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When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa
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When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa

3.8 18
by Peter Godwin

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Hailed by reviewers as "powerful," "haunting" and "a tour de force of personal journalism," When A Crocodile Eats the Sun is the unforgettable story of one man's struggle to discover his past and come to terms with his present. Award winning author and journalist Peter Godwin writes with pathos and intimacy about Zimbabwe's spiral into chaos and, along with


Hailed by reviewers as "powerful," "haunting" and "a tour de force of personal journalism," When A Crocodile Eats the Sun is the unforgettable story of one man's struggle to discover his past and come to terms with his present. Award winning author and journalist Peter Godwin writes with pathos and intimacy about Zimbabwe's spiral into chaos and, along with it, his family's steady collapse. This dramatic memoir is a searing portrait of unspeakable tragedy and exile, but it is also vivid proof of the profound strength of the human spirit and the enduring power of love.

"In the tradition of Rian Malan and Philip Gourevitch, a deeply moving book about the unknowability of an Africa at once thrilling and grotesque. In elegant, elegiac prose, Godwin describes his father's illness and death in Zimbabwe against the backdrop of Mugabe's descent into tyranny. His parent's waning and the country's deterioration are entwined so that personal and political tragedy become inseparable, each more profound for the presence of the other" -- Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon

"A fascinating, heartbreaking, deeply illuminating memoir that has the shape and feel of a superb novel." -Kurt Anderson, author of Heydey

Editorial Reviews

The crocodile in the title is Robert Mugabe, but the book is about far more than the tyrannical rule of Zimbabwe's longtime president. Indeed, this memoir intertwines two distinct stories, one profoundly personal, the other involving an entire civilization collapsing into ruin. In 1996, journalist Peter Godwin receives an emergency call from Africa; his father has suffered a major heart attack. The son returns to the country of his birth (then Southern Rhodesia), where he witnesses his father's steady decline and ultimately his death. The father's revelation that he is a Polish Jew whose family succumbed to Hitler's massacres poignantly parallels the savage chaos unleashed by Mugabe's draconian reforms. Reading it, one almost feels that he is experiencing two simultaneous apocalypses.
Michiko Kakutani
In Crocodile Mr. Godwin creates an indelible picture of life in that besieged and battered land. In telling the story of his parents — who after World War II moved from England to Rhodesia — he gives us a searing account of what has happened to Zimbabwe in the last 30-odd years, as bright post-revolution dreams of a multiracial society gave way to bloody racial hatred and strife, and the ordinary chores of daily life — going food shopping, buying gas — turned into a dangerous run through a gantlet of car hijackers and thugs.
— The New York Times
Wendy Kann
In When a Crocodile Eats the Sun-- a reference to solar eclipses, the most apocalyptic of African omens -- Peter Godwin, an acclaimed Zimbabwean journalist now living in Manhattan, masterfully weaves the political and the highly personal. An eyewitness account of that cataclysmic time, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun is also a tribute to Godwin's aging parents and a searing exploration of the author's own soul.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

In this exquisitely written, deeply moving account of the death of a father played out against the backdrop of the collapse of the southern African nation of Zimbabwe, seasoned journalist Godwin has produced a memoir that effortlessly manages to be almost unbearably personal while simultaneously laying bare the cruel regime of longstanding president Robert Mugabe. In 1996 when his father suffers a heart attack, Godwin returns to Africa and sparks the central revelation of the book—the father is Jewish and has hidden it from Godwin and his siblings. As his father's health deteriorates, so does Zimbabwe. Mugabe, self-proclaimed president for life, institutes a series of ill-conceived land reforms that throw the white farmers off the land they've cultivated for generations and consequently throws the country's economy into free fall. There's sadness throughout—for the death of the father, for the suffering of everyone in Zimbabwe (black and white alike) and for the way that human beings invariably treat each other with casual disregard. Godwin's narrative flows seamlessly across the decades, creating a searing portrait of a family and a nation collectively coming to terms with death. This is a tour de force of personal journalism and not to be missed. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

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Little, Brown and Company
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5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

By Peter Godwin

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2007 Peter Goodwin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-316-15894-7

Chapter One

July 1996

I am on assignment in Zululand for National Geographic magazine when I get the news that my father is gravely ill.

It is night, and I am sitting around a fire with Prince Galenja Biyela. I am sitting lower than he is to show due respect. Biyela is ninety- something - he doesn't know exactly - tall and thin and straight backed, with hair and beard quite white. Around his shoulders, he has draped a leopard skin in such a way that the tail lies straight down his chest, like a furry necktie. A yard of mahogany shin gleams between his tattered sneakers and the cuffs of his trousers. His long fingers are closed around the gnarled head of a knobkerrie, a cudgel.

"All is well," he declares.

It is his only English phrase. He speaks in classical Zulu, his words almost Italianate, lubricated by vowels at either end. His tribal acolytes start chanting his praise names.

"You are the bull that paws the earth," they call.

"Your highness," they sing, "we will bow down to the one who growls."

Prince Biyela's grandfather, Nkosani - the small king - of the Black Mamba regiment, was the hero of Isandlwana, the battle in which the Zulus famously trounced the mighty British Empire in 1879. Tonight, the old prince wishes to revel in the glory days, to relive the humbling ofthe white man.

