Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier, by Alexandra Fuller, Read by Lisette Lacat, Recorded Books, 2004
My first exposure to Alexandra Fuller was hearing her on The Diane Rehm Show discussing her debut memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, the autobiography of her teenage years before, during, and after the Rhodesian Wars that led to freedom for black Africans from their British colonial oppressors and the founding of Zimbabwe. Her frank depictions of her own ignorant racism and her mother’s quite actively racist stance were refreshingly honest, and the anecdotes she presented were fascinating. I made a note to read the book, even checked it out of the library, then got sidetracked with the million and one other books more pressing at that moment.
The exact history of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe has always, then, remained a kind of culturally fuzzy blind spot for me, the outlines of the story enough to grasp it in context if it was ever alluded to in a novel, but the specifics unknown. It was with great interest that some time last year I read a short article in The New Yorker by Fuller detailing her relationship with a man she named only as K, a white mercenary from the wars that ravaged Africa through the seventies and eighties.
That article, like many that appear in The New Yorker, was in fact a distillation of Fuller’s second work of non-fiction, Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier. The article was richly detailed and exposed the resonant evils and viciousness of wars, the damage wrought in both its victims and its perpetrators, and it managed neatly the trick of making you feel some sympathy for a man made monstrous by combat.
While Scribbling the Cat, the full-length book still showcases Fuller’s admirable abilities at conjuring place and sensation, K does not wear well upon repeated exposure. The revelations that came at you like a lighting fast series of Muhammad Ali hooks and uppercuts coupled with his anguish and misery living in his own memory are spaced out with more mundane activities and stories. There is more depth to the longer portrait, naturally, but K no longer engages your empathy to quite the same degree. By the journey’s end, the shit has taken over, has risen to such a level that all his open mouthed sobbing and crocodile tears can’t make up for who he was and who he is.
What does grow better and far more enriching in Fuller’s longer treatment is her presentation of Africa, specifically Zambia and Zimbabwe. The portrait here is of an Africa where bad luck lasts forever in the form of drought, which is then relieved, when the rains come, by the bad luck of malaria-laden mosquitoes. Fuller writes, “No ripped edge of skin ever seems to close properly in this climate. Babies die too young and with unseemly haste,” then later on the land, “...its surface curled back like a dry tongue, exposing the bone of erosion.” This is writing that is flatly poetic, beautiful without an excessive need to draw attention to its beauty, what you might call naturally, functionally pretty if that didn’t carry the stigma of plainness.
While Fuller does fill in quite a few more details surrounding the Rhodesian war she is not a historian and doesn’t pretend to be. Her age and her sex limited her view, and what draws her to K is the idea that somehow he can make her understand her own complicity in being on the wrong side. Part of what made that civil war unique was that both the whites born there and the African blacks both considered themselves indigenous. The whites believed it was outside agitators, non-Rhodesians, to blame for the war, while the blacks (rightly) saw the whites as outsiders. Fuller gives a nice thumbnail of the war’s general outlines, such as how the whites pitted Rhodesia’s two major tribes against each other. The white officers split them into two separate battalions and when there was an uprising in one tribe’s region, the opposing tribe’s troops were turned loose on them.
Some of her family from her first book, her mother and father, return briefly here, but most of the book focuses on two periods of time she spent with K. The first is part of her Christmas holiday visiting her parents in Zambia while her husband and children stay home in Wyoming; the second half is a journey with K into Zimbabwe and Mozambique. When Fuller leaves for Wyoming after Christmas, her prose becomes philosophical, airy, without substance. The return to Africa returns her to ground, giving us soil and birds and heat and rain and sweat. This is no doubt deliberate on her part, a sort of stylistic testament to how deeply ingrained in her psyche that continent and its removal from the rest of the world is.
Fuller never discusses how much of their relationship is informed by her fear of K as he orders her around and displays the depths of his torment while on their travels. At one point, when he’s relating to her how his ex-wife was possessed by demons (literally in his belief), she describes the feeling his madness gives her as like being in a small room with a bank of needles growing ever closer. That rung immediate bells of recognition of sensations I’d had before, but Fuller never returns to this kind of trapped dangerous feeling. She’s certainly braver than I am, as I’d never venture across three countries of Africa in the company with a violent former alcoholic, revisiting the sites of all his nightmares, and if she was particularly frightened she hid it well.
