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

The price of having to murder on a daily basis
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Alexandra Fuller produced in 2002 one of finest books I have read in the past decade, if not ever. Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, a memoir of growing up with feckless but charming settler parents in white Rhodesia as it became Zimbabwe, evoked place and people and pain with spare but exquisite prose. Three of Fuller's siblings died young, one - in the book's most compelling but almost unbearable section - drowning in a duck pond while in the care of the young Alexandra. It is one of those books that convince you that some writers have a God-given gift for words which the rest of us jealously labour away to approach but never quite equal. The book won prizes - here and in the States where Fuller now lives - and was a word-of-mouth best seller.

After such a debut, Fuller is inevitably facing an uphill struggle with her second book, especially as she has chosen to write another first-person tale of Africa. One life surely cannot contain another story as dramatic and poignant as that which she has already told. In Scribbling the Cat, her parents are here again, now running a fish farm in Sole Valley in Zambia and dottier than ever. The African landscape once again is so powerfully evoked that it plays the role of a principal character. "Sole," she writes, "had been so parched that its surface curled back like a dried tongue and exposed red, bony gums of erosion". Later, as she journeys through Zimbabwe, she shows again that, though she is white, she is every bit an African. "Places have their own peculiar smells, and here in Murewa the smell was sun on hot rocks; it was the nose-stung scent of goats; it was the smell of Africans, which is soil-on-skin, sun-on-skin, wood smoke and the tinny smell of fresh sweat; it was the smell of home-brewed beer and burned chicken feathers and kicked-up dust."

This new book is more travelogue than memoir, though she is retracing the war that brought down Rhodesia. Fuller's companion is a white veteran of that conflict, a man she calls K. He is a neighbour of her parents, an angry, energetic, divorced, bereaved and evangelically Christian man. He is brutal and babyish at turns, prone to violence and weeping. She draws him out as they cross Zimbabwe about his memories of confronting guerilla insurgents. And she accompanies him into Mozambique as he visits other leftovers from the losing side in that battle: eccentric, crazed white Africans living in a vacuum, talking constantly of the past.

Her mission is to understand why they did it, what they were defending, what was lost and at what cost to the combatants. All good and timely questions - both for her, shaking loose the ghosts of her past, and for the reader. In a world dotted by conflicts, Scribbling the Cat is an unflinching portrait by an acute and insightful observer of the psychological damage done to those who participate in war, who daily take life and fear for their own. "Those of us who grow up in war," Fuller concludes, "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."

Yet, for all her extraordinary gifts as a writer and the merits of what she is seeking to discover, Fuller hasn't quite written another classic to sit alongside Don't Let's Go... Her whole journey feels slightly contrived - the chance meeting in Zambia with K and the will-they-won't-they tension that she uses to make their relationship more interesting but which ultimately feels a bit cheap. The main problem, however, is the characters. In her first book, Fuller's parents were drunken, foolish, impetuous racists but somehow she made you see another side and warm to them. K, by contrast, for all his contradictions, loses his fascination for the reader long before Fuller decides he is not the man for her.

That said, this remains a remarkable book. Fuller is particularly good at conveying the sense of having turned her back on safety - her family back in the States - and put herself at the mercy of chaotic events and unpredictable people. "I shut my eyes tightly and tried to unpick my thoughts and actions that had landed me here," she writes, trying to sleep on a bunk on the caged-in veranda of an almost derelict house, guarded by an untamed lion, on a lonely island in the middle of a lake in Mozambique, "so that I might retrace my steps back to wherever it was I had left off a perfectly safe platform and dived into the space that resulted in this free fall into insanity."

There is no happy ending. Fuller emerges from her trek if anything more confused, more aware of her own damaged state, and therefore, I hope and expect, with the seeds of her next book.