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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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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.
"Scribbling the Cat defies easy definition . . . [a] wild-hearted beauty of a book." —O, The Oprah Magazine
"[Scribbling the Cat] is no more a simple profile of an ex-soldier than Fuller's first book, the acclaimed bestseller Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, was merely a memoir of growing up.... The story catches fire." —Newsweek
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.
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.
Scribbling the Cat is the story of a quest—a journey to understand the realities of a long-ago war, to measure its costs, and, perhaps, to find some kind of redemption. It is also the story of an odd friendship, an extended courtship between a writer looking for answers and a charismatic ex-soldier looking for a second chance. Set in Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, it is at once a sharply observed portrait of life in contemporary southern Africa and a universal story of war and survival, friendship and love, trust and deceit, hope and disillusion.
Alexandra “Bobo” Fuller encounters her soldier, K, while visiting her family’s fish farm in Zambia over the Christmas holidays. A veteran of the Rhodesian civil war, the physically imposing K is not only profane, funny, and charming, but shockingly candid, openly emotional, and deeply religious. Bobo’s curiosity is piqued: he seems the perfect subject for a writer whose girlhood had been scrambled by the war and who still has nightmares about it. Though her father warns her that “curiosity scribbled the cat,” she pursues a friendship with K—a friendship that will eventually take her to Mozambique, where K had spent five years killing guerillas during the war.
And what does K see in Bobo? Though married, she is one of the few white women to come to his small corner of Zambia, and she is intensely interested in his life and his stories of war, even after he shows her the house he is building on his banana plantation for “a very special woman” that he is sure God will send him. So it is not surprising that he agrees to go with her to Mozambique. She will write about it; he will get over his bad memories, his “spooks.”
In the trip to Mozambique, however, K’s demons do not flee. Instead, they reveal themselves. He talks about the exhilaration of combat, the adrenaline rush that marks the moment of attack. He recounts his trials with God and the devil and confesses to a stomach-churning act of torture. And he breaks down, imagining he’s being hunted by a pack of wild dogs, a flashback to an incident during the war. By the time he and Bobo meet up with K’s old comrade-in-arms Mapenga, K’s emotions are raw and his feelings dangerously off-kilter. A boozy house party, a hike through the one of the war’s most notorious killing fields, and Mapenga’s amorous attentions toward Bobo are all it takes for him to snap and destroy Bobo’s notes, film, and tapes. He had wanted her, she wanted his story, and each feels betrayed.
“Tortured, angry, aggressive, lost.” This is how Bobo describes K. Yet at the end, he remains someone who commands our respect and sympathy, a “man who needed to sort out his own shit” and who gave Bobo freedom she needed to write her book. Scribbling the Cat captures a life upended by war—and, along the way, provides a incisive picture of today’s Africa, a land of AIDS and corruption, racial and tribal divides, ancient beauty and cautious hope.
ABOUT 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’s first book, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, was a national bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of 2002, a finalist for the GuardianFirst Book Award, and the Book Sense Best Nonfiction Book of the Year for 2002. Fuller lives in Wyoming and has two children.
A CONVERSATION WITH ALEXANDRA FULLER
Are you still in contact with K? If so, how are his spooks? What is he up to? Has he found his “special woman”?
I still see K from time to time. I think he will take his spooks to his grave, as we all will unless we exorcise them while we are on earth. The most obvious difference that I could see between K and St. Medard (whose spooks are screaming demons) is that K has almost superhuman discipline and he keeps his spooks, on the whole, contained. (They are close to the surface, it is true, but they are on chains and K—with the help of his raging, furious God—holds the end of those chains in his impressive grip.) He is still farming and I am sure he will be very successful at it—he works with such single-minded purpose and with such terrifying precision. He had a relationship with a young woman very soon after our time together and they have a daughter now. Whether or not she is his “special woman” I wouldn’t like to comment. I suspect K will find his “special woman” only when he finds some kind of peace, and I don’t know if he can find peace without really, truly allowing himself forgiveness for the war and the part he played in it. That’s the horror of a soldier’s afterlife—that at some point they must reconcile what they have done with what they know to be right, and for this they do not have the support of the generals, the politicians, or the country that sent them to war in the first place. It is a lonely, almost impossible, journey and no woman, man, God, or drug can grant the forgiveness and peace they seek.
