Friday, March 18, 2011

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

An African Childhood

Much of this book is a child's-eye-view of Africa during the civil war in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

There's the constant threat of bloodshed plus the usual exotic risks -- snakes, scorpions, leopards, etc.

The family drives a bomb-proofed Land Rover, and the children learn how to clean and load their father's assault rifle, their mother's Uzi.

When the war ends they remain in Zimbabwe, though many other white settlers leave and their farm is sold out from under them. Eventually they relocate to Malawi and then to Zambia.

The author's portrayal of her family and herself is vivid, unflinching, and firmly cemented into place by the b&w photos that head each chapter. She writes:

I felt as if I needed to find a way to explain the racism I had grown up around, to justify the hard living of whites in Africa, to expunge my guilt over the injustice I had witnessed in my youth.

Not an easy task, delivering a sympathetic portrayal of her flawed but hard-working parents, along with her own dawning awareness of native Africans as fully rounded human beings, and tempered with a few glimpses of the excesses of post-Independence Africa.

Her descriptions of the sights, sounds and particularly the smells of Africa are rich and evocative.

When the ship veered into the Cape of Good Hope, Mum caught the spicy, woody scent of Africa on the changing wind. She smelled the people: raw onions and salt, the smell of people who are not afraid to eat meat, and who smoke fish over open fires on the beach and who pound maize into meal and who work out-of-doors. She held me up to face the earthy air, so that the fingers of warmth pushed back my black curls of hair, and her pale green eyes went clear-glassy.

"Smell that," she whispered. "That's home."

Many sad, humorous, poignant, tense and uncomfortable moments fill the book. Clueless missionaries and hitchhikers pop up, border officials are either welcoming, venal or dangerous. There is a pot-smoking cook and a man with an almost preternatural skill as a tracker. The mother -- beautiful, feisty, eccentric -- suffers a nervous breakdown after the loss of her third child (two of whom rest in unmarked graves).

I wonder what sort of book Jane Austen would have produced if she had grown up in Africa.

The Author

Though Alexandra Fuller attended university in Canada (Acadia here in Nova Scotia), and now lives in the US, she still thinks of herself as an African. Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight was a New York Times notable book, and finalist for the Guardian First Book Prize.

You can find out more about her at her website.