Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier

Overview

When Alexandra ("Bo") Fuller was home in Zambia a few years ago, visiting her parents for Christmas, she asked her father about a nearby banana farmer who was known for being a "tough bugger." Her father's response was a warning to steer clear of him; he told Bo: "Curiosity scribbled the cat." Nonetheless, Fuller began her strange friendship with the man she calls K, a white African and veteran of the Rhodesian war. With the same fiercely beautiful prose that won her acclaim for Don't Let's Go to the Dogs ...

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Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier

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Overview

When Alexandra ("Bo") Fuller was home in Zambia a few years ago, visiting her parents for Christmas, she asked her father about a nearby banana farmer who was known for being a "tough bugger." Her father's response was a warning to steer clear of him; he told Bo: "Curiosity scribbled the cat." Nonetheless, Fuller began her strange friendship with the man she calls K, a white African and veteran of the Rhodesian war. With the same fiercely beautiful prose that won her acclaim for Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Fuller here recounts her friendship with K.

K is, seemingly, a man of contradictions: tattooed, battle scarred, and weathered by farm work, he is a lion of a man, feral and bulletproof. Yet he is also a born-again Christian, given to weeping when he recollects his failed romantic life, and more than anything else welling up inside with memories of battle. For his war, like all wars, was a brutal one, marked by racial strife, jungle battles, unimaginable tortures, and the murdering of innocent civilians—and K, like all the veterans of the war, has blood on his hands.

Driven by K's memories, Fuller and K decide to enter the heart of darkness in the most literal way—by traveling from Zambia through Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and Mozambique to visit the scenes of the war and to meet other veterans. It is a strange journey into the past, one marked at once by somber reflections and odd humor and featuring characters such as Mapenga, a fellow veteran who lives with his pet lion on a little island in the middle of a lake and is known to cope with his personal demons by refusing to speak for days on end. What results from Fuller's journey is a remarkably unbiased and unsentimental glimpse of men who have killed, mutilated, tortured, and scrambled to survive during wartime and who now must attempt to live with their past and live past their sins. In these men, too, we get a glimpse of life in Africa, a land that besets its creatures with pests, plagues, and natural disasters, making the people there at once more hardened and more vulnerable than elsewhere.

