Alexandra Fuller evokes her thirsty love of Africa, brawny men, and the hard life with the parched tongue of the expat. In her new memoir, Scribbling the Cat, verbs erupt, bugs “dash themselves to death,” wounds are “wept open,” tears “swell and tremble.” Her geographical descriptions swoon: Her parents’ town is a “low slink of a land on the edge of perpetual malaria,” ruined by 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.” Her writing crackles, consumed by the memory of war.
Fuller’s acclaimed 2001 memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, left her married to an American and living a conventional life in Wyoming with her two children—in drastic contrast to her youth in war-torn Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) during the ’70s, when her hardscrabble, hard-drinking parents farmed tobacco, cooked on an outdoor fire, lost three of five children, and advised her not to “look back so much or you’ll get wiped out on the tree in front of you.” To have read Dogs first helps one understand the journey the now 35-year-old Fuller takes in her new book.
In Cat Fuller road-trips with K, a white African and veteran of the Rhodesian War (1966–1980), in an effort to suck meaning from the conflict, which gave her childhood nightmares of having her eyelids chopped off (as described in Dogs). K, a man of her father’s generation, captivates her with his story as well as his beauty: “His nose was unequivocal—hard and ridged, like something with which you’d want to plow a field. . . . He looked bulletproof . . . his own self-sufficient, debt-free, little nation—a living, walking, African Vatican City.” Hardy, born-again, and smitten with Fuller, he agrees to revisit scenes of his old battles. Sexual tension runs high, and Fuller permits the flirtation its tango. She poeticizes in homage to one of her heroes, Michael Ondaatje, and offers candid aches à la Mary Karr. She incorporates Zimbabwean slang (“they blallered his skop”) with aplomb. She knows her masters (Achebe, Naipaul), but her Africa is a white one. Rarely do black Africans appear except as servants and shooting targets, a reality of which she is keenly aware.
K’s story unfolds mostly before they hit the road. His tough-broad mom dies from polio; he joins an elite white military troop and inflicts horrific torture; his son dies of meningitis; his wife goes mad, and they divorce; K finds God. Once he and Fuller are on their way, the energy flags. There are anecdotes like the one about a vaudevillian fight among K’s drunk former comrades on a remote island patrolled by a quasi-domesticated lion. K and Fuller travel over land swollen with unexploded mines (psychological and actual), but if curiosity nearly killed (“scribbled”) Fuller the cat (as she claims), it remains unclear how. K prays, cries, rages; Fuller shuts down. This emotional disconnect becomes the memoir’s liability. Fuller funnels feeling into the landscape beautifully—Mozambique lies “bleeding flatly into the lake”—but when she and K reach an emotional impasse, she declares she has nothing to say, no grand truths about war. K’s shards don’t satisfy her, as when he asserts, “Sixty pounds of gear, bored to death, and shit scared. That’s what war is. Until you’re dead.” The trauma of war is untidy; one hopes that this journey continues for Fuller, and that the nightmares reveal themselves in ever brighter light.