When he gives orders, she makes small gestures toward not following them, then does anyway. When K shows her the house he’s building and talks about the woman he is sure God will send him and slips a few “we” and “you can” phrases into his plans, he doesn’t explicitly ask her to live with him, but there is an uncomfortable undercurrent throughout. I wondered how many women had been through a situation quite similar with a man who clearly had quite detailed dreams of the future starring them, and I wished Fuller would have delved more into that equation.
While in Mozambique, they hook up with an old friend of K’s, Mapenga a heavy drinking ex-mercenary like K used to be. They stay at Mapenga’s island home, the dinner party dissolving into a drunken brawl between Mapenga and another ex-soldier visitor. The danger of her situation never seems to dawn on Fuller and the visit ends with the author describing herself and Mapenga kissing for several minutes. While she never presents herself in the light of flirting with these men or leading them on, both Mapenga and K come to believe she is open to advances and available to them, despite her marriage and children. It’s a dangerous, dangerous game she plays and ultimately a distraction from her proclaimed purpose in this journey.
The climax of the book while on this island and that climax’s resolution both come off as stock cliches. K jealously believes that Fuller slept with Mapenga, and the showdown between the author and he over his destruction of her recordings of him have a kind of conventional feel to it, the personal narrative drawn as dramatic arc. It’s a little too pat a confrontation. K’s moody silence the whole drive home and their truce over a laughing fit are likewise fit to expectation. These personal soap opera moments work to distract us from the book’s worthier considerations, examinations Fuller recognizes are missing by tacking a hopelessly wanting-to-be-deep final chapter that asks all the big questions to the book’s narrative. It comes off more like the last sixty second of the Jerry Springer show where the host tries to wax philosophical after the rollicking ride and the book would have benefited greatly from having those questions asked when pertinent.
Scribbling is a morally complex work that asks of your sympathy at most and your simple recognition of another person’s humanity at least, even for one who has committed atrocities in his life. Yet the portrait of K, for all the pain he himself suffered, for all the torment and anguish and guilt he carries inside himself, Fuller never actually gets us close enough to him for him to become an object of sympathy. It’s not that she didn’t get herself close enough to feel it, because she frequently says as much, yet her portrait of his pain never draws us in to its specific agony but merely gives a physical characteristic description — mouth open, tears running down cheeks, skin flushed. This makes his repentance for his actions feel incomplete, shallow. While his Christianity may comfort him in the notion that God is all loving and all forgiving, K, as drawn by Fuller, never gives us humans a reason to be so.
Another important question books such as this raises is how do you teach a man not to kill after you’ve spent so much time and money training him to do just the opposite and letting him do it. That issue is touched on, but Fuller shrinks from attempting an answer, instead merely showing us that the path from war to civilian life is never easy, never without pain and an awkward readjustment. It’s a missed opportunity to dig into all K’s comrades for their perspective. More importantly and related to that is the question, what responsibility do we civilians have for soldiers who (notationally) act in our name? After K tells a particularly brutal story of his vicious murder of a black girl, Fuller writes:
I was every bit that woman’s murderer. Back during the war, I’d waved encouragement at the troopies, a thin childish arm high in the air in a salute of victory when they dusted past us in their armed lorries with their guns to the ready. I said, ‘I had no idea.’ But I did. I knew, without really being told out loud, what happened in the war. And I knew it was as brutal and indefensible as what I’d just heard from K. I just hadn’t wanted to know.
Consider that passage in these particular days.
Lisette Lecat, reviewed previously here, does just as admirable a job with Fuller’s work as she did with Gordimer’s. Her voice is accented enough that she is likely to remain mostly pigeonholed reading the works of white African writers, which is a shame as she is truly a treasure to listen to. While Fuller’s previous book gives her a tighter work to showcase her talents, Scribbling does provide quite a few dramatic dialogues that let Lecat shine as an actress.