Sunday, June 10, 2007

Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier by Alexandra Fuller

Completion Date: May 2007
Publication Year: 2004
Pages: 272
Purchased in 2007

Best-selling memoirist Alexandra Fuller travels with a strangely charismatic Rhodesian war veteran into a modern-day heart of darkness.

When Alexandra ("Bo") Fuller was home in Zambia a few years ago, visiting her parents for Christmas, she asked her father about a nearby banana farmer who was known for being a "tough bugger." Her father's response was a warning to steer clear of him; he told Bo: "Curiosity scribbled the cat." Nonetheless, Fuller began her strange friendship with the man she calls K, a white African and veteran of the Rhodesian war. With the same fiercely beautiful prose that won her acclaim for Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Fuller here recounts her friendship with K.

K is, seemingly, a man of contradictions: tattooed, battle scarred, and weathered by farm work, he is a lion of a man, feral and bulletproof. Yet he is also a born-again Christian, given to weeping when he recollects his failed romantic life, and more than anything else welling up inside with memories of battle. For his war, like all wars, was a brutal one, marked by racial strife, jungle battles, unimaginable tortures, and the murdering of innocent civilians-and K, like all the veterans of the war, has blood on his hands.

Driven by K's memories, Fuller and K decide to enter the heart of darkness in the most literal way-by traveling from Zambia through Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and Mozambique to visit the scenes of the war and to meet other veterans. It is a strange journey into the past, one marked at once by somber reflections and odd humor and featuring characters such as Mapenga, a fellow veteran who lives with his pet lion on a little island in the middle of a lake and is known to cope with his personal demons by refusing to speak for days on end. What results from Fuller's journey is a remarkably unbiased and unsentimental glimpse of men who have killed, mutilated, tortured, and scrambled to survive during wartime and who now must attempt to live with their past and live past their sins. In these men, too, we get a glimpse of life in Africa, a land that besets its creatures with pests, plagues, and natural disasters, making the people there at once more hardened and more vulnerable than elsewhere.

Scribbling the Cat is an engrossing and haunting look at war, Africa, and the lines of sanity.
In May, I graduated from university. At my graduation ceremony, Alexandra Fuller got an honourary doctrate. I had never heard of her before, but she graduated from my university a few years ago. She got up in front and gave a speech, and I liked her speech so much I was compelled to come home and look up her books. She is also the author of Don't Let's Go to the Dog's Tonight, which I had intended to read first, but this came in the mail first.

This book was amazingly brave to write. As many of us know but have never really experienced, life in Africa has been hard over the years. The person that this book concentrates on, K, was involved in the Rhodesian war. I am not sure if I can capture this book in a review all that well, it is just one of those books that you have to read. It starts so simple. Alexandra learns that there is a banana farmer in the area, and she asks her father about him. Her father tells her to stay away from him, and she might have, but K comes to visit her first. This book captures the time that they spent together in very raw detail. There are things in this book that I would never admit about myself if they were happening to me, but in order to capture the truth of what she experienced with K, she also had to talk about herself.

The friendship she had with this man went on for some time before she got the idea for him to revisit the setting of the wars and tell her of his experiences. In the beginning they just met up when she was in Africa visiting her parents, but this time was different. Having never been in war myself, it is something that I can only imagine and even then I do not know if I do it justice in my head. This book captures what war was like for one man. His struggles and the affects that it is still having on him later in life. He did horrible things doing the war, things that he is not proud of, and he suffers through showing Fuller these experiences, but I believe that she captures the truth and gives a very rare glimpse into what it is like to have been a white African in the Rhodesian war. I strongly recommend this book to those that are curious about life in Africa and its history. A very powerful non-fiction book, I look forward to reading her other book.


  1. I will have to add this one to my wishlist. It sounds haunting. I have been collecting books about Africa recently, some fiction and some nonfiction--not all set in the same place. As it happens, I am reading a memoir about girl born and raised in Rhodesia most of her life, that is until her family had to flee the country altogether. I look forward to adding your book to my list of books I need to read.

  2. You might want to add her other book as well, it is about her actual life in Africa. I own it, just need to read it. I look forward to hearing your complete thoughts on the book you are reading when you finish it. :)

  3. I did read the first book and I just remember so many times saying in my head "what were her parents thinking!" It was a good book. I have this one somewhere in the stacks and need to read it.

  4. I think I'm going to have to add both books to my wish list. For some reason, although I'm familiar with the title of "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight," I never really read a review and had no information about the author or the subject matter. Now, I'm intrigued.

  5. If there is interest I will try and read her other book this month so I can review it! I planned to read it when I got it, but things got in the way. Stay tuned!


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