on February 25, 2005
Alexandra Fuller's second narrative of Africa tells about her friendship with a former Rhodesian soldier code-named "K". After soldiering in the bloody civil conflicts in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Mozambique, K tries to start a new life of farming in Zambia, where he lives on the farm next to Ms. Fuller's parents. In a visit to her parents from her adopted American home, the author (nicknamed Bobo) meets the former soldier K, and on somewhat of a lark, gets him to agree to take her on a road trip back to Mozambique, to show her where he fought as a mercenary soldier.
There are many ugly, brutal details about the African civil wars in this book. Although the reading is painful, the message is important...war creates "fatal cracks" in both the soldiers of war and civilian bystanders, cracks which take the rest of a lifetime to repair. Bobo undertakes this story thinking that she could better understand the violent man that K has become by "walking a mile in his shoes". Yet the reader comes away with the lesson that war leaves a different impression on all who are involved.
Ms. Fuller's writing is beautiful and non-judgemental. The book is interspersed with amazing snapshots of the African people and countryside. I definitely recommend reading Ms. Fuller's own memoir first, "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight". And be warned that the images in "Scribbling the Cat" are quite graphic. Nonetheless, this story is a compelling look at Africa, both today and during its civil wars of the 1980s.
on August 18, 2004
I was very unclear about how to rate this book. It's brilliantly written and about a subject -- the brutality of the war in Rhodesia and the human fallout from it -- that we don't know much about in the US. It's an amazing, up-close picture of a desolate part of Africa, that is nonetheless teeming with life and interesting individuals.
But there is a kind of patent dishonesty going on here that clouds the book's best intentions and the author's considerable storytelling gifts. The story is straightforwardly presented as authobiographical, but Ms. Fuller is incredibly stingy with revealing herself (while she virtually guts her subject, the former White Rhodesian soldier she calls "K"). In order to get "K" to open up to her and tell his absolutely wrenching, devasting story, Ms. Fuller manipulates him in an unusually cruel way -- she allows him to fall in love with her (even though she is a married woman with two children back in the US) and continues her deception throughout a long road trip, during which he confides his darkest secrets to her, believing that she is "the one" -- the perfect mate sent to him by God to heal his loneliness and his pain.
Although the stories of military violence, racism and horrific African poverty are deeply affecting, I was profoundly disturbed at the way Alexandra Fuller obtained K's life story. In many respects, she hurt and victimized this terribly damaged man in ways that are psychologically worse than violence -- by betraying his trust. (When I was in high school, there was a not-very-nice term for women who use their sexuality to keep men on a string.) Furthermore, Ms. Fuller is coy enough not to let us know if the attraction was at all mutual or what the state of her marriage was. After all, she has left her husband and children back in Wyoming...it matters a great deal to the reader if she is purely a writer in search of a story (however manipulative) or if she is actually a unhappy wife looking for a potential lover. This unspoken story nagged at me, especially the last part of the book where Ms. Fuller actively begins a flirtacious relationship with ANOTHER ex-soldier...basically trivializing not only her mysterious marriage but her confusing relationship to "K".
The last time I was so distracted from the content of a non-fiction book by the actions of the author was Kathryn Harrison's "The Kiss", about that author's adult love affair with her own biological father. As bad as incest is, somehow Alexandra Fuller's deceptive and cruel manipulation of "K" to get a clever and unusual story bothers me even more. Certainly it should make the reader think about just how far it is reasonable or moral for a writer to go to obtain material for a book...does the fact that "K" had a truly fascinating story to tell mean that it was OK to use him and to break his heart?
In conclusion, I found this story to be sadistic and disturbing, although the author is a fine writer and superb storyteller, she has a lot of work to do in developing a conscience.
Alexandra Fuller is a white woman who grew up in Rhodesia in the 1970s. Life was harsh and there was a war on. Eventually, her parents lost their farm and had to leave the country which is now called Zimbabwe. Eventually the family settled in Zambia and still live there. Alexandra, however, married and moved to Wyoming, where she lives with her husband and two children. One day, while visiting her parents, she met a man who had been a soldier in the defeated Rhodesian army. She was fascinated by him as well as the whole story of what had happened in Rhodesia during her childhood. A few months later she planned a short trip with him into the land where the fighting occurred. It was a journey of discovery for both of them. This book is the result of that journey.
Let me explain the title. The word "scribbling" means "killing" in the slang of the region. And it refers to the expression "curiosity killed the cat". She decided to take this trip because she was curious. It's as simple as that.
The former soldier, who she refers to as "K" is war hardened. He's now a loner, living on a farm he literally carved out of the African bush himself. Some native Africans work for him but his relationships with them are simply that aof boss and worker. His former marriage had ended in divorce and it was clear from the beginning that he was interested in Alexandra even though she was married.