Scribbling the Cat is an engrossing and haunting look at war, Africa, and the lines of sanity.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The author half dismisses this memoir as "a slither of a slither of a much greater story," but she is wrong. Scribbling the Cat is a haunting memoir about Africa and the borderlines of behavior. Fuller, who was born in England, was raised in Rhodesia, Malawi, and Zambia. Returning to Africa on a Christmas visit a few years ago, she met K., a white African who had fought in Rhodesia's brutal civil war. Ignoring her father's warning to steer clear of him, she befriends this former racist warrior, now a dour born-again Christian, and journeys with him from Zambia through Zimbabwe and into the killing fields of the Rhodesian War. Traveling, as it were, into the past, she comes to grips with K.'s personal demons and her own. A portrait in miniature of a scarred continent.
Publishers Weekly
Memoirist Fuller (Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight) describes this book, about her friendship with a Rhodesian war veteran, as "a slither of a slither of a much greater story." This disclaimer doesn't excuse the book's thinness, as it traces Fuller's journey with the white ex-soldier, K, from his farm in Zambia through Zimbabwe and into Mozambique, to the battlefields of more than two decades ago. Fuller evokes place and character with the vivid prose that distinguished her unflinching memoir of growing up in Africa, but here she handles subject matter that warrants more than artful word painting and soul-searching. Writing about war its scarred participants, victims and territory Fuller skimps on the history and politics that have shaped her and her subjects. Her personal enmeshment with K is the story's core. She's enamored of his physical beauty and power, and transfixed by his contradictions: K's capacity for both violence and emotional vulnerability, his anger and generosity, the blood on his hands and the faith he relies on (he's a born-again Christian) to cope with his demons. Fuller becomes K's confessor, and the journey turns into a kind of penance for her complicity, as a white girl in the 1970s, in a war of white supremacy. When K recounts how he tortured an African girl, Fuller swallows nausea and thinks, "I am every bit that woman's murderer." Fuller and K embark on their road trip ostensibly for the shell-shocked man to get beyond his "spooks" and for Fuller to write about it, but this motivation makes for a rather static journey. Photos. (On sale May 10) Forecast: Don't Let's Go received rave reviews, and readers of that book will probably want to read this new one. A 10-city author tour, national review coverage and national media attention will drive interest. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
With Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Fuller gave us a lacerating account of growing up in Africa at a time when black rule was replacing white rule. Here she proves that though she now lives in Wyoming, she can never really escape Africa. During a trip home to visit her parents, Fuller meets the mysterious K, a battle-scarred survivor of Rhodesia's civil war, who remains haunted by his experiences and lives alone after the departure of several wives and the death of a child. He still speaks contemptuously of black Africans but is a born-again Christian. To try to understand him-and hence Africa itself-Fuller agrees to travel with him to the area where he served as a soldier. This really is a trip into the heart of darkness, evocatively rendered in Fuller's astonishing prose. Along the way, the reader is caught wondering just what this woman thinks she's doing and whether the travelog is so artfully rendered as to be entirely real. (Will Fuller ever turn to fiction? One hopes so.) But in the end, this is a beautiful and powerfully moving account that gives us some insight into the tragedy of Africa today. If curiosity scribbled (that is, killed) the cat, then let yourself be scribbled. Highly recommended.-Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The author of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (2002) takes a demon-haunted tour of Zimbabwe and Mozambique in the company of an ex-soldier who fought with the Rhodesian Light Infantry. Visiting her parents in Zambia, Fuller meets K, a white African banana farmer and a veteran of the Rhodesian War. She finds him both "terrifying and unattractive"-he radiates a sense of violence and unpredictability-but also fascinating for the ghosts he harbors. K's born-again Christianity temporarily keeps the specters at bay, but they will slowly be released as he and the author return to the scenes of his wartime experiences. "I don't think we have all the words in a single vocabulary to explain what we are or why we are," writes Fuller, who knows she will be capturing only one facet of K-and not a pretty one. Seen through encounters with his comrades-in-arms, K is obviously capable of the acts of terror he committed during the war. Yet he's also capable of reflecting on the crushing death of his young son: "All those people I destroyed, all those lives. . . . The Almighty was showing me what it was like to lose a child." As we tumble through K's profound misery, we ride through an equally dismal Zimbabwean landscape; Fuller is adept at painting each. Zimbabwe is deeply unromantic, a place of labor, strain, and toil in which the marginalized must be endlessly resourceful simply to survive; life expectancy is 35 years, and randomly dispersed landmines, a handful for each citizen, remain a threat. Fuller learns more than she wants to know about the brutal, indefensible war, about what happens when you give a man an attitude and a gun, and about her own willingness to lead K on to get at a story. Aworried, restless, and haunted piece of work, tattooed and scarred from beginning to end.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781402582790
  • Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
  • Publication date: 5/10/2004
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged

Meet the Author

Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller was born in England in 1969 and in 1972 she moved with her family to a farm in Rhodesia. After that country’s civil war in 1981, the Fullers moved first to Malawi, then to Zambia. Fuller received a B.A. from Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada. She is the author of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, a national bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of 2002, and a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award, and Scribbling the Cat, winner of the 2005 Ulysses Award for Art of Reportage. Fuller lives in Wyoming with her husband and children.

Good To Know

In our interview with Fuller, she shared some fascinating facts about herself:

"There isn't a moment that I am not thinking about Africa. I am either thinking about it in relation to what I am writing at that time, or I am thinking about it in relations to where I am geographically (I am writing this at my desk in my office overlooking the Tetons, which could not be further, you might argue, from Zambia. Yet, I have been thinking all morning that the cry of an angry great blue heron -- they are nesting in the aspens at the end of our property -- sound like Chacma baboons)."

"The best way for me to evoke the same sense of place and the same smells and the same space of Africa is when I am out riding. I have a rather naughty little Arab mare, whom I accompany (it would be an exaggeration to claim that I "ride" her) into the mountains almost every day when the snow is clear. Something about being away from people, alone with a horse and a dog, fills me with an intense sense of joy and well-being, and I always return from these excursions inspired (if not to write, then to be a better mother, or to cook something fabulous, or to do the laundry)."

"I have come to the conclusion that I can only write about something if I have actually smelled it for myself. I have no idea what this says about me, but I think it's a fact of my work. I also cannot think of something without immediately evoking its smell (for example, if I think of my father, I think of the smell of cigarette smoke and the bitter scent of his sweat -- he has never once worn deodorant, so his smell is very organic and wonderfully his -- and of the faint aroma of tea and engine oil he exudes). Once, in France, a particularly thorough journalist (he had 50 questions for me!) said, somewhat accusingly, 'You have written here in your book' (it was Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight) 'about the smell of frog sperm. What exactly does frog sperm smell of?' And without hesitating for a moment, I replied, 'Cut turnips,' which I think surprised both of us."