How did your family and those close to you feel about your undertaking this journey “with a man who has a reputation for Godliness and violence” (p. vii)?
I don’t suppose anyone close to me thought it was a brilliant idea—but then I don’t think even I knew how intense and unraveled the journey would be. On a conscious level, I knew I wanted to document what had happened in the war on a personal level, like Alexander Kanengoni did in his wrenching, autobiographical novel Echoing Silences, which was his attempt to reconcile his own demons from the same war, different side. I wanted to write about what our little forgotten war had done to some of the men who had fought, and survived, that battle. K had given his life (not literally, but his emotional life, and chunks of his sanity) believing that he was fighting for his people (which included me) and for his God (a fierce Old Testament God) but did either I or God show any gratitude or any responsibility for what he had become when the war was over?
K had been told, and had believed, the “old lie” expressed in Wilfred Owens’s First World War poem “Dulce et Decorum Est pro Patria Mori”: “It is sweet and right to die for your country.” But K had endured—and still endures—a kind of living death as a result of that horrible, profound lie. His burden is a great, unfulfilled loneliness that his combative, broken character makes it difficult for him to fill. And the country he gave his life for doesn’t even exist any more. It raised him, and made him into a soldier and then it changed shape under his feet and he is no longer welcome on its soil. I thought I knew enough of his history—having shared some of it—to be one of the few writers who could understand K as a sum of his entire life and I felt I owed it to him, and men like him, to document what our war had made him into so that his battle was not completely in vain.
In other words, I felt impelled to show the horror of a great and powerful man (a man capable of great courage and compassion, just as much as “Godliness and violence”) brought low by the long-ago ambitions of power-hungry politicians. This is what I thought the outcome of our trip would be—a clear, simple, antiwar book. Of course, in planning the trip, I also thought that I would maintain a kind of pristine, sterile distance from everything and that my story would be an objective antiwar lesson (perhaps that idea of objectivity in writing is another kind of “old lie”). Instead, the insanity of the idea that you can really know someone without getting under their skin and the insanity of an old war made the whole journey far more potent and morally difficult than I had intended or than I could manage.
But shouldn’t we all—all of us—be more honest about war and about the part that all of us play in war? If a war is being fought in your name—even if you disagree with that war—the men and women in your army are fighting in the belief that they are fighting for you. So it is our duty to learn what it takes (what learned hatred of another person for his or her beliefs, race, or religion) to kill, torture, or maim in our name, in the name of righteousness and (always) in the name of “freedom.” How can we know, going into war, that we have the weightier moral authority on our sides?
When will we learn from our past mistakes? How many books must be written on the “pity of war” (Wilfred Owen again) before we pay attention to their messages? Mustn’t we assume that murder is wrong and that sanctioned mass murder is never a sane response to political, economic, or resource pressure? Imagine a world in which war was taboo and soldiers irrelevant. It is, probably, a hopelessly idealistic dream, but I hope not one that we think we should give up on, simply because war has always been a part of our history.
When K destroyed your tapes, notes, and recordings of the Mozambique trip, how did you manage to reconstruct the details?
I had transcribed most of the tapes onto my computer and I was able to reconstruct my notes fairly easily. Many of the photos that I had taken on the trip survived their dunking at K’s hands—eerily coming back from the developers streaked with red, as if blood-stained.
Knowing that K was looking for a “special woman” and seemed to regard you as a prime candidate, how did you balance your desire to get his story with the fact that you were only interested in a platonic friendship?
At seventeen, K was given a gun and told that he owned and should protect the land in front of his feet, and (by extension) everything on it and, as he was never deprogrammed after the war, this training had never left his psyche. He believed he could own anything he aimed his ambition at—his farm, his servants, and me, for example. I didn’t, for a moment, take his possessive attitude personally. I grew up with men like K and, once I had been overseas and discovered feminism I found this behavior unbalancing and tiresome, even if it is well-tolerated by the culture that raised me. What was much more disturbing for me was how confused I became the longer I was under its toxic spell (K believed so firmly in his God-given right to own whatever he touched that I sometimes had a hard time remembering how morally wrong I had now considered this attitude—even though I had certainly accepted it for years, as the way of the male-dominated world I grew up in). The longer I spent with K, the more of that culture (which must be inherent in me) floated to the surface and the harder it was for me to keep my Western-found autonomy.