She wasn't interested in him in that way. And I'll say right up front there that even though towards the end of their trip there was some romantic tension between them, it never materialized. The book instead is about their relationship to Africa and the way that Africa itself has shaped their personalities.
I live in New York and my whole life is one of material comfort. I turn on the water tap to get water, the air is free of insects and flies, electricity gives me light at night and cools my apartment in the summer. For Alexandra's African family and also for "K", these are luxuries. They are constantly lighting fires with a match in order to boil water for tea. Their homes have no electricity. They are always sweat soaked from the horrific humid heat. Taking a shower means pouring a bucket of water on themselves. If they have a car, gasoline is very expensive and they do not use air conditioning. All this is a given.
During their trip, K told Alexandra stories. He remembered the guns and the death and the terrible fright. He admitted to atrocities with deep regret. Along the way they met some of the men he had served with. They were all hardened war veterans. One of them lived alone on an island with a lion. Another kept smoking unfiltered African cigarettes even though he obviously was suffering from lung disease. They talked about old times. And how they had to go for days without water and it would get so bad they would be willing to kill each other for just a sip of the precious liquid. They romanticized the fistfights. And, one of the most interesting things was that they all seemed to accept the life they were thrust into and remembered the years of the war as a time in their lives that they felt very much alive.
Wisely, the author focused her book on this trip and subtitled the book "Travels With An African Soldier". Personally, I might have liked to hear more about her husband and children back in Wyoming. I also would have liked to see a map included somewhere in the book. But I think her intent was to focus on the impact of war on people, and on the small sub-set of Rhodesian soldiers. By doing this, she made her story universal.
I loved the book, couldn't put it down and definitely recommend it.
on January 1, 2005
I read this book almost two years after reading this author's first book, "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight" which was one of my all time favorite books. I don't believe Ms. Fuller's intent was for this book to be taken as literally as some readers seem to taking it. Don't look for flaws in facts. She purposely said she was "covering her tracks" like "any good soldier" would do. I loved this book almost as much as her first book. That says a lot. She is a wonderful writer. Her marriage is her own business to those reviewers who blame her for not discussing it more in this book. Obviously anyone concerned about her marriage or the factual flaws do not get the reason for this book. This book is not meant to provide answers. Instead, it simply propounds more questions for the reader to contemplate. Authors that imply that they have all the answers bore me to no end. Perhaps that's why I love Ms. Fuller's writing so much. She has no such egotistical pretense in her writing. Instead, this book is about much, much more than the seemingly dry subject of traveling through various parts of Africa with an ex-soldier. This book is about "Life, Death, Love, Hate and God" among other even less tangible things. I loved it and will read it again. Thank you again, Ms. Fuller, for another wonderful book about your experiences in Africa. We seem to share some experiences of living in a place that does not make often make sense or fit into other person's scope of reality. Your writing sometimes reminds me of what it's like to live in the Virgin Islands, a subject I hope to write about one day as eloquently as you write about Africa.
on September 13, 2004
While I was waiting for my copy to arrive, I wondered at the title, and what could be meant by 'scribbling'.
As a schoolboy in Rhodesia, growing up as the clouds of war gathered, I had never heard the term used, except in the sense of something you did with crayons, on paper. As a teenager, living in the married quarters of KGVI Barracks in Salisbury, where my father was a regular Army officer, I never heard the expression being used in the context of killing someone. In January 1976, when I was conscripted into the Army, and in the subsequent years that I spent in an operational unit, as a national serviceman, and later as a territorial, I never heard of anybody being 'scribbled'. Like 'K', I spent time at Mukumbura-by-the-Sea (good ol' Siddi-el-Mukkers!), but nobody that I recall ever used the term.
We talked of culling gooks; slotting floppies; drilling zots. Getting 'pulled' meant getting shot (fatally or otherwise) as did 'taking a round'. Getting 'blallered' (as 'K' puts it) generally meant getting very drunk, although it also meant to kill. Sometimes you heard of people getting whacked, or popped; the American personnel who drifted in, looking for post-Vietnam excitement, added a whole new glossary to our war-talk -but, still, I never heard of anybody being 'scribbled'.
In common with the casual brutality of all wars, we had a variety of terms for killing - but I never heard that one.
So - belief suspended - it was no surprise to read some of 'K's' fantasies about operating in Mozambique. Although the Rhodesians spent plenty of time in 'Porkers', it was generally as part of a large, organised cross-border operation. Single 'sticks' didn't go wandering into Mozambique, in hot pursuit or otherwise - only the Selous Scouts did that, and only for very high-level intelligence gathering. The notion that an RLI commander would let four of his men go deep into Mozambique after a single terrorist is ridiculous. FRELIMO might not have been the greatest soldiers in the world, but there were a helluva lot of them.