"I love to write, and I dislike overly long interviews."

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    1. Hometown:
      Wilson, Wyoming
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 29, 1969
    2. Place of Birth:
      Glossop, Derbyshire, England
    1. Education:
      B. A., Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1992

Read an Excerpt

Uncharacteristic Sole Flood

BECAUSE IT IS THE LAND that grew me, and because they are my people, I sometimes forget to be astonished by Africans.

But I was astonished, almost to death, when I met K.

For a start, K was not what I expected to see here.

Not here, where the elevation rises just a few feet above ennui and where even the Goba people-the people who are indigenous to this area-look displaced by their own homes, like refugees who are trying to flee their place of refuge. And where the Tonga people-the nation that was shifted here in the 1950s, when the colonial government flooded them out of their ancestral valley to create Lake Kariwa-look unrequitedly vengeful and correspondingly despondent. And where everyone else looks like a refugee worker; sweat-drained, drunk, malarial, hungover, tragic, recently assaulted.

Down here, even those who don't go looking for trouble are scarred from the accidents of Life that stagger the otherwise uninterrupted tedium of heat and low-grade fever: boils, guns, bandit attacks, crocodiles, insect bites. No ripped edge of skin seems to close properly in this climate. Babies die too young and with unseemly haste.

If you count my parents and K, there are maybe two dozen people-out of a total population of about sixty thousand-who have voluntarily moved to the Sole Valley from elsewhere. That's if you don't count the occasional, evaporating aid workers who slog out this far from hope and try to prevent the villagers from losing their lives with such apparent carelessness. And if you don't count the Italian nuns at the mission hospital who are here as the result of a calling from God (more like an urgent shriek, I have no doubt).

Sole Valley is a V-shaped slot of goat-dusted scrub between the Chabija and Pepani Rivers in eastern Zambia. The town of Sole has metastasized off the cluster of buildings that make up the border post between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It consists of customs and immigration buildings, a (new and very smart) police station, an enormous tarmac parking lot for trucks, and a series of shabby tin and reed shacks that billow tarpaulins or plastic sheeting in a feeble protest against rain or dust and that offer for sale black market sugar, cooking oil, salt, mealie meal, and bread.

welcome to sole, says the sign. speed kills, condoms save.

People at the border post climb out of their cars and you see them looking around and you can hear them thinking, Save me from what?

Guinea fowl destined for a torturous journey into someone's pot clatter from their bush-tambo baskets, "Nkanga, nkanga!" and the Heuglin's robins call from the dust-coated shrubs, "It's-up-to-you, it's-up-to-you, up-to-you, UP-TO-YOU."

Truck drivers in diesel-stained undershirts slouch in the shade of brothels and taverns, suffocating their boredom with women, beer, and cigarettes. A sign dangling above the shelves of one tavern, whose wares include not only beer and cigarettes but also condoms and headache pills, asks, have you come to solve my problems or to multiply them? Prostitutes lounge from trucker to trucker, casually soliciting in a hip-sliding sly way that hides their urgency. It's a deadly business. Cutthroat and throat-cut. Girls as young as twelve will sell themselves to the long-haul truckers for as little as a meal or a bar of soap.

In the shade of a shack that advertises max barbers arc welding and battery charge now open, a truck yawns and surveys its parts, which are vomited greasily on the ribbed earth in front of it, while a young man in a shiny nylon soccer shirt has his hair braided into porcupine spikes by a woman with deft fingers.

And next to a sign that says relax & discus restarunt we sale shima & tea, two women from the Watchtower Society sit out in the sun with their legs stretched out in front of them, stern in their reproachfully white robes. They drink Coke and eat cakes of fried mealie meal.

There are, in Africa, many more glamorous and inhabitable addresses than this low sink of land on the edge of perpetual malaria. Scratch the surface of anyone who has voluntarily come to this place-and who is unguardedly drunk at the time-and you will invariably uncork a wellspring of sorrow or a series of supremely unfortunate events and, very often, both.

Scratch-and-sniff.

