not done.
The Golden Notebook exploits and tests fictionally the truth-telling potential of psychoanalytic dialogue. The earliest narrators of novels had God as a reason for telling your story. Daniel Defoe's penitent sinners, Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe, narrate their stories because their religion decrees that they will thus see the workings of Providence in their lives. Samuel Richardson's cruelly assailed heroines, Pamela and Clarissa, scrawl their endless letters to family or friends in the knowledge that God watches over them, inspecting the truthfulness of what they say about themselves. The sense that self-exploration is a properly Christian undertaking because God knows whether you are being honest is still alive in Jane Eyre. The modern heroine has her analyst, a new secular monitor of her talk about herself.
John Mullan is professor of English at University College London
Doris Lessing: prize fighter
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 21/04/2008
At 88, Doris Lessing is still raging - at communists, war, Mrs Thatcher, the 'bloody Swedes' who awarded her the Nobel Prize... but most of her venom is reserved for the subject of what she says will be her final book - her mother. She talks to Nigel Farndale.
It takes Doris Lessing just four minutes to come out with something, if not actually controversial, then at least unexpected. It's about Hitler. She says she understands him. This from a former member of the Communist Party. (She left in 1956, the year of Khrushchev's speech to the 20th Congress, the one in which he denounced Stalin.) We are talking, I should explain, about Erich Maria Remarque, the author of All Quiet on the Western Front. She recently read another of his books, about three German soldiers who, like Hitler, return from the Great War to the economic chaos of the Weimar Republic. 'They see people carting millions of marks around in wheelbarrows and, being old comrades, they stand by each other. And as you read that you suddenly understand Hitler.'
She's not condoning Hitler, of course, merely explaining his early popularit y. I mention her comment to show her endearingly cavalier way with language. She doesn't care what people might think. She is past caring. And there is a greatness to this lack of care. How many 88-year-olds do you know who have become a worldwide phenomenon on YouTube, for example? She did, last year, when the press descended on the house in West Hampstead where she has lived for the past 30 years, the house in which we are sitting now. As she emerged from a black cab with her son, Peter, who, eccentrically, was wearing a boa of fresh onions around his neck, she was told she had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature and was asked for a comment. This was the first she had heard of it, yet she was heroically unimpressed. 'Oh Christ,' she said, waving the question away. 'I couldn't care less...I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one.'
She was more gracious later, saying all the right things, but now when I ask about that Nobel moment she reverts to form. 'Who are these people? They're a bunch of bloody Swedes.'
'They sell a lot of dynamite, Doris,' Peter says. He has shuffled in to say hello, wearing a tea cosy on his head. He lives here, debilitated by diabetes. They had been returning from the hospital on that day of the Nobel announcement.
'This is my son,' Doris says, unnecessarily.
'The other one being dead.' Peter adds, equally unnecessarily. (Her elder son, John, a coffee farmer in Zimbabwe, died of a heart attack in 1992.)
'Why have you got a tea cosy on your head, Peter?'
'Because I've got a cold, Doris.'
The answer seems to satisfy her. 'Anyway,' she says, turning back to me, 'the whole thing is a joke. The Nobel Prize is run by a self-perpetuated committee. They vote for themselves and get the world's publishing industry to jump to their tune. I know several people who have won and you don't do anything else for a year but Nobel. They are always coming out with new torments for me. Downstairs there are 500 things I have to sign for them.'
After I was buzzed into the house, I had indeed passed many boxes on my way up the stairs. I had also seen Peter at the end of a corridor, sitting at the kitchen table in his pyjamas. He nonchalantly, wordlessly, pointed a thumb in the direction of the sitting-room. That was where I found his mother, who is 5ft tall, with a soft, creased face, framed with grey tendrils that escape from a carelessly assembled bun.
The room, by the way, is everything you would hope a literary giant's sitting-room might be: splendidly chaotic, more like a junk shop. Someone once said that Lessing seemed to camp out in her own home. There are stacks of books, some teetering precariously, a globe, a tray of nick-nacks, African masks, oil paintings, rugs rucked up on the floor. She lives in here now, sleeping on a red sofa because her backache, caused by osteoporosis, makes it difficult for her to sleep on a bed. She shares the sofa with her huge cat, Yum-Yum, the name taken from The Mikado. 'One day I'll fall over Yum-Yum and have to be carted off to hospital,' she says, stroking the cat. Lessing is clear-minded and clear-voiced, but she does seem to gnaw at words, biting them, talking through gritted teeth like Clare Short. It gives even her moments of frivolity a certain sternness.
This most prolific and unconventional of writers has written the novel she claims will be her last (she has done more than 50 and 'enough is enough'). The first half of Alfred & Emily is a novella about how life might have turned out for her parents had it not been for the First World War. The second half is a biography of her parents. Her mother was a nurse during the war. 'She was warm-hearted but insensitive,' Lessing says. 'Nursing the wounded must have been hell. They would arrive by the lorry load, some already dead. That must have torn her up. It took me a long time to allow her that.'