I made the (obviously difficult) choice to be completely honest about how I behaved to demonstrate that it is all very well to assume you will behave a certain way, given certain conditions (war, for example, or journalism) but that when real life faces us, many of us do not behave with the dignity, control, or courage that we assume is an unshakable part of our character. As K took more and more control over the trip, and as his demons became more and more out of control, I found myself feeling less and less capable of holding onto the remote spectator, woman-in-control role I had set up for myself.
Aside from disguising details to protect K’s privacy, did you take any artistic liberties with regard to the events you depict? For instance, the fact that K literally “lights your fire” on your first meeting seems almost too good to be true.
Perhaps the greatest liberty I took is how I chose to develop the “character” of K and the “character” of the writer (me)—in other words, in deciding what episodes or conversations I chose to write in, or leave out, in order to get to the themes that I felt were important in this book: the burdens of responsibility, the importance of honesty, the impossibility of ever really knowing someone else’s sorrow or your own weaknesses.
I deliberately chose to be as tough on myself as I could be, and I deliberately tried to show K in the most sympathetic light possible. It would have been so easy to caricature him as a war-wounded racist and to caricature myself as wide-eyed but essentially innocent narrator—but that lacked the emotional honesty that I thought was centrally important to a book of this nature. In other words, I wanted to show that when one gets involved in difficult issues, and when one relentlessly pursues the past (particularly a past involving war, or some other violation of the human condition) there are no innocents.
There is a natural contraction when one writes a book—years, months, and weeks are compressed into a couple of hundred pages—which lends the narrative an urgency that does not exist in real life. As for the fire—this really happened, as did the recurrence of cow bones—neither of which I thought of as ideas until I was staring at my notes and deciding how to structure this book.
In other important ways, the book was my interpretation of a story and a man and a time. I needed to find the courage to write it so that “the writer” was as problematic a character as the central character was. I didn’t want the reader to have a restful read or a “safe” character to identify with—after all what part of war, or the repercussions of war, are restful or safe or unequivocal? War can never be simply right and wrong or good and bad and it is never simple and it cannot end until every person scarred by the war is dead—or maybe until their children are dead. This essential unpleasantness needed to be reflected in the text.
You seem very connected to Africa. Why did you decide to live in the United States? What do you miss most about Africa?
I am married to an American and he wanted to move back to his home after we were married which I, blinded by love, agreed to do (and we seem to have found a happy compromise in Wyoming where I can find space and where he feels connected to the land).
Perhaps what I miss most about Zambia, and the other parts of Africa I know well, is the way it constantly forces me to be honest about who I am. It’s hard to lie about yourself in places where questions of life and death come up on an almost daily basis. In the West, we lie about ourselves without even knowing it (from the unimportant lies such as how old we are, to much more significant lies about the weight of responsibility we should bear as the world’s most ravenous consumers of the earth’s resources).
How are your parents? Still hard at work “sexing the fish”?
I recently got a wonderful letter from them, full of their achievements—what tireless courage they have in the face of quite difficult odds. They are building eighteen more ponds in anticipation of their growing fish production and Dad seemed happy about his bananas. They have added Peking ducks to their menagerie (one had its tail feathers chewed off when it unsuspectingly landed on a fish pond housing an errant crocodile—quite a common problem for Mum) as well as eleven cats and yet another rescued dog (bringing the total up to a dozen, if I haven’t missed anyone). They have also acquired five ewes and a ram and were thrilled when nature took its course and a lamb was duly born (Dad is hoping Mum will be able to harden her heart in time for Christmas when there is always a battle about which beloved member of the ever-increasing livestock contingent will have to be sacrificed for the festivities.)
What are you working on now? Do you have a new book in the works?
Yes, another book or two. It’s hard for me to admit that I’m working on anything in particular though, in case the thing dies in the process and then it will always be the unborn book and I don’t want to be haunted by that!
Posted October 7, 2009
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Posted July 12, 2010
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