Although it was an interesting read, it was a disappointing one; despite Ms Fuller's undeniable writing skills, I guess you can't really expect a third-party account to be accurate.
Will I be buying Bobo's next work? I doubt it.
on May 7, 2013
Scribbling the Cat is a strange and unsettling book. Like Fuller's two other Rhodesian memoirs, Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight and Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, it's hauntingly evocative and elegantly written. Once more, I was effortlessly transported to Southern Africa, "a land of almost breath-taking beauty or of savage poverty; a land of screaming ghosts or of sun-flung possibilities; a land of inviting warmth or of desperate drought" (143). But unlike the other two Rhodesian memoirs, Scribbling the Cat is elusive and dark and ultimately it loses its momentum. Fuller's charming sense of humor and endearing optimism are largely absent here, replaced, instead, by meandering reflections and a sense of foreboding that is never truly resolved.
When reading fiction, I normally try very hard to separate my feelings about the author from my attitudes about the book. With memoir, however, that's a little bit harder to do, because the author is selling not just her story, but also herself, to some extent - her values, impressions and presuppositions. And while I had started to develop a sort of benign "girl crush" on Fuller after reading her two other memoirs, this one left me questioning her character a little bit, and the book as a whole.
Instead of focusing on her childhood and family life growing up in Rhodesia, this memoir centers on Fuller's friendship and travels with a man whom she calls "K," an ex-soldier who fought on the losing side of the Rhodesian war. She meets "K" while visiting her parents' fish and banana farm in Zambia, and despite her father's warnings to steer clear of him, Fuller, who seems to be suffering from a kind of spiritual malaise, quickly develops a kindred connection with the man as they travel together alone, often in very intimate settings, through Zimbabwe and Mozambique. "K" is very much reminiscent of Stanley Kowalski , a volatile, choleric soul trapped in a shell of hyper masculinity. It's clear throughout the memoir that Fuller finds herself both repulsed by and strangely attracted to "K", which is problematic, since she is married with two children. Throughout the book, Fuller, who is so transparent in her other memoirs, remains silent on the appropriateness of this arrangement.
Fuller probably wouldn't have been able to write this book had "K" not developed romantic feelings for her shortly after their first meeting. And more than a few readers, myself probably included, seem to think that Fuller exploits "K's" feelings order to get the goods---that is, the material she needs to write a compelling story. She's also on a kind of spiritual journey herself, and she thinks that if she can just figure out "K", then she might be able to make sense of her family's own involvement in the war. She expresses her desire to "label ["K"] and write him into coherence," and, by extension, herself. But "K" is a complex person, a professing "born again" Christian who is tormented by the ghosts of his past and driven by an unpredictable brew of sincere faith, erratic superstition, debilitating guilt and blind rage. By the end of both her literal and metaphorical journeys, we know very little about "K," and very little about Fuller and only a little bit more about Africa. Her goal - "to patch together enough words to make sense of [their] lives" (239) - is never realized, and only two major insights are communicated: that war indiscriminately breaks people's bodies and souls and that Fuller indiscriminately breaks men's hearts. The first insight I already suspected before reading this book and the second one I was sad to discover.
on May 23, 2004
What is most striking about a book that contains multitudes of gob smacking passages is Alexandra (Bobo) Fullers excruciating honesty. At every turn in this story of her return to Zimbabwe there is an opportunity for an easier and more palatable course. Bo's hard drinking hellfire willed and most definitely bigoted mother is shown in all of her grace and courage, rather than an easy stereotype of colonialism, which is an almost impossible balance to achieve with one's own parent. Ultimately Bo's decision to enter her own Heart of Darkness with K., a brutal, broken and heartbreaking former soldier of the wars for Independance makes sense if there was no other way to heal the damage and accept the beauty that being from Africa has left her with. The conditions of their travel (hellish heat, corrupt officials and the Furies that lurk at every watering hole and dune) and K.'s sudden outbursts, both intensely savage and tender by turns would make a woman less dedicated to finding the truth at whatever costs catch the first plane out of Africa. For an understanding of what war, any war, actually costs this book is unparalleled. I heard the author speak here in Wyoming recently and I can't stop thinking about what she said about her attempt to heal herself, to make whole what had been broken in herself and in K. She said that what they had done instead was to wrench those wounds open and dig their hands deep inside, gripping the most sensitive, raw depths of each others shame and hurt. By laying open these wounds and exposing their flaws without flinching or turning away they were both given a greater gift. I shrink to say that the result was acceptance or something easy. There isn't anything easy about this book but it is searingly honest and it also bears mentioning really funny in a sort of death may come soon why not crack a joke here, what have I got to lose way.
on September 22, 2004
Though she was only a child, the memory of cheering white soldiers on to victory in the Rhodesian war haunts Alexandra Fuller, and probably always will. Fuller, author of the acclaimed memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, understands that war-which ultimately led to black minority rule and democratic elections-probably as well as anyone alive today.
