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Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African…

Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier (edition 2005)

by Alexandra Fuller

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5981116,394 (3.74)59
Title:Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier
Authors:Alexandra Fuller
Info:Penguin (Non-Classics) (2005), Paperback, 272 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:africa, memoir, Zimbabwe

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


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Upon reading the reviews posted here, it seems that those who didn't read Fuller's earlier memoir, "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight" didn't enjoy "Scribbling the Cat" as much as those who did. When I first read "Dogs", I was unsettled and confused at the end. Ms. Fuller writes in such a straight-forward, no frills style that I asked myself whether she really understood the policial and socio-economic context in which her family, as white Rhodesians, were living in as she looked back on her childhood. Her story haunted me and stayed with me: the photograph of her, at around age 5, stripping down, cleaning and reassembling her father's shot gun is imprinted on my brain. To her, that wasn't outrageous: that was life.

In "Scribbling the Cat", the effect living through a war had on the author is clearer. In this book, she meets a white Rhodesian soldier and travels with him through the places he fought in an attempt to exorcise his demons. She meets other veterans who are still struggling with their war-time experiences, often with the help of religion or alcohol. This is a very personal account of the impact of war; the book doesn't deal with the economy or political fall-out.

Again, Ms. Fuller's writing style is gripping in its straight-forward, non-judgemental honesty. Her perspective adds a lot to understanding what compels people to stay and fight for their homeland. ( )
1 vote LynnB | Feb 5, 2012 |
Alexandra “Bobo” Fuller was born in Britain and grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during its brutal civil war. In Scribbling the Cat, she recounts a friendship she strikes up with “K”, a white African and Rhodesian War veteran, and the trip they take from Zambia to Mozambique, a journey to the places of “K”s memories of war.

I’m almost shamefully ignorant about modern Africa, and to that end, Scribbling the Cat did introduce me to a very human level side of Africa. Fuller’s dazzling sentences (peppered with parts English, Afrikaans, and Shona) portray a place of vivid culture and complex lived history—not that of shadowy enemies and forgotten battles but of real daily compromises and consequences. “K” himself is product of all this: a born again Christian, a charismatic macho man, and tempestuously alternately angry about losing the war and wracked by guilt for his part in its atrocities (which to Fuller’s credit she reports unflinchingly).

However, the heart of piece remains elusive. The narrative itself is largely meandering- the goal of “K” and “Bobo”’s journey itself unclear without neither a mental nor physical destination that makes a impression. Writing from a subjective perspective, Fuller is, surprisingly for a memoirist, not terribly prone to self-reflection. She seems to even avoid doing so, lest she risk questioning her own hypocrisies and the true meaning of her heritage as a white African. And writing from the objective perspective, while Fuller very occasionally shows flashes of satirical bite while summarizing the bloody history of Africa , she stops short of truly examining the reasons for such conflict and the true human costs. Ultimately, while Scribbling the Cat is interesting as a portrait of the legacy of the Rhodesian war on one man, it fails to do any more. ( )
  kaionvin | Mar 28, 2011 |
I was intrigued by the title and then the recap on the back. Traveling with an old African (white) soldier who fought on the side of Colonialism, and has demons to face. Unfortunately, I found the reading rather empty and unsatisfying.

I did not read Fuller's earlier book about her childhood in war-torn Africa, so her statement at the end of this book about it being her war too, seemed preposterous. All she mentions in this book is seeing her dad go off at 13 and waving at soldiers, that doesn't equate to living in the bush like an animal, killing/torturing others, and then losing the war and their way of life.

As near as I could tell Fuller was looking for something to write about and latched onto K, the old soldier. She couldn't get her father to open up about his war, and it seemed like she needed a excuse to call her trips to see her parents (she now lives in Wyoming) a business deduction. That may seem harsh, but it reflects the lack of feeling and insight that she put into the book. Everything was seen through her eyes, but she was absent for most of the story. I didn't see or feel her interest, or pain, I didn't feel K's pain either, though he seemed to cry almost every other page.