Her father had been a soldier in the trenches. In 1917, shrapnel almost killed him. He had to wear a wooden leg and missed Passchendaele, the battle in which the rest of his company were killed. 'My father was talking about men he knew who died at Passchendaele up until the day he died,' Lessing says. 'He often wondered if it would have been better if he had died with them. He didn't let his disability hold him back, though. He did everything. I even saw him lowered down a rough mine shaft in a bucket, his wooden leg sticking out and banging against the rocky sides.' He died at 62, an old man. 'On the death certificate, cause of death should have been written as the Great War.'
She thinks much of her own character was informed by the war, through her parents. Without it, she might not have been writer, not had what Graham Greene said all writers must have, a chip of ice in her heart. 'Well, I've often thought about it. I was born out of the First World War. My father's rage at the trenches took me over when I was young and never left. It is as if that old war is in my own memory; my own consciousness. It gave me a terrible sense of foreboding, a belief that things could never be ordinary and decent, but always doom-ridden. The Great War squatted over my childhood. The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me. And my parents never passed up an opportunity to make me feel miserable about the past. I find that war sitting on me the older I get, the weight of it. How was it possible that we allowed this monstrous war? Why do we allow wars still? Now we are bogged down in Iraq in an impossible situation. I'll be pleased when I'm dead. That will let me off worrying about all these wars.'
It is an extraordinarily comment, delivered in a matter-of-fact voice. And it reminds me of something she writes in Alfred & Emily: 'You can be with old people and never suspect that whole continents of experience are there, just behind those ordinary faces.' In Lessing's case, you could never guess from her small but kind eyes that she hated her mother. 'We hated each other,' she clarifies. 'We were quarrelling right from the start. She wouldn't have chosen me as a daughter. I was landed on her. I must have driven her mad. She thought everything I did was to annoy her. She had an incredible capacity for self-delusion.'
Did the book help her to understand her parents more; to empathise with them? 'Because my father had lost a leg, it was as if he were the only one who had the right to suffer, whereas my mother also suffered because of the war. She claimed her true love went down in a ship, but I was never sure, because the only photograph she had of him was from a newspaper. Something phoney about that. Why wouldn't she have had a proper photograph?' Lessing came to despise her mother, whom she coldly describes as having 'bundling, rough, unkind, impatient hands'. A turning point in their relationship seems to have been when her mother claimed to be having a heart attack. 'She called her children to her and said, "Poor mummy. Poor, poor mummy." I was aged six and I hated her for it. This woman whimpering in her bed saying, pity me, pity me. How did a nurse talk all this rubbish about her heart? She must have known it was an anxiety attack rather than a heart attack. It was invented. My mother died happily of a stroke in her seventies.'
But not before she had taken to writing to her daughter to accuse her of being a prostitute. After a while, Doris would tear up her mother's letters as they arrived, without opening them. She was eventually driven to see a therapist about this bizarre relationship. 'My father and mother should never have been married,' Lessing says. 'He was so dreamy and sexual, whereas she was so brisk and efficient and cut and dried. They didn't understand each other at all. She was always funny about sex. She didn't hate it, so much as consider it hadn't existed. She would talk about sex as if it were an annoying person with a cold, bothering her.'
Born in Persia (as it was then) in 1919, Doris May Tayler (as she was then) grew up on a maize farm in colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), her parents having emigrated there after the war. She read voraciously: literary classics sent over from a London book club. But she was an unhappy child and would run away from time to time. She was also paranoid about her weight and pioneered a diet of peanut butter and tomatoes. She would eat nothing else for months. It worked. She left home, and school, when she was 15 and married Frank Wisdom in 1939, at age 19, whom she met while working at the telephone exchange in Salisbury. He was a civil servant 10 years her senior. She had two children and began climbing what she once potently described as the 'Himalayas of tedium' of young motherhood.
In 1945, at the age of 26, she abandoned her family and married Gottfried Lessing, a communist who was a driving force in the Left Book Club. It was 'my revolutionary duty', she once said. They had a son, Peter. Doris and Gottfried divorced four years later, in 1949. She kept the name of her second husband, which may seem like an odd thing for a feminist to do, but Lessing has never been a conventional feminist. She has never been a conventional anything.
She emigrated to England with Peter and the manuscript of her first book, The Grass is Singing. It is set in Rhodesia and depicts a poor white farmer whose wife has a relationship with their African servant. Published in 1950, when she was 31, it marked her as a coming star, one prepared to challenge racist conventions. It also revealed her to be a novelist of huge natural gifts and technical command. Though dense with the smells and sights of the veldt, its technique owed much to the Russian novelists she had been devouring, especially Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. But the life of the writer meant she had to be selfish. 'Sentimentality is intolerable because it is false feeling,' she says. For the next five years she would pay a family in the country to take her young child off her hands for a fortnight at a time so that she could write. 'No one can write with a child around,' she says. 'It's no good. You just get cross.'
She began mixing with the great and the good of literary London: her circle included John Berger, John Osborne, Bertrand Russell and Arnold Wesker. According to Wesker, 'She was a good cook and gave wonderfully cosy dinner parties where we picked food from an assortment of plates and sat cross-legged eating it. She was like the best of her characters: concerned about friends, hugely intelligent, a no-nonsense person. She was impatient with humbug and pretentiousness. If you were guilty of neither of these, you were welcomed like family.' Another of her friends at this time was the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. She had to stay the night with him once because it was late. 'I wasn't expecting anything but a nice chat. I went to get ready for bed and when I came back all these whips had appeared. What was really strange was that he never said anything like, "Oh Doris, would you like a little whipping?" And I never said, "Ken, what are all these whips for?" So we chatted away about politics, went to sleep, then, in the morning, in comes his secretary to tidy away the whips.'