He tells me how the British watched in awe as twenty- five thousand Zulu warriors stepped over the skyline and began to advance, chanting all the while, and stopping every so often to stomp the ground in unison, sending a tremor through the earth that could be felt for miles. He tells me how the impi, the Zulu regiments, were armed with short stabbing spears, ixlwa, a word you pronounce by pulling your tongue off the roof of your mouth, a word that deliberately imitates the sucking sound made by a blade when it's pulled out of human flesh.

As the warriors advanced, he says, their places on the ridge above were taken by thousands of Zulu women, urging on their army in the traditional way by ululating, an eerie high- pitched keening that filled the air.

Biyela tells me how the Black Mamba regiment was cut down by withering gunfire until, he says, after nearly two hours, the force "was as small as a sparrow's kidney," and the remaining men were on their bellies, taking cover. And how his grandfather, Nkosani, seeing what was happening, strode up to the front line, dressed in all his princely paraphernalia - his ostrich plume headdress and his lion claw necklaces - and berated them. Electrified by his example, the young warriors leaped up and again surged forward, overwhelming the men of the British line, even as Nkosani was felled by a British sniper with a single shot to the head.

And in the final stages of the battle, when the handful of surviving British soldiers had run out of bullets, a most unusual event occurred. The moon passed in front of the sun, and the earth grew dark, like night. And the Zulu impi stopped their killing while this eclipse took place. But when the light returned, they resumed the bloodletting.

Biyela tells me that night how his grandfather's warriors, having overrun the main British camp, dashed from tent to tent mopping up the stragglers - the cooks and the messengers and the drummer boys - until they crashed into one tent to find a newspaper correspondent sitting at his campaign table, penning his report.

"Just like you are now," he says to me, and his acolytes all laugh until Biyela raises his hand for silence.

"They said to him, 'Hau! What are you doing in here, sitting at a table? Why aren't you out there fighting?' And this man, he was a local white who could speak some Zulu, he said, 'I am writing a report on the battle, for my people.'

"'Oh,' they said, 'all right.' And they left him.

"But soon afterward, when they heard that my grandfather Nkosani had been shot, they ran back to the tent and said to the journalist there, 'Now that our induna [leader] has been killed, there is no point in making a report anymore,' and with that they killed him."

Biyela's men nod. I keep writing.

At the end, according to the few British soldiers who escaped, the Zulus went mad with bloodlust, killing even the horses and the mules and the oxen. They disemboweled each dead British soldier so that his spirit could escape his body and not haunt his killer. And if an enemy soldier had been seen to be particularly brave, the impi cut out his gallbladder and sucked on it, to absorb the dead man's courage, and bellowed, "Igatla!" - "I have eaten!"

And that night Biyela tells me how, once the battlefield fell quiet, a great wail was heard from the retinue of the Zulu women, as they mourned their dead. And this wail moved like a ripple through village after village until finally it reached the Zulu capital, Ulundi, fifty miles distant.

And here, Prince Biyela ends his telling, choosing not to dwell on what followed the Zulu victory. For the eclipse of the sun was a bad portent, and it drew down terrible times - the British reinforced and quickly snuffed out the independent Zulu nation. But still their spirit was not entirely doused. Their ferocity was merely curbed, and there was a sullen dignity to their defeat. It is said that before they would sign the surrender proclamation, one old induna stood and said to Sir Garnet Wolseley, "Today we will admit that we are your dogs, but you must first write it there, that the other tribes are the fleas on our backs."

Prince Biyela pauses to gulp another shot of the Queen's tears, as the Zulus call Natal gin, and the silence is jarred by a ring tone.

"uMakhalekhukhwini," says one of his acolytes - it means "the screaming in the pocket," Zulu for cell phone - and they all grope around in the dark in their jackets and bags. It turns out to be mine. I reach in to cut it off, but it's my parents' number in Zimbabwe, eight hundred miles to the north. They never call just to chat. I excuse myself.

My mother's voice sounds strained. "It's your father," she says. "He's had a heart attack. I think you'd better come home."


Excerpted from When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin Copyright © 2007 by Peter Goodwin . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Peter Godwin is an award winning author, journalist and film-maker. Born and raised in Zimbabwe, he studied at Cambridge and Ovford and became a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times of London and BBC TV. Since moving to the US, he has written for National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine and Newsweek.

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3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
silencedogoodreturns More than 1 year ago
This is a very readable, and very sad, book about the destruction of a great country. Once one of the richest African countries, its population the best educated on the continent, a model of racial harmony, Mr. Godwin provides a personal account of Zimbabwe's dark descent into depravity, squalor and economic ruin. While the world does nothing, President-for-life Mugabe has been allowed to continue with his kleptocracy, more interested in allowing the country to become an "African Albania" rather than give up power. A sobering read, made all the more poignant as it details Mr Godwin's parents' own personal descent in the hell Mugabe has created.
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margeNY More than 1 year ago
Godwin had what I view as a balanced view of the horrors of the the society under a manic leader and the inate goodness of some everyday people of both races in this land in transition.
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