It was a war about race, she explains in her latest book Scribbling the Cat. Minority white leaders did not want to surrender the upper hand in Rhodesia, later renamed Zimbabwe. Even so, the good guys are not always so easy to sort from the bad guys: black soldiers fought on the side of white oppression and black communities have been known to nurture their own tyrants.
On a visit to her parents in Zambia, Fuller concludes that writing about the war from the point of view of "K," who fought to keep Rhodesia white, will unlock previously untold secrets. She contrives to travel with him to Mozambique, the site of many war atrocities.
They travel in about the worst discomfort imaginable-unpaved roads, a dearth of modern plumbing and no refrigeration. Being on the road with a nosy journalist might try anyone's patience, and K is no exception. Adding to the tension, K has a crush on Fuller.
Fuller hopes to deliver something meaningful about the nature of war and the scars it leaves on its fighters, especially those whom contemporary ethics have found to be in the wrong. K discloses gruesome memories; most shocking is his assault on a young village woman who later died-after betraying the location of Rhodesian liberation soldiers. But K's stories don't add up to much in the way of revelation or insight.
"Nothing K and Mapenga had told me, or shown me-and nothing I could ever write about them-could undo the pain of their having being on the planet," she writes. Her frustration in trying to make sense of war's horror is her finest point.
on January 7, 2005
From reading Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight we expect excruciating honesty. We certainly get that in Scribbling the Cat but here Fuller also holds back as much as she reveals. While other reviewers find this dishonest, or even immoral, I think much of the understated tension in the story between Fuller and K provides bold richness to the narrative. It is obvious that Fuller is holding back. That this author can do this (for more often than not she uses words like a scalpel to scrape away at the layers of reality to get to the core, and can lay bare a character till we feel we are viewing an x-ray) is a testimony to her genius. We see Fuller experiencing the Africa of K, and the enigma of K himself, while holding a vital strain from the reader: why, beyond the similarities of their common heritage, is K so intriguing to her? Little hints are scattered through the book, like the bread Hansel uses to mark his way back home: on pg 137 of the hardcover K informs Fuller that his ex-wife had an affair, and says "'she was possessed. What else can make a woman do what she did?' I puffed hard on my cigarette and said nothing." Here, Fuller the writer is holding back her cards. At moments like this, Fuller saying nothing is almost as good as Fuller providing us with a thousand words. Later, K seems to get at Fuller's essential core when he says "You play with men. You know that? You play with men and you play with their feelings and you are going to destroy yourself. You are going to destroy your family." That Fuller allows K to utter this (whether she believes it or not) is gutsy and intriguing. As is the quote she puts in her own mouth "Why do I push people to destruction?" After Fuller and K argue about her brief moment of intimacy with Mapenga [which Fuller tells us was only kissing, but lasted "some minutes"] Fuller explains the reconciliation with K as "The routine of tea, the casual domesticity, the drying underwear on the fence, the unfed cat, the two-o'clock-in the morning quarrels, and the implied apology, the unwashed dishes. From a distance, whatever this was could easily be mistaken for a marriage." Fuller and K in fact become a husband and wife and their intimacy is so complete in its intensity that its physical consummation is irrelevant. We see two people, like naked souls, trying desperately, through the medium of their individual lives, to understand what it is to be alive. If this is not intimacy, what is? The theme of this book is the civil war in Rhodesia and the effect it had on K, his comrades and Fuller. But an understated element is there as well, getting dragged along like a shadow. We have a writer pushing the outer envelope of experience to get at something essential. She is fearless in pursuing K regardless of where it takes her. And the reader of this book feels almost voyeuristic as the elements put into the book (and those left out!) give the startling appearance that real life is unfolding before us; it is ugly, it is pretty, it is grave and disgusting, but a feeling of absolute veracity strings all these elements along - and the result is mesmerizing. Ultimately, for me, this book is about how to craft an excellent book: what to put in, what to leave out, and how to explain life without reducing its mystery.
I think Alexandra Fuller is a masterful writer.
on October 2, 2007
A well written and fairly well researched book... and an immense disappointment. A married woman, happily undertaking an "adventure" in landmine-ridden Mozambique with a man who is clearly in love with her. Sadly this, together with the fact that yet another unmarried man also falls for her charms, completely detracts from the story. Furthermore, I am a displaced Zimbabwea, and my father and husband both fought on the wrong side of that war. Their memories of that time are somewhat different to Ms Fuller's, and it's very doubtful that a man as tragic and scarred by his internal demons as K would open his heart to this relatively unknown woman. Having read Peter Godwin's excellent "Mukiwa" and "When the Crocodile Eats the Sun" I can honestly say this book falls a distant way behind those two.