As well as the stultifying suburban life of colonial Africa, her books have explored the divide across which men and women talk to each other, at each other; the earnestness and perversity of communism; the way in which passion does not diminish with age; and, most notably, female neurosis. Her most influential book is The Golden Notebook, published in 1962 and to this day considered a feminist classic. This often-experimental exercise in post-modern fiction chronicles the inner life of Anna Wulf, exploring what it means to be intelligent, frustrated and female. It starts from the assumption that the lives of women are intimately connected to the accounts of themselves that society allows them to give. This insight moulds the form of the novel itself, with Anna's life being divided into different-coloured notebooks: black for writing, red for politics, blue for the everyday, and yellow for her feelings. The 'golden notebook' represents what Anna aspires to - the moment that will bring all her diverse selves into one whole.
With predictable unpredictability, the author now finds more to argue with in this work of her youth than do those feminists who elevated it to canonical status. She calls the novel her albatross and has come to regret the way critics failed to appreciate the structure of the novel, concentrating solely on its feminist message and its theme of mental breakdown as a means of healing and freeing the self from illusions. Her apparent irritation with the book may have had something to do with the adoring fans, especially feminists from America and Germany, who used to stand outside her gate in the summer. 'It became the property of the feminists,' she says. 'Yet it was fundamentally a political book. I used to tire of having to explain to young readers in the 1970s what Khrushchev's speech to the 20th Congress meant to world communism. That's what really gave the book its charge. At the time the comrades here were denying that Khrushchev had even made that speech, saying it was an invention of the capitalist press. Comrades were turning to drink in their despair.'
These days she can sound quite dismissive of the women's liberation movement. 'The battles have all been won,' she says, 'except for equal pay for equal work.' And this seems to have alienated some of her former disciples. But what did the feminists expect? What did her communist comrades expect? What, for that matter, did the Nobel Prize committee expect? They certainly got more than they bargained for. Lessing seems to have been enjoying the extra weight her opinions carry now that she is a Nobel laureate. Her post-Nobel declaration to the Spanish paper El Pais was a case in point. She said that 'September 11 was terrible but, if one goes back over the history of the IRA, what happened to the Americans wasn't that terrible.' It caused a furore in America, one that she seemed to revel in. For, as well as being uncompromising and single-minded, Lessing seems to regard herself as a professional contrarian. She was at her most obstreperous during last year's Hay Festival of Literarature, flattening respectful questions from the audience with, 'That doesn't make any sense' or 'Explain yourself'.
She was right about the 'bloody awards', by the way. Her first was the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1954; since then she's won everything - apart from the Booker, though she was shortlisted for it five times. In 1999, she was appointed a Companion of Honour. She was also asked to become a dame of the British Empire, but turned it down because it was 'a bit pantomimey'. She has a pretty good idea of why the Nobel came along so late in her life. 'It is probably because I have written in so many different ways, with never a thought that I didn't have the right to.'
With her latest book she has come full circle to the Rhodesia of her childhood. There is a moving chapter in which she describes returning as an elderly woman to the country she had once loved, only to find it devastated by years of Mugabe's tyrannous rule. She encounters a drunk and obnoxious black man who won't let her see her father's old farm. She had been a great champion of black rule. I ask if that encounter made her change her mind? 'Would I have fought against the blacks if I had known what was going to happen? The answer is, no. Then again it wasn't an attractive society I was brought up in. Quite ugly, in fact. If only it had been possible to say, "I will only support you if you behave properly once you get into power, instead of turning into a murderous beast like Mugabe." Anyway, the fault is partly ours because why did we imagine that when the blacks got into power they would behave like, I don't know, Philip Toynbee. Why did we assume this? Instead, we have this ugly little tyrant, Mugabe. An odious man. I've never understood what happened to him. Everyone I knew who knew him said he used to be intelligent. What a hypocrite to throw out the whites when he said he wouldn't. Now look at the place. Starvation. Disease. Corruption. Low life expectancy. Terrible.'
Has she ever harboured any racist sentiments? 'Of course I have. I was brought up surrounded by racists that nowadays no one would believe were possible. But I don't think it's a question of race. I think it is like the Romans in Britain. The Romans found us barbarians and left us barbarians, but roll on a few centuries and here we are civilised. My brother was quite extraordinarily racist. Thought he was superior to black people. You couldn't believe it had never crossed his mind to think that not everyone agreed with his view that the blacks were baboons who had just come down from the trees. We didn't see each for 30 years. Nothing had changed. Sitting in the kitchen here, I couldn't have a conversation with him. I would have to count to 10. He tried to be a writer and was convinced I had stopped his own books being published. I hadn't. It was simply that they were unpublishable. He was an archetypal inhibited Englishman who could only exist in the colonies. He would go scarlet with horror if the subject turned to sex or love.'