Her parents live in Zambia. She lives in Wyoming with her husband and children. She visits the parents and meets K. He is a neighbor and an old African soldier. She is interested in sucking the juice of the war and its aftermath from him, and he is interested in a finding a white woman to wed. He has found god, but the fact that she is already married doesn't seem to bother either of them. Not that they have an affair, but she is willing to go along with his obvious intent.

They have desultory conversations with the subject ending up at the war. Fuller asks to write about K, and he eventually agrees. They then decide that they will visit some of the places where K fought: Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Zimbabwe was once Rhodesia when run by whites. K was from Rhodesia, and started fighting in the Army there. They fought against the natives who wanted to have a say and even run their own country. The war period was from the 60s through the 70s. What started in one country Rhodesia, spread to others (Mozambique) because the combatants would use the other countries to hide, train, and recoup in.

When the natives won in Rhodesia and the country became Zimbabwe, many whites left, including many of the white soldiers. Some went on to become mercenaries in other African wars, and some tried to find peace and build lives for themselves. The old soldiers were and still are plagued by nightmares, drinking, divorce, violence and an inability to live quietly in civilization. And as the book depicts, the bar for civilization in Africa is pretty low. Some who have succeeded have been medicated by doctors or have found god.

On their trip they speak to some of K's old comrades, and even some of the natives who fought against the whites. The natives seem to harbor no hatred, though we don't see their personal lives, only their jobs - working for the whites. The whites say they don't hate, but their lives are still bent out of joint, and they have no real respect for the blacks.

Along the way, K talks about being in the Army, about waiting, fighting, suffering (no water, little food, being in the bush for weeks, bugs), being terrified, and becoming crazy and committing atrocities, some against civilians - even young people. He cries all the time, but I never actually feel anything from him, not his anger, his craziness, his remorse.

The book is best at describing the places they pass through, both the physical environment and the superficial arrangement of native people on the landscape. At the start Fuller's writing is so flowery that it detracts from the idea that its a non-fiction book. She tones it down but still tries to paint perfect little pictures now and then.

The book mentions Zimbabwe, but there is very little about the fighting there. They just pass through it on the way to Mozambique. Fuller does a good job of bringing in facts and figures about the conflict, explaining how it spread to Mozambique.

At the end of the trip they decide that they haven't exorcised demons so much as stirred up the pain with no resolution. She and K have a falling out, and patch up their relationship, but its not the same. When they get back home to Zambia, K asks Fuller not to contact him again. Fuller includes an email from him just before the book was published saying its OK to talk to him again. I feel as ambivalent as K does about this book.

One of the obvious issues is about the inhumanity and horror of war. How it not only destroys lives and property during the war, but it keeps destroying long after the conflict is over. There are physical remnants that destroy, the land mines and the destroyed infrastructure and missing towns; the psychological destruction is obvious in the broken lives of those who lived through it.

Also presented was the fact that fighting in the war is a constant series of adrenalin jolts. Peace is boring, so they create their own jolts: violence and conflict.

The book doesn't really look at the native side of the question. Are their lives as former combatants and survivors as damaged as the whites ? Or is their struggle to survive so incredibly difficult that they don't have time for looking back, and guilt ?

I am a great fan of ancient history and one of the questions that I have, is the current reaction to war a modern invention ? Way back in the past before monotheism and the belief that all human life should be precious, did their veterans have the same reaction to what they had seen and done ? Were the rest of their lives damaged by guilt ?

