Monday, August 15, 2005

Book Review: Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller is the daughter of white settlers in 1970's Rhodesia. Her book is a memoir of an African childhood in a period of civil war. A lot of the memoirs I have read recently seem to focus on the individual writing the memoir and very little on anything else. THis book, although it doesn't holds one attention like I thought it would, does atleast touch on larger themes like racism, alcoholism, death of family members and guilt, and it's largely because it ventures into exploring these themes that it exonerates itself.

From the UK Guardian:

Alexandra Fuller arrived with her parents and elder sister, Vanessa, in Rhodesia in 1972, seven years after Ian Smith had made his disastrous unilateral declaration of independence in opposition to black majority rule. Her parents were old African hands, having lived before in both Kenya and Rhodesia, and they had returned restlessly seeking something that had always eluded them in damp, restrictive Britain. Happiness, perhaps.

The family soon moves to a struggling farm in the remote Burma Valley on the eastern border with Mozambique, from where Robert Mugabe's Shona Zanu guerrillas are launching cross-border raids at the start of the bush war, killing farmers on their isolated settlements.

As many local whites prepare to flee, often under the cover of darkness, the Fullers become ever-more perversely entrenched on their farm. Protective razor-wire fencing is erected around their compound, the girls receive shooting lessons, and suffering and violent death are accepted as mere facts of life, rather like the weather. Fuller recalls how one girl, who attends the local high school in Umtali, has her legs blown off; on another occasion, a bus explodes after hitting a landmine and body parts hang from the trees like 'black and red Christmas decorations'.

When independence finally arrives, in 1980, and Mugabe, learning from earlier post-colonial struggles in Mozambique, cannily pursues reconciliation with the remaining whites, the Fullers decide to stay on in Zimbabwe. They move further south, to manage another ruined farm, but their lives there amount to little more than a chain of calamities and woes: a newborn child dies (Alexandra has already lost two siblings), the weather is relentless and debilitating, and Fuller monitors, out of the corner of her eye, her mother's slow decline into alcoholism and madness.

She writes with wit and a tough, self-revealing honesty of the loneliness, boredom and poverty of life in those shadowy borderlands, of the shattering silence of the long nights after the generators have been switched off and of continual fear. She does good weather, too; her book is saturated in heat and dust and dirt. Like many first-time writers, she invents her own idiom, at once mangling and stretching language as she seeks to speak and see with the immediacy of the child she once was.

At times, she experiments too much - with alliteration, compound adjectives and short verbless sentences - and in so doing her book becomes an engine of self-delight, a work of exhibitionism: look at me! Yet, once she relaxes into her style, the exuberance and magical readability of her narrative compels the suspension of all critical judgment. Fuller, like Arundhati Roy, whom she stylistically recalls, has the stardust of future celebrity all over her. Her memoir is terrific.

Fuller's parents still live in Africa, in Chirunda, Zambia, in 'one of the least healthy, most malarial, hot, disagreeable places' in the entire country. They are two hours by car from the home of Vanessa and a long way from urban life - 'far from the madding crowd,' her father jokes.

The author is baffled by the wilful eccentricity and stubbornness of her parents and by the strange vacancy of her sister who, she concedes, for most of their time together resided in a place of 'such profound, unreachable pain that she didn't exist for me except as some shadowy, silent, very beautiful unattainable creature'.

From her new home in Wyoming, Fuller refuses to condemn her parents. They have suffered too much because of their profound love of the mysterious continent, never ceasing to mourn the death of their three children.

Needless to say, I found the author's young life shocking in many ways, but the book also helped me understand the current political climate of Zimbabwe, and the origin of why the blacks are dispossessing the white farmers today.