Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Dispossessed

By MARK GEVISSER
BOOK REVIEW
The New York Times
June 17, 2007

WHEN A CROCODILE EATS THE SUN
A Memoir of Africa.
By Peter Godwin.
Illustrated. 344 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $24.99.

If Peter Godwin’s new book about Zimbabwe is part family memoir and part bulletin from the barricades, then these two streams converge at a portent so ominous it takes your breath away: “A white in Africa is like a Jew everywhere — on sufferance, watching warily, waiting for the next great tidal swell of hostility.”

The book is hinged on this notion, which presents itself through the revelation of a family secret. As Godwin’s aging parents find themselves dispossessed by the deranged kleptocracy of Robert Mugabe, the author discovers that his father, the upright Anglo-colonial George Godwin, is actually Kazimierz Goldfarb, a Polish Jew whose family was exterminated at Treblinka. When asked by his son why he reinvented himself, the father explains that he did it “for you,” because anti-Semitism “will never really go away. ... It goes underground for a generation or two but always re-emerges.”

Like race hate in Africa. This is Godwin’s message, and what is so troubling about it is that the author is no apartheid-era supremacist. Far from it: he is a worldly and respected journalist who believed fervently in the post-independence Zimbabwe — a place where race seemed finally to be “losing its headlock on our identities.” Since the emergence of a viable political opposition in 2000, however, Mugabe’s jackboot has stomped the life out of such possibility. As many as four million Zimbabweans — out of a total of only 13 million — have fled the county as it has descended into darkness. But Godwin’s own parents, liberals who dedicated their lives to public service, will not countenance it, not least because they have fled “mayhem and genocide” once before.

Now, in the ember-time of their own lives, they find themselves the victims of a brutal car hijacking and barricade themselves into their suburban bungalow, turning their swimming pool into a fish farm because they can no longer afford the chemicals, making occassional forays out armed with bricks of useless Zim dollars to shop like poor folk, and growing old miserably: a condition only exacerbated by their country’s collapse.

The emotional heart of this book is Godwin’s description of his relationship with his taciturn father and doughty mother, a renowned doctor who worked in a public hospital well into her 70s. He draws them with love and wit, but does not shy away from complexity. His description of the damaged paternal relationship is particularly acute, as is his understanding of the effects of his father’s concealment. He also captures, with terrible poignancy, that inevitable moment when the child becomes the parent. I have read this book twice, and wept twice, through the final chapters documenting George Godwin’s decline and death.

Weeping, himself, at his father’s funeral, the author surveys the church and observes how “we’ve all been battered by our history, by eight years of war followed by 23 years in thrall to a violent and vengeful ruler.” Contained in this sum is the book’s power — and its problem. Why does Godwin’s timeline begin only in the early 1970s? What about the prior decades of colonial depredation? The very thing that makes Godwin so powerful as a memoirist compromises his authority as a reporter: his proximity to the pain.

And so the dispossessed farmers he meets are decent folk who provided work for the locals and made Zimbabwe boom. In many cases this is true. But they were also racial overlords, beneficiaries of the brutal dispossession of a sophisticated rural peasant civilization who went to war to keep their Rhodesia and whose very recalcitrance about land reform helped precipitate the reaction against them.

This is not to suggest that Mugabe’s land restitution policy is justified, or that dispossessed white farmers deserve their fate. But Godwin does the story of his country — not to mention the legacy of his murdered Polish family — a disservice by succumbing to a victimology that renders white Zimbabweans “the Jews of Africa” and by failing to see the part they played in their country’s bloody history. Obviously deeply affected by his parents’ decline and his father’s revelation, Godwin accepts too easily his father’s assertion that “being a white here is starting to feel like being a Jew in Poland ... the target of ethnic cleansing.” An estimated 15 white farmers have been killed in the land invasions. This is 15 too many, but it is not a genocide. Far worse off are poor black people, who had nothing to begin with, less now, and no way out of the nightmare either.

The very nature of Godwin’s project means that his empathy with whites cannot be matched by an empathy with blacks, who become increasingly unknowable and threatening. Certainly, he has an easy familiarity with black professionals; certainly, too, he understands that blacks are the victims of the Mugabe regime. But he cannot get close to them.

It begins with the thugs who invade white farms, and who claim to be “war vets.” The way they say it sounds like “wovits,” so this is what some white Zimbabweans disparagingly call them, and how Godwin chooses to identify them. The effect is to render them beastly, and given the inebriated thuggery Godwin observes, this is not inappropriate. Abuse, unquestionably, dehumanizes its perpetrators.

But slowly, inexorably, Godwin’s empathy with his parents’ encroaching sense of doom means that the book crackles with Mau Mau anxiety: the overlord’s fear that the servants are going to slit his throat. One by one, faithful servants betray their masters, including the Godwins’ own trusty retainers. “This is what this vile president has done to us,” Godwin writes, “reduced us all to desperadoes and thieves, made us small and bleak and old and tired.” Well yes, of course: not least by wrecking the country’s economy. But even the most faithful servant carries, somewhere, the pain of servitude, and Godwin has no access to this, and to what it must feel like to be, still, a servant two decades after liberation.

And so when he visits his sister’s grave — she was a casualty of the independence war — and finds it covered in the fresh feces of shack-dwellers who have comandeered the cemetery to grow their corn, he cannot but find the perpetrators to be callously inhuman. These women are not “wovits” at all, and one wants him to go over and talk to them, to hear their stories, rather than shout obscenities. But how could he do otherwise? How could you possibly empathize with someone who has just desecrated your sister’s grave?

Likewise, he is quite understandably disturbed by the advent of hawkers just on the other side of the bougainvillea hedge at the end of his parents’ garden. One day, the hawkers’ fire burns the hedge down, tearing away the Godwins’ last screen of dignity and exposing their impoverished humiliation to the “huddled masses.” A few evenings later, Godwin returns to his parents’ home after hearing about how the practice of witchcraft turns peasants on their own grandmothers, whom they cut with razors and force to jump around like baboons. In a fitful night, his unconscious finishes the job of othering begun centuries ago by the narratives of colonialism: he dreams that the hawkers are actually baboons, “whooping and barking and waiting.”

Just like the workers who “try to keep Africa at bay” by trimming the roadside, Zimbabwe’s white farmers are redoubts of civilization and order. Godwin writes habitually about “Africa” rather than “Zimbabwe” or “Harare” and the effect is to blur specificity. “Africa” becomes, indeed, a place of the mind, of possibility or of fear, rather than the real set of coordinates the expatriated author once knew.

In “Africa,” “the illusion of control ... is almost impossible to maintain”; in “Africa,” one lives “more vividly” because of the proximity of death; “people love harder.” When Godwin and his parents realize that a mob of supposed hijackers is actually a neighborhood patrol saluting them, “I feel like weeping ... at the way Africa does this to you.” One minute, you’re scared to death, “the next you’re choked with affection.” Of course, Africa has done nothing at all. It is an inanimate landmass. The work is the author’s, and he has done it beautifully, even if not always with a full enough awareness of his own people’s agency.

Mark Gevisser’s biography of Thabo Mbeki, “The Dream Deferred,” will be published in South Africa this fall.

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