Oh yeah, the title refers to Curiosity Killing the Cat. Scribbling is slang for killing. ( )
1 vote FicusFan | Jan 3, 2010 |
Intense story about Africa and war. What people will do to each other is amazing. Well written and very sad. Living in Africa did we know what was happening during the war and could we have done anything. Now with freedom has anything changed. In 1969 Zim (Rhodesia) sent food to all parts of Africa and now people are starving and dying but with a black government. Read both Fuller's books
1 vote shazjhb | Oct 7, 2009 |
Ghosts from the past, some dead, some just alive. ( )
  AerialArmadillo | Nov 20, 2008 |
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For two African writers who stared war inthe fact and chose not to look the other way -- Alexander Kanengoni and the late Dan Eldon. With much respect.
And for K and Mapenga. "Only the dead have seen the end of war." -- Plato
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Because it is the land that grew me, and because they are my people, I sometimes forget to be astonished by Africans.
"K was what happened when you grew a child from the African soil, taught him an attitude of superiority, persecution, and paranoia, then gave him a gun and sent him to war in a world he thought of as his own to defend. And when the cease-fire was called and suddenly K was remaindered, there was no way to undo him. And there was no way to undo the vow of every soldier who had knelt on this soil and let his tears mix with the spilled blood of his comrade and who had promised that he would never forget to hate the man -- and every man who looked like him -- who took the life of his brother."
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0143035010, Paperback)

Thomas Wolfe's trusted axiom about not being able to go home again gets a compelling spin through the African veldt in Alexandra Fuller's Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier. Fuller (Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight : An African Childhood) journeys through modern Zambia, to battlefields in Zimbabwe and Mozambique with the scarred veteran of the Rhodesian Wars she identifies only as "K." Intrigued by the mysterious neighbor of her parent's Zambian fish farm and further enticed by her father's warning that "curiosity scribbled the cat" ("scribbling" is Afrikaans slang for "killing"), Fuller embarks on a journey that covers as much cratered psychic landscape as it does African bush country. Though she and "K" are both African by family roots rather than blood, she quickly discovers that 30 years of civil war have scarred them--and the indigenous peoples they encounter--in markedly different ways. "K" is a figure of monumental tragedy, a decent man torn by war-fueled rage, a failed marriage, and painful memories of an only son lost to tropical disease. His adopted Christianity offers him only partial absolution, and Fuller details his gut-wrenching confessions of quarter-century old atrocities with compassion and rare insight. Her prose liberally salted with a rich, melange of Afrikaans and local Shona slang, Fuller nonetheless struggles with a narrative whose turns are often unexpected, yet driven by humanity. There's a clear sense that the author's fitful journey into the past with "K" has opened as many wounds as it has healed, and spawned more questions than it has answered. It's that discomfort and frustration that often reinforces the honesty of her prose--and reinforces Thomas Wolfe's adage yet again. --Jerry McCulley

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:32 -0400)

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"A few years ago, on her parents' farm on the humid banks of a swollen African river, Alexandra Fuller met the man whom she comes to call "K." Neither of them will be the same again. In spite of being warned off by her father - "Curiosity scribbled the cat" - Fuller is intrigued by K, and comes to befriend him. He is, seemingly, a man of contradictions: weathered by farm work, K is a lion of a man, feral and bullet proof. A survivor of the land whose contours he has helped shape, K is also a product of the land which has shaped him. With the same disarmingly unguarded prose that won her acclaim for Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Fuller here recounts her strange, compelling, and troubled friendship with K." "Fuller is drawn to K by the hope that, in understanding this man, she may come close to answering questions about her own chaotic and violent history in this part of the world. For Fuller grew up during the Rhodesian War and has found herself cracked and chronically restless as a result of the experience. Most of the ex-combatants she knows won't talk about the war. There is a complicity of silence surrounding the subject. But K - a white African and a veteran of the all-white Rhodesian Light Infantry Commando Unit - is almost alarmingly willing to share his demons with Fuller. The demons are legion; for K's war, like all wars, was a brutal one, marked by racial strife, jungle battle, torture, and the murdering of innocent civilians - and K, like all the veterans of the war, has blood on his hands." "Driven by their memories, Fuller and K decide to journey into the lands that hold the scars of their war, by traveling from Zambia through Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and into Mozambique. As they venture deeper into the countries' remote bush, they encounter other veterans: Mapenga, an ex-special branch officer who now lives with his half-tamed lion on a little island in the middle of a lake, and St. Medard who yells at the spooks of his war in his sleep."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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