Stiff upper lips crack at the edge of the bar, and tears spill and waves of unaccustomed emotion swallow whole brandy-and-Coke-smelling days. These tidal waves of sadness and hopeless nostalgia (not the hankering for a happy, irretrievable past, but the much worse sensation of regret for a past that is unbearably sad and irrevocably damaged) are more prevalent when the heat gets too much or when Christmas creeps around and soaks the senses with the memory of all that was once promising and hopeful about life. And then tight tongues grow soft with drink and the unavoidable sadness of the human condition is debated in ever decreasing circles until it sits on the shoulders of each individual in an agonizingly concentrated lump. Eventually someone drinks himself sober and declares that life is short and vicious and unveeringly cruel, and perhaps it's best not to talk about it.

The hangovers from these drunken confessions of titanic misery (aborted marriages, damaging madness, dead children, lost wars, unmade fortunes) last nine or ten months, during which time no one really talks about anything, until the pressure of all the unhappiness builds up again to breaking point and there is another storm of heartbreaking confessions.

But K, perfectly sober and in the bright light of morning, volunteered his demons to me, almost immediately. He hoisted them up for my inspection, like gargoyles grinning and leering from the edge of a row of pillars. And I was too curious-too amazed-to look the other way.

It bloody nearly killed me.

THE YEAR THAT I went home from Wyoming to Zambia for Christmas-the year I met K-it had been widely reported by the international press that there was a drought in the whole region. A drought that had started by eating the crops in Malawi and Zimbabwe and had gone on to inhale anything edible in Zambia and Mozambique. It was a drought that didn't stop gorging until it fell into the sea, bloated with the dust of a good chunk of the lower half of Africa's belly.

News teams from all around the world came to take pictures of starving Africans and in the whole of central and southern Africa they couldn't find people more conveniently desperate-by which I mean desperate and close to both an international airport and a five-star hotel-than the villagers who live here. So they came with their cameras and their flak jackets and their little plastic bottles of hand sanitizer and took pictures of these villagers who were (as far as the villagers themselves were concerned) having an unusually fat year on account of unexpected and inexplicably generous local rain and the sudden, miraculous arrival of bags and bags of free food, which (in truth) they could use every year, not only when the rest of Africa suffered.

The television producers had to ask the locals-unused to international attention-to stop dancing and ululating in front of the camera. Couldn't they try to look subdued?

"Step away from the puddles."

Rain slashed down and filming had to stop. The sun came out and the world steamed a virile, exuberant green. The Sole Valley looked disobediently-at least from the glossy distance of videotape-like the Okavango Swamps. Women and children gleamed. Goats threatened to burst their skins. Even the donkeys managed to look fortunate and plump. In a place where it is dry for nine months at a stretch, even the slightest breath of rain can be landscape-altering and can briefly transform the people into an impression of tolerable health.

"Explain to them that this is for their own good. God knows, I am not doing this for my entertainment."

If the television crews had wanted misery, they had only to walk a few meters off the road and into the nearest huts, where men, women, and children hang like damp chickens over long drops losing their lives through their frothing bowels. But HIV/ AIDS is its own separate documentary.

Life expectancy in this dry basin of land has just been officially reduced to thirty-three. How do you film an absence? How do you express in pictures the disappearance of almost everyone over the age of forty?

"Please ask those young boys to look hungry."

The young boys obligingly thrust their hips at the camera and waggled pink tongues at the director.

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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2006

    The unvarnished truth

    I went to live in Zimbabwe in 1983. Rhodesia had been dead three years, but lived on in the hearts of the white population. In both her books Alexandra Fuller captures the poignancy of the war and the defeat of Rhodesian dreams, and also the hopelessness of the situation of the the Africans. I heard many stories of atrocities similar to the one recounted by K. These stories reflected what happens in all wars - young men with guns and power and an under-developed sense of responsibilty do terrible things. Everything about both her books rang true, but the second was a very brave attempt to portray the horror of war. I hope she writes more.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2005

    Africa memories brought alive

    I have enjoyed both the books written (and have re-read Lets go to the dogs 3x) but Scribbling the Cat gave me quite a shock at the Bloodnut in the book was my husband,Terry He spelt it Bludnutt because actually he was whitish blonde but had thin hair (something to do with a ringworm treatment in Zambia where he lived on a farm as a young child.)His scalp got red as a rookie, hense the nickname. His photo is also in the book. I wondered why he was wary of dogs. He passed away in 2002 at 47 so I had a good cry last summer as it was unexpected seeing his picture, then the dog memory of K. Many friends have bought the books since I enlightened them.....

