Alexandra Fuller was raised in Africa. Her earlier Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight was an award-winning bestseller about her bizarre childhood. In this book she returns to Zambia to visit her family after some years away in the United States. Her mother, still African to the core and “therefore cannot…waste anything at all,” can lament the death of a frog whose skin would have made “an interesting lamp shade.”
The family “was there when the war was there…it was stay and fight or get out.” In revisiting the land of her childhood, Fuller is also revisiting the war and its damage, internal and external.
She befriends an odd, brusque neighbor, a mercenary named K. Together, as something more than friends, they go on a trip through the shateen, the back country, through Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. As the trip progresses K, who has had a religious conversion and relies on his faith to keep a Band-aid stuck over his past, begins to reveal and then to confess the sins of the soldier. There was My Lai-type incident in which he saved his boys but killed a civilian girl, cruelly and with malice. Telling Fuller may help him, but one can never be sure in this mind’s eye journey that mixes the present and the past, neither forming a very pretty picture.
“When I was demobbed they gave us therapy. Half an hour with the shrink…three minutes for every person whose eyes I looked into before I pulled the trigger.” Fuller realizes that she was as responsible as K, that she had “waved encouragement at the troopies,” that her war “was as brutal and indefensible as what I had just heard from K. I just hadn’t wanted to know.”
There is a template of paradox over life in Africa, especially for the invaders, arguably still the strangers, the whites who believe they have a right to consider themselves at home there. To maintain a semblance of normalcy they must continually conquer, or give in to the ills they constantly complain about and become one with the shateen and its peculiar morality.
Add war to the mix and you have, as Fuller says, “clay pots fired in an oven that is overhot.” She and K couldn’t reconcile to each other because they couldn’t reconcile to the war and their separate roles in it.