Scribbling the Cat
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Those of us who grow in war are like clay pots fired in an oven that is overhot. Confusingly shaped like the rest of humanity, we nevertheless contain fatal cracks that we spend the rest of our lives itching to fill (p. 250).
Scribbling the Cat is the story of a questa 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 Ka 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 warand, 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.
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 Guardian First Book Award, and the Book Sense Best Nonfiction Book of the Year for 2002. Fuller lives in Wyoming and has two children.
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 Kwith the help of his raging, furious Godholds the end of those chains in his impressive grip.) He is still farming and I am sure he will be very successful at ithe 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 afterlifethat 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 ideabut 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 enduredand still enduresa 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 historyhaving shared some of itto 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 bea 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 allall of usbe more honest about war and about the part that all of us play in war? If a war is being fought in your nameeven if you disagree with that warthe 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 handseerily 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 athis 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 attitudeeven 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 narratorbut 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 bookyears, months, and weeks are compressed into a couple of hundred pageswhich lends the narrative an urgency that does not exist in real life. As for the firethis really happened, as did the recurrence of cow bonesneither 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 withafter 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 deador 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 achievementswhat 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 crocodilequite 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!
- Do you think the author deliberately let K think she might be the “special woman” he was looking for in order to get her story?
- One purpose of the trip to Mozambique was to help K let go of his bad wartime memorieshis demons. Yet revisiting the places where he had fought in the war only seemed to make his suffering worse. Is this because of the particular human dynamic of his journey with the author? Do you think confronting a painful past is the best strategy for getting over it?
- What does the book convey about the position of whites in Africa today? Do K or the author’s parents, with their banana plantations and fish farms, still seem like part of a colonial overclass or is it more complicated?
- K often refers to blacks derogatively as “munts” or “gondies,” yet he is kind and respectful toward blacks when dealing with them personally. Would you consider him racist?
- K confesses to a horrendous atrocity. How did this affect your opinion of him? How do you think it affected the author’s?
- How did K’s stories affect the author’s own feelings about the war? Do you think she found the understanding and healing she was looking for?
- What do you think about K’s Christian faith? If he had not embraced Christianity and given up drinking, where do you think he would be?
- How do K’s strategies for coping with his wartime flashbacks and memories compare with Mapenga’s and those of the other veterans he and the author encounter on the trip?
- In her descriptions of everyday life, the author expresses deep affection for the land and people of Africa, as well as frequent exasperation. Given the history of war and the prevalence of social problems such as hunger and AIDS, how do you think she feels about the future of the region?