She says he became an alcoholic, and that she would have become one, too, had she stayed in Rhodesia. After all, her son stayed there and he became one. I ask what it is like to outlive your own child. 'It goes against the rhythms of nature. Poor old John. He needn't have died. I got on with him, though I disagreed with his politics. He was white with suffering and anxiety because of the drought. He was so buttoned up he wouldn't scream and shout and complain. It is a trait of the British. You must try to weep occasionally.'
She also, of course, came to disagree with her second husband's politics. 'He couldn't take my writing seriously,' she says, 'because he was a communist and thought me bourgeois and a Freudian. All these epithets. I find it almost impossible to believe that he remained a communist all his life. He was murdered in Kampala, you know. Ambushed. He got into a car with his second wife and drove straight towards Tanzania, which was mad, and they flame-throwered him, which was the most dreadful death, and it didn't do his son any good. Peter was basically shattered by it. We think the communists did it because they put up a street name after him. That was how they did things.' Communists, she now believes, are 'murderers with a clear conscience'. But it took her a long time to get there. 'Yes I called Marxism "the sweetest dream" in one of my books. Then I discovered it was all a load of old socks. It seems incredible now that quite intelligent people believed in it all. What doubts there were were expressed in sly jokes. The jokes contradicted everything we believed in. We used to joke about how we were wrong about everything.'
Knowing the restlessness of her mind and her inability to resist a chance to shock, I ask her whether she now thinks Margaret Thatcher was a hero for standing up to the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War. No such luck. 'She ended the Cold War did she? Well good for her. I couldn't stand her.'
'Alfred & Emily' will be published on 5 May (HarperCollins, £16.99)
The Jewel of Africa
"You have the jewel of Africa in your hands," said President Samora Machel of Mozambique and President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania to Robert Mugabe, at the moment of independence, in 1980. "Now look after it."
Twenty-three years later, the "jewel" is ruined, dishonored, disgraced.
Southern Rhodesia had fine and functioning railways, good roads; its towns were policed and clean. It could grow anything, tropical fruit like pineapples, mangoes, bananas, plantains, pawpaws, passion fruit, temperate fruits like apples, peaches, plums. The staple food, maize, grew like a weed and fed surrounding countries as well. Peanuts, sunflowers, cotton, the millets and small grains that used to be staple foods before maize, flourished. Minerals: gold, chromium, asbestos, platinum, and rich coalfields. The dammed Zambezi River created the Kariba Lake, which fed electricity north and south. A paradise, and not only for the whites. The blacks did well, too, at least physically. Not politically: it was a police state and a harsh one. When the blacks rebelled and won their war in 1979 they looked forward to a plenty and competence that existed nowhere else in Africa, not even in South Africa, which was bedeviled by its many mutually hostile tribes and its vast shantytowns. But paradise has to have a superstructure, an infrastructure, and by now it is going, going— almost gone.
One man is associated with the calamity, Robert Mugabe. For a while I wondered if the word "tragedy" could be applied here, greatness brought low, but Mugabe, despite his early reputation, was never great; he was always a frightened little man. There is a tragedy, all right, but it is Zimbabwe's.
Mugabe is now widely execrated, and rightly, but blame for him began late. Nothing is more astonishing than the silence about him for so many years among liberals and well-wishers—the politically correct. What crimes have been committed in the name of political correctness. A man may get away with murder, if he is black. Mugabe did, for many years.
Early in his regime, we might have seen what he was when the infamous Fifth Brigade, thugs from North Korea, hated by blacks and whites alike, became Mugabe's bodyguards, and did his dirty work, notably when he attempted what was virtually genocide of thousands of the Ndebele people (the second-largest tribe) in Matabeleland. Hindsight gives us a clear picture of his depredations: at the time mendacity ruled, all was confusion. But the fact was, we knew the Fifth Brigade: it had already murdered and raped.
It was confusion, too, because Mugabe seemed to begin well. He was a Marxist, true, but like other politicians before and since he said the right things, for instance, that blacks and whites must flourish together. And he passed a law against corruption, forbidding the top echelons of officials from owning more than one property. When his officials only laughed, and bought farm after farm, hotels, businesses, anything they could grab, he did nothing. It was at that point that everyone should have said, "This is no strongman, he is a weakling."
From the start Mugabe has been afraid to show his face out of doors without outriders, guards, motorcades —all the defenses of paranoia. When Queen Elizabeth visited, refused to ride with him in an armored car, and insisted on an open one, people jeered as the frightened man clung to the sides of the car while the insouciant sovereign smiled and waved.
Here is the heart of the tragedy. Never has a ruler come to power with more goodwill from his people. Virtually everybody, the people who voted for him and the ones who did not, forgot their differences and expected from him the fulfillment of their dreams—and of his promises. He could have done practically anything in those early years. When you traveled around the villages in the early Eighties you heard from everyone, "Mugabe will do this.... Comrade Mugabe will do that...." He will see the value of this or that plan, build this shop or clinic or road, help us with our school, check that bullying official. If Mugabe had had the sense to trust what he heard, he could have transformed the country. But he did not know how much he was trusted, because he was too afraid to leave his self-created prison, meeting only sycophants and cronies, and governing through inflexible Marxist rules taken from textbooks.
