Commentaries and Analyses Index

'Scribbling The Cat': The Infantryman

Alexandra Fuller's first book was subtitled ''An African Childhood'' but it could have been called ''A British Memoir of an African Childhood,'' so powerfully did it recall the genre of which the Mitford sisters' writings are prime examples. ''Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight'' featured many classic elements -- the disorderly, impecunious household; the ''well-bred'' and oppressively eccentric parents; lots of booze, lots of dogs and lots and lots of tea -- all rendered with the dry tang of a gin and tonic. Tonic with extra quinine, that is, since ''Dogs'' juiced up the old formula by transplanting it to a perilous setting, plagued with civil war, poisonous reptiles and tropical diseases. This gave Fuller the ideal vehicle both to celebrate her family's dotty, stiff-upper-lip gallantry and to portray the casual racism of the white Rhodesian milieu in which she was raised.

Following up a successful memoir of childhood is never easy; those who try often seem to be scrounging for material. Fuller has decided to attack the task by chasing down the grimmest aspect of ''Dogs,'' the role of her family and their friends in the brutal effort to put down black insurgents fighting for control of the former British colony. Fuller, who learned to clean and load an FN rifle when she was still too small to shoot it without being knocked over backward, grew up watching her farmer father head off with police reservists to hunt guerrilla fighters in the bush. She wore T-shirts with jingoistic slogans and was taught at school to pray for victory. Those prayers went unanswered, and Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980 under Prime Minister Robert Mugabe.

''Scribbling the Cat'' begins with Fuller, who currently lives in Wyoming with her American husband and two kids, on a visit to the Sole Valley in Zambia, where her parents now run a fish and banana farm. The Rhodesian war and its legacy gnaw at her, but her father won't talk about it much: ''Scared to death. Bored to death'' pretty much sums up his take on the experience, and he dodges her questions about having any regrets. Not so K, an otherwise unnamed banana farmer who lives nearby. He is a veteran of the Rhodesian Light Infantry, an all-white unit with a reputation for lethality. He fought for five years against rebel forces across the border in Mozambique, and when he first meets Fuller he admits to having done terrible things in the war, weeping freely in front of her. ''It's not hard to find an old soldier in Africa,'' Fuller remarks. ''What is harder to find are old soldiers who will talk about their war with strangers.''

K is a remarkable man, well worth a book, but soon after introducing him the winningly blunt narrator of ''Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight'' becomes disingenuous. She sets up K's character as a mystery requiring an ''answer'' and herself as so possessed by the riddle that she proposes a road trip through land-mine-studded Mozambique in search of the origins of K's ''spooks.'' But K could hardly be more transparent. He readily tells Fuller about his hard-luck childhood (his mother had polio), a harrowing stint at boarding school (where he was raped), his episodes of berserker-style rage, his nightmares about the war, his failed marriage (she cheated on him with his best friend), the death of his 5-year-old son from meningitis, his conversion to born-again Christianity and his conviction that God killed his child to punish him for the deaths he has caused -- all before they hit the road. His darkest wartime secret, that he tortured a young African woman into revealing the location of an enemy ambush, Fuller hears about even before they reach Mozambique.

What this contrived quest does provide is a narrative line for Fuller's book, that old chestnut of the physical journey that mirrors an inner one. But it's Fuller's soul that needs searching, not K's. K doesn't deny or repress his memories of the war; he wrestles with them every day, and he doesn't have to go to Mozambique to do it. He agrees to the trip because he's smitten with Fuller, although he knows she's married and, even worse, an unbeliever. As for the horror of war, what K -- and, later, some of his former comrades -- has to tell Fuller is, unsurprisingly, just what soldiers have been telling noncombatants for some time now: that the dehumanization of the enemy that makes organized killing possible eventually dehumanizes the killers; that the longer a conflict goes on, the greater the drift toward atrocity; that soldiers carry terrible psychic scars resulting from what they've witnessed, suffered and done.

''I own this now,'' Fuller writes after hearing of K's worst sins. ''This was my war too. I had been a small, smug white girl shouting, 'We are all Rhodesians and we'll fight through thickanthin.' '' As confessions of culpability go, this one is fairly abstract. Who really blames little children for believing whatever their parents tell them, however vile? When it comes to less grandiose and more personal transgressions -- say, exploiting the emotional vulnerability of a lonely man desperately trying to overcome a past of violence and hatred to build a decent life -- she refrains from self-examination. Though Fuller describes K in the fetishistic language of romance novels (he is ''beautiful, but in a careless, superior way, like a dominant lion,'' with lips that are ''full and sensual, suggesting a man of quick, intense emotion''), she avoids discussing whether or how her attraction might have affected the book or her marriage.

''Dogs'' benefited from Fuller's refusal to sentimentalize or explain much of her chaotic childhood, but with ''Scribbling the Cat'' that reticence has become a fault. Fuller telegraphs her disapproval of K's values and politics, without laying her own open to scrutiny. She doesn't seem to respect his faith despite the obvious good it has done him. She accuses herself of indulging in a reckless curiosity (''scribble'' is African slang for ''kill''), but she's strikingly incurious about any questions that might really challenge her settled view of herself. However wild the trip, she winds up more or less where she started.

Laura Miller writes the Last Word column for the Book Review and is a staff writer for Salon.

Travels With an African Soldier.
By Alexandra Fuller.
Illustrated. 256 pp. New York: The Penguin Press. $24.95

NYT press

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