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2004

    read your history

    trying to explain the Rhodesian war to my american friends living in germany is like trying to explain snow to an african who's never travelled - it is so different to anything that they could ever experience that - they cannot understand why I would want to go back to zimbabwe (to visit)and heaven forbid take my young kids there - for there are 100's of K's - men who were young and patriotic and followed their leaders blindly into battle (a bit like the young ones in iraq) - or the vets of vietnam - these men have never fully recovered or had any kind of PTS counselling - they are the worst of us displaced zimbabweans that are scattered around the world -put into a search engine rhodesia and you will be amazed at the websites and the need to cling on to our past because the country does not exsist anymore - it has become a burnt out shell of what it once was - she travelled there because its her past. you cannot begrudge her that. It was such a small white community clinging on to the impossible (thank god)that we became an extended family and to this day I can go to any country anywhere in the world and ask for assistance from a fellow zimbo and we will help each other - even though we had never met before. Only when I became an a teenager as Bobo did I realise how wrong the ideals were - don't think why did she consort with these people - they were us - it was everybody fighting for survival - I can just see a young american writing a book like this about the iraq war in years to come - what a waste of young lives, what a waste of what was and still is in many ways a beautiful country the wildlife and countryside is fantastic - but how long can the animals survive if the people are starving - 5yrs ago it was a progressive country in africa. if your american and intrested in africa brush up on your history

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    recommended, but not for the squeamish

    unlike her first engrossing memoir of growing up a white child in Africa, the author expresses more emotion and opinion in this tale of a journey thru old war zones with an ex-Rhodesian soldier. insightful though not comprehensive look at post-colonial Africa, the main story is her travelling companion's edgey mental state, that connects with our current American vets struggling with PTSD. In a chilling scene, the author is sharing sleeping quarters with 3 former soldiers, and is awakened repeatedly when each and all of them scream out in the night from war terrors 20 years old. I'm looking forward to reading her third and newst book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2004

    Not up to Expectations

    One has to wonder about Fuller's true motivations for becoming so intimately involved with such an unappealing character as 'K' and his violent,low life cronies. Ostensibly, she is embarking on a voyage of discovery in order to experience first hand the aftermath of a long and brutal war and the lasting effect on its survivors but the question that must be on the mind of every reader is why would she (who professes to have a close attachment to her children, if not her husband), embark on such a hazardous undertaking and place herself in such a vulnerable environment in order to gain some insight into these hopeless and basically uninteresting characters, whose vocabulary is largely limited to four letter expletives. This is a legitimate question because the story is as much (or moreso) about her than the characters she encounters and the places she visits but she never really gives any insight into her personal life as she so freely did in 'Don't Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight'. Was the real reason for her odyssey romance, impulse, adventure, escape or, truly, research as she would have us believe. The reader is given no clue and is left wondering -'why'? Fuller's prose is wonderful but the dialogue in this story seems stilted and does not flow as it did in 'Dogs'. In this reader's opinion,'Scribbling' does not live up to the considerable promise of her first book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2004

    Richly painted, haunting, humorous and timely

    Satisfying and captivating. This is a haunting, yet beautifully textured, continuation of Fuller's younger life memoired in 'Don't Let's Go to The Dog's Tonight'. After skimming over seven years of living the fat life in the US she's drawn back to the raw life of her African childhood to research the wars which raged on around her youth. She encounters soldiers reluctant to reveal the realities of being a warrior, including her father. Bo's faced with a new understanding of her own history, the people she's left behind and of the war torn Africa (specifically former Rhodesia and Mozambique) that was beyond understanding as a child. Though this isn't meant to be a history lesson in itself, however, it's timely; considering the HIV epidemic and the many conflicts currently raging round the globe, the attitudes of those that start wars, and how wars effect so many for so long. Her travels are written with the eyes of a painter along with humerous, soulful, philosophical observations of what it is to be human here on earth. It's all here; love and longing, fear and hatred, courage and bravado, depression and abuse, faith and endurance, peace and tranquilty: and advice from Alexadra Fuller's father, 'Don't look back so much or you'll get wiped out on the tree in front of you'. We're left wondering if Fuller has learned the lessons from her travels with a soldier that are obvious to the reader regarding accountability and volnerabilty. I missed the unapologetic observations she's famous for regarding her view of her role in this journey. Fuller finds herself, however, unapologetically halfway around the world from her husband and children with some pretty questionable characters and claims she is the same person she was at the beginning of her travels. I loved this book but I can't help but feel it's a memoir written too close to real time to be completely told. I'm not sure if she hit the tree or not but maybe that was her intention. Read it and decide.

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    Posted August 21, 2009

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    Posted February 28, 2011

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    Posted June 8, 2009

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    Posted June 10, 2009

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