Someone allowed into his presence who came looking for evidence of Mugabe's reputation as a well-read man would have found only Marxist tracts. He had come to Marxism late, converted by the Mozambique independence leader Samora Machel, who was a sensible, large-minded man, unlike Mugabe, who tended to be narrowly doctrinaire. (Machel was murdered by the South African secret police in 1986.) There are those who blame Mugabe's wife Sally, from Ghana, for what seemed like a change in his personality. She was, this Mother of the Nation, corrupt and unashamed of it. Departing the country for a trip home to Ghana and stopped at customs with the equivalent of a million pounds' worth of Zimbabwean money, she protested it was her money, and only laughed when she had to leave it and travel on without. But that was when laws were still enforced.
Mugabe gave refuge to the brutal dictator Mengistu from Ethiopia—he is still there, safe from the people who would try him as a war criminal. And excuses were being made, as always. Mugabe had been in a brutal prison under Ian Smith, the repressive prime minister of Rhodesia, who refused him permission to attend his son's funeral. He had experienced nothing soft and kind from the whites: Why should he now show kindness? As for Mengistu, well, it was in the finest tradition of chivalrous hospitality to shelter refugees from justice. Mugabe became a close friend of Mahathir bin Mohammed, the infamous prime minister of Malaysia, and attempted to sell him a controlling interest in Zimbabwe's electricity, but the quid pro quo was not enough and the deal fell through.
In the early Nineties there was a savage drought in Zimbabwe. When members of Mugabe's government sold the grain from the silos and pocketed the money, by then the popular contempt for these ministers was such that the crime was seen as just another little item of a much larger criminal record. United Nations officials were saying as early as the mid-Eighties that Mugabe's government was the most rapacious bunch of thieves in Africa. Well, said his defenders, often members of his bureaucracy, corruption was not unknown in Europe. The secret police were arbitrary and bullying? "But you can't expect democracy of the European type in Africa."
If you visited Zimbabwe after Mugabe took control and met only the whites and blacks who hardly ever leave Harare or Bulawayo, you heard laments for the corruption, the incompetence, the general collapse of services. But if you took the trouble to visit the villages then it was impossible not to be inspired by the people. The Shona are a sane, humorous, enterprising people, but they have a fault: they are too patient. I have heard a famous Zimbabwean writer complain: What is wrong with us? We put up with you whites far too long and now we are putting up with this gang of crooks.
The villagers joked about their oppressors, and continued to dream about better times, which they were only too ready to help bring into being by their own efforts. In the early years, promised free primary and secondary and university education, they were helping to build schools, unpaid, though soon free education or, in some places, any education at all would be a memory. For education, they did much better under the whites.
Denied a decent education, or any, they hungered for books. At least two surveys said that what they wanted was novels, particularly classics, science fiction, poetry, historical fiction, fairy stories, and while at the beginning these were books that were supplied, soon rocketing inflation made it impossible to buy anything but the cheapest and locally published instruction books. How to Run a Shop. How to Keep Poultry. Car Repairs. That kind of thing. A box of even elementary books may transform a village. A box of books, sent by a humanitarian organization, may be, often is, greeted with tears. One man complained, "They taught us how to read, but now there are no books." Three years ago a Penguin classic cost more than a month's wage.
But even with books that were so far from what was originally dreamed of, in no time study classes began, liter-acy classes, math lessons, citizenship classes. The appearance of a box of books released (will release again?) astonishing energies. A village sunk in apathy will come to life overnight. This is not a people who wait for handouts: a little encouragement, help, sets them off on all kinds of projects. In January I heard from a member of a book team with which I'm associated that distributes books in villages, "I was out this week. I was talking about books to people who haven't eaten for three days."
And there it is, the tragedy, one that could not have happened if Mugabe had been even half the man people took him for. People say, "Get rid of Mugabe and we will get back on course." But he has created a whole caste of greedy people like himself. Get rid of him and there will be others as bad. If this is the merest pessimism and the crooks can be got rid of, then there will remain the damage that has been done.
Sometimes an adage dulled with age comes startlingly to life. "There is a tide in the affairs of men...." Had Mugabe ridden the tide that was running at Independence, Zimbabwe could have been an example to all of Africa. But he didn't, and the shallows and the miseries are there as evidence. Nothing can now recover that opportunity. Those of us who are old enough can only mourn lost possibilities. Familiar words carry a history lesson as sharp as the bitterest experience. There are indeed tides that will never repeat themselves.
The racial hatred that Mugabe has fomented will not die. Throughout the period from Independence onward, beginning in 1980, anti-white rhetoric went alongside the Marxist slogans that were as primitive as they would be if Marxism had been invented in Zim-babwe. Yet what everyone remarked on was the amiable race relations, friendliness between whites and blacks, compared to South Africa, where apartheid created such a bitter legacy. Fiery articles in the government press were read in the same perfunctory way as were the public pronouncements of the Soviet government, or any Communist government. The official rhetoric in Zimbabwe was worse than anywhere in Africa—so said a United Nations report. "Never has rhetoric had so little to do with what actually went on."
