Friday, August 19, 2011

Scribbling the Cat

If not for Alexandra Fuller's tight prose to propel this memoir of a journalist who travels with an African soldier, I might have put this book down, chalk it up to "nah,"and not pick it up again.

Scribbling the Cat [scribble is African slang for "kill" -- euphemisms of which they have plenty] begins with Fuller returning to her parents' home in Zambia, a place as primitive as could be imagined for a continent racked by war after war and poverty on top of poverty. There, she wishes to engage her father in discussion about the Rhodesian war, but his reticence, and actual refusal to do so, sends Fuller in another direction.

On a nearby farm lives K, a former soldier with the Rhodesian Light Infantry, who fought for five years in an apparent "killing field" in Mozambique {I had to get out the Atlas}. Apparently, K's reputation for being a lethal machine filters down to and affects those who work his farm who thereby hold him at a distance and with quiet respect. What makes K interesting is that he is a born-again Christian and believes that the tragedies that he has suffered outside of his soldiering [death of his son, mother's illness, wife's infidelity] were punishments from God for his ruthlessness during the war.

Fuller befriends K in hopes of getting him to share his war experiences, and even though he first shows nothing but reluctance, an unexplained change of mind occurs a year later, and he agrees to take Fuller with him on a trip to Mozambique to visit the places of his war horribleness [what other word could there be for it?]. She accompanies him with tape recorders and notebooks and...

so it goes.

I liked K -- but Fuller and her journey not so much, but I appreciated her tight-lipped prose.

For example, when she returns home to America disappointed that she couldn't get her story, she illustrates poignantly the difference between America and the Africa she had just visited:

"... I went home to my husband and to the post Christmas chaos of a resort town but instead of feeling glad to be back, I was dislocated and depressed. It should not be physically possible to get from the banks of the Pepani River to Wyoming in less than two days, because mentally and emotionally it is impossible. The shock is too much, the contrast too raw... the real, wonderful world around me ... felt suddenly pointless and trivial and almost insultingly frivolous. The shops were crappy with a Christmas hangover, too loud and brash... There was nothing challenging about being here, at least not on the surface..."

And this description of an African evening:

"It was the time of day that hurries too quickly past, those elusive, regrettably beautiful moments before night, which are shorter here than anywhere else I have been. The achingly tenuous evening teetered for a moment on the tip of the horizon and then was overcome by night..."

Scribbling the Cat manages to capture how ugly war is --- I only hung in there to read about this one because Fuller can write.


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