This anti-white rhetoric was directed at whites generally, but particularly at the white farmers, who owned sizable tracts of land and were growing most of the food and earning Zimbabwe's foreign currency. They were well aware of their anomalous position, and the Commercial Farmers Union, the organization representing white farmers and some black ones, was putting forward proposals for a redistribution of land that would not disrupt the economy. Not one of these proposals was ever even acknowledged by Mugabe. Meanwhile farms that had already been acquired by the government were not being turned over to the poor blacks; that happened only at the beginning. They were being acquired by Mugabe's greedy cronies.
Why then, when there was no need for confrontation, did Mugabe unexpectedly launch an attack on the white farmers, in a clear attempt to drive them from the country? Mugabe had enjoyed seeing himself as the senior black leader in southern Africa: he did so at a time when he was increasingly seen as an embarrassment. When Nelson Mandela appeared and became the world's sweetheart, Mugabe, according to many accounts, was furious. There were ridiculous scenes where Mugabe imagined he was establishing himself as first in importance. At lunchtime during a conference of African leaders, Mandela got in line with everyone else at the buffet, while Mugabe sat at a table that had been moved so that it would be prominent in the room, and had his followers bring dishes to him. This made everyone laugh at him; but surrounded by flatterers, he never understood why people were laughing.
He became desperate to establish himself as the Great Leader. The issue of land had always rankled, not least because during the War of Liberation in the 1970s he had promised land to "every man, woman, and child." Why had he made such foolish and impossible promises? Ah, but then it was by no means certain that he would come first in the race to be leader. But now he, Mugabe, the great statesman, the father of his people, would throw out the white farmers, and Mandela, that paltry figure, would be forgotten. And in some backward parts of Africa, and other places, he became famous. He did so at the price of ruining his country, already so misgoverned by his regime that it was on the edge of collapse. And there remains an unanswered question: Why did he act so destructively? Mugabe isn't stupid. His cunning as he established his position showed a scheming, guileful man. For instance, the war in the Congo, which impoverished Zimbabwe when it was already on its knees, enriched him personally with the loot he got from its mines in return for his sending troops. And it enabled him to buy off his greatest threat, the army officers who are the only force that can dislodge him.
Many people said he was mad—I among them. But perhaps one has to be a sentimental liberal to doubt that a leader, particularly one so prolific with resounding onward-and-upward rhetoric, could be making plans that would ruin his people. Did he really not foresee what his campaign of forcible acquisition of land would achieve? A friend of mine, meeting a former friend, black, a Mugabe crony, in the street, was told, "We never meant things to get out of hand like this"—this was spoken casually as if about some unimportant failure. "The trouble is that Robert can think of nothing but Tony Blair. He is convinced Blair wants to ruin him, even kill him." It is true that Blair has been critical of Mugabe, but, as my friend said, "I doubt whether Tony Blair thinks of Mugabe for as much as half a minute a week." "Ah, but Robert would not like to believe that," was the answer.
Now, with hindsight, it is easy to recall scenes and events that spelled danger. First, and above all, there were the masses of unemployed black youths. Anywhere in Zimbabwe, along the roads, in distant villages, outside schools and colleges and missions, were very young black men just standing about, or more often trying to sell pitiful carvings of wooden beasts— elephants and giraffes and so forth. Also, some sculptures. Zimbabwe has some fine black sculptors. Typical of the magical thinking that has always bedeviled Zimbabwe were such statements as "If he can make all that money from carving stone figures, then so can I." There are places in Zimbabwe where sculptures cover acres. Most of it is rubbish.
The youths had no future because Mugabe's promises had come to nothing; they were hungry and idle. It was these youths that Mugabe paid to harass and take over the white farms (and the richer black farms too) in the name of the war veterans. And they are still hanging around, brutalized, drunk, and futureless, because if they have acquired a little plot of land, they have no equipment, or seeds, or, above all, skills. Many have already drifted back to town. They are heard to complain, "We did all these bad things for Comrade Mugabe but now he has forgotten us."
Another scene: it is 1982, two years after Independence, and there is still a sullen, raw, bitter postwar mood. But in an inn, formerly a white drinking hole, in the mountains above the town of Mutare a group of young black people are dressed for a night out. The men are in dinner jackets, the girls in dance dresses. They look like an advertisement in a glossy magazine from the Thirties. Nothing could be more incongruous in this homely rural setting, which has probably never before seen a dinner jacket or a décolleté in its life. But they are thinking that this is what the long war was about. Here they are in a hotel, formerly a white enclave, dressed to the nines—just like the whites, drinking fancy drinks, and, above all, waited on, like the whites, by black menials.
For the ninety years of white occupation, the blacks, most of them roughly torn from their village life, had watched—unreachably above them —rich whites with their cars and their black servants. The white people they saw as rich included many poor ones, but most blacks were so far below an apparently cohesive white layer that they could see only riches. Effortless riches. Take the example of a white youth who left home in Britain because of unemployment during the depression of the 1930s and went to work as an assistant to an established farmer. Before he tried for a loan to make the gamble on farming on his own account, he was a man without more than his clothes; the family in Britain was probably only too pleased to get rid of him. To the black waiter who served that young man beer at a district Sports Day he seemed like some rich apparition for whom everything was possible. The whites were all rich. And the most enticing of the dreams, the unobtainable dreams, was the life of the white farmer, the life of the verandas. When they thought of Mugabe's promise during the War of Liberation, that everyone would have land, this is what they wanted. A house like a white farmer's, the spreading acres, the black menials—effortless ease.
A fact about the white farmers that must be recorded is that most of them were very good farmers, inventive, industrious, with an ability to make do and mend, even when Mugabe would not allow the import of spare parts, supplies, sufficient gasoline. To visit a white farm was to be taken around by people proud of their resourcefulness. "I invented this," one of them might say, referring to a process in the curing of tobacco or a bit of machinery. There was the farmer's wife who made a cottage industry out of delicious crystallized preserves from the gourds the cattle eat. Many built up their farms from nothing—from raw bush. By the Nineties their attitude toward their black employees was changing. I was brought up with the unregenerate white farmers of the early times. At best they had maternal and paternal attitudes toward blacks, running basic clinics or elementary schools. At worst they were brutal. Because of the enforced exodus of the white farmers, attempts are being made now to soften their history. This won't work; too much has been written and recorded about their domination of blacks. But visiting them in the late Eighties or the Nineties, I found that they were, most of them, making attempts to change.
As the collapse of the country worsens, few, however, can resist saying, "We told you so. We always said they couldn't run a bicycle shop, let alone a country." Such remarks come from people who had made sure there was not merely a glass ceiling but a steel one, preventing blacks from rising, from getting education and experience. In old Southern Rhodesia, when there were too many blacks on the voters' roll for the whites' comfort, the qualifications for voters were adjusted upward to exclude them. At Zambia's independence celebrations, I saw a district commissioner radiant with malicious delight because the black newcomers had mismanaged a minor aspect of the festivities. Not very nice people, some of the white settlers and administrators. But changing. Alan Paton, in Cry the Beloved Country: "...By the time they have come to loving, we will have come to hating."
The reporting of the transfer of farmland has been biased. All the emphasis has been on the white farmers who are losing their land. Not nearly enough has been said about the hundreds of thousands of black farm workers who lost their work and their homes, and also were beaten up (and are still being beaten up), their wives raped, and their daughters too. Well-off black farmers—some assisted by their white neighbors—and more modest black farmers have had their land taken from them. A key fact, hardly mentioned, is that since Independence 80 percent of the farms have changed hands, and under the law they had to be offered first to the government, which refused them. Mugabe's rhetoric about white farmers grabbing land from the blacks is contradicted by this fact.
As a result of his campaign of misinformation, moreover, you meet people who will tell you, "The whites threw my grandparents off their farm and took their house." At the time of the whites' arrival in the area that is now Zimbabwe there were a quarter of a million blacks, and they lived in villages of mud-walled, grass-roofed huts. The women grew pumpkins and the maize imported from South America, and gathered plants from the bush. The men hunted. When I was a girl you met the men walking through the bush, dressed in animal skins, carrying assegais, people a step or two up from hunter-gatherers. On a BBC program you hear a young woman, in all sincerity, saying that the playing of the mbira (thin strips of metal on a sounding gourd, which whites called the hand piano) was formerly forbidden under white rule. Yet when I was growing up the tinkling of the hand piano could be heard everywhere, including black villages. It will take a long time for Mugabe's version of history to be corrected, if it ever is.
He has recently set up compulsory indoctrination classes in villages throughout the country, mostly for teachers, but for other officials too, where they are taught that they should worship Mugabe and be totally obedient to ZANU, the ruling party. All the ills of Zimbabwe are said to be caused by machinations of Tony Blair in cahoots with the opposition parties. The students learn useful skills like how to murder opponents with a blow to sensitive parts of the body, and how to strangle them with bootlaces. This type of sadistic cruelty is not part of their own traditions and history, to which lip service is continually paid.
Many blacks I've talked to and heard about do not like their own history, although they talk about "our customs." In fact, many I have seen and known cannot wait to wear dance dresses, behave like whites, live the white life, put the bush far behind them. A group of sophisticated, urban blacks will make sentimental remarks about photographs of a traditional village, but they haven't been near their villages for years.
If you want to see just how much "our customs" really mean, then visit the park in Harare on Saturday or Sunday, where dozens of wedding groups arrive, the brides in flouncy white and veils, with bridesmaids and pages. The woman may be very pregnant, or with several small children. But this rite of passage into the modern world, the white man's wedding, they must have, and the photographers are there to preserve the beautiful sight for posterity. (It should perhaps be asked why a ritual invented by middle-class Victorians should have conquered the world from Japan to the Virgin Islands.)
In fact, "our customs" are strongly valued when they have to do with the subjection of women. The law of the land may say one thing on paper— Zimbabwe's early Marxist phase, as in other Communist countries, imposed many kinds of equality. But "our customs" still make sure that a woman has no right to the money she has earned, or to her children. She is her husband's vassal. When Mugabe was met at the airport by hand-clapping and kowtowing maidens, and he was criticized (in the early days) for this sign of backwardness, the reply was "it is our custom."
A man in a three-piece suit, in a government job, will still beat his wife—or try to; the women are fighting back. And he will consult soothsayers and shamans. Superstition still rules. It is "our custom" to look for the evil eye when a family member gets sick or a cow falls lame and then pay the witch doctor to exact revenge. It is becoming "our custom" to try to find virgin partners if you are HIV-positive, for to have sex with them will cure you of AIDS. (AIDS has spread widely in Zimbabwe.) The use of human parts in medicine goes on; it is the custom.
By now the expulsion of the white farmers is nearly complete. It should be evident that what we have been seeing is not principally about race; it is a transfer of property. Many of the poor people who settled on white land have been thrown off again by powerful blacks. Those still there may grow maize and pumpkins and the plant called rape on their patches—when it rains, that is. There is a bad drought again. The poor settlers are farming without machinery or even, in some cases, basic implements, such as shovels. The irrigation systems have broken down. I remember another prophetic scene from the Eighties: a water tank of a certain school was not working. A valve had gone. No one replaced it. The women went back to getting water from the river, which was infested with bilharzia. Two years later the water tank had not been mended.
The recent settlers who had depended on Mugabe ("Comrade Mugabe will look after us"; "Comrade Mugabe will...") have no chance of getting their children into school because school (unlike under the whites) costs a lot of money; and how will they get money for clothes, even if they survive this terrible time when there is nothing to eat and people are dying of hunger? If they manage to stay on the land they will be as poor as subsistence peasants anywhere in the world.
Every telephone conversation with people in Zimbabwe, every visitor from there provides tales as bizarre as anything else out of Africa. The black elite drive around the white farms and say, "I'll have that one." "No, I want that one." Mugabe's wife had herself driven through the countryside, picking among farms like fruit on a stall. She chose a really nice one. A white farmer's wife watched a black woman arrive in her smart car. She was pushed out of the way, while the interloper began measuring for curtains. "Are you going to live here?" inquired the dispossessed wife. "Me? I wouldn't live in this dump," the black woman said scornfully. "I'm going to let it. I've already got three houses in Borrowdale" (the most fashionable suburb in Harare).
Around Harare and Bulawayo, during weekends on the farms taken over by blacks, cars arrive and out pile the city dwellers enjoying a rural excursion. They set up a barbecue; music blares across the veld; they sing and dance and eat, spread themselves for the night through the empty house, and depart next morning back to Harare.
A farmer from Matabeleland, third generation, whose bore holes supplied water not only to his laborers but to those on nearby farms, now black-owned, saw a car driving up and some drunk black men get out. "We are taking your farm," they said. "I shall take you to court," he said. "But we are the law now." They had parked the car outside his gate. He asked them to move it. "That's where the cattle come across to the dam," he said.
"We know why you want us to move. You don't like to look at black people."
"But I look at black people every day from sunup to sundown."
They drove off, returned drunk, and took over a wing of his house, where they drank and caroused, day and night. After months the farmer gave up: he had been maintaining the water machinery, but after he tried to show the interlopers how to look after it, and failed, he simply left. "Why are you taking away those ladders?" he was asked.
"They are my ladders," he said.
"No they aren't. They are our ladders. You are sabotaging us."
A farmer, observing how the white farmers around him were being stopped from planting crops by the black mobs, thought he would accept his fate and simply leave. But one of the leaders asked him to plant his crop, tobacco, the chief currency earner. "What's the point, you'll only take it." "No, you plant, you'll be safe." He planted, the crop was a good one, and when it was reaped, baled, and ready, the mob leader told him that now he must get off the farm. "I am taking your farm and your tobacco."
Some white farmers are in Mozambique; they had to begin again without capital, implements, machinery. Skilled and hard-working, they will survive. They are in Zambia, invited by the black government: white farmers in Zambia produce nearly all the food. They are also in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, while the people in Zimbabwe are starving.
A month ago the black occupiers of a white farm, a ranch, drove dozens of cattle into a dam and drowned them. Traditionally Africans in Zimbabwe have loved cattle, their "mombies" as they call them. Cattle are currency, riches, links with the past, a promise for the future. It is hard to believe that Africans would harm them.
Another story is more hopeful. On a pig farm the animals were dying because they had not been fed and watered since the white farmers were thrown off the land. Drunken blacks had hacked pieces of meat off some of the pigs and left them to die. A white woman vet stood by weeping, forbidden to help the pigs. But then one of the new black settlers, unseen by the others, came to her and said, "We are townspeople, we have these animals now and don't know how to look after them. Please help us." They had taken a couple of the dying pigs and put them in a shed. The white woman went with him and began showing him and his wife how to look after the animals.
The latest news is that Mugabe, under a contract with a Chinese company, is importing Chinese farmers to grow food, since the forcibly acquired white farms are not producing. He says this is because there is no farm machinery. Yet all the expelled white farmers had been forced to leave behind their machinery. If lack of machinery is the problem, then why not import some? But is the story true? It has the tone of zany, brutal, hasty improvisation that characterizes news from Mugabe. We can pity the Chinese, who may not be protected against Mugabe's arbitrary cruelties. And what about the poor blacks who will yet again watch their land being taken from them?
—March 13, 2003