Alexandra Fuller said in an interview, about Scribbling the Cat that “I want sometimes to sound as if English is my second language”. Certainly she’s managed to write a book that has a rich, distinct and truly brilliant language of its own.
Fuller, whose acclaimed first book, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, dealt with her childhood during the Rhodesian War, written from a child’s perspective, has returned to the subject of war in this book, but from the perspective of an adult.
The story is conventional in the sense of its plot. It is the story of a journey, that of Fuller and an-ex soldier, who return to Zimbabwe to confront the past. As one can imagine it is a spiritual as well as physical journey. While the plot may be conventional, it is certainly of interest, telling as it does the story of real people, who lived through and participated in one of the twentieth century’s forgotten conflicts.
While the plot maybe conventional, the telling of the story is anything but. Fuller has a magnificent capacity to make the written word come alive off the page. In this book she brings us to an Africa that is little seen, sandwiched as we are between the competing cinematic stereotypes of Zulu or Out of Africa. Her Africa is a harsher place:
“There are, in Africa, many more glamorous and inhabitable addresses than this low sink of land on the edge of perpetual malaria. Scratch the surface of anyone who has voluntarily come to this place – and who is unguardedly drunk at the time – and you will invariably uncork a wellspring of sorrow or a series of supremely unfortunate events and, very often, both.
Scratch and sniff.” [pg 5]
Having returned to Africa on holiday, Fuller becomes intrigued by K. a neighbour of her father’s, and the African Soldier of the title. There are numerous challenges, in this carefully written book, to lazy thinking. A good example of this was that it was a good two or three pages after his introduction, where he is described as having “A wide, spade-shaped face and wary, exotic eyes” and being “more than ordinarily beautiful, but in a careless, superior way, like a dominant lion or an ancient fortress”, that it actually occurred to me that K. was a white soldier, rather than black.
Dispelling the romance that afflicts many memoirs/travelogues on Africa, Fuller manages though to retain a dry sense of humour throughout, managing to force guilty smiles throughout. ( “Mum and Dad are down at the tanks, sexing their fish.” “Doing what?” “They’re British,” I reassured him. “I am sure it’s less fun than it sounds.” [pg.21])
It?s also a raw and honest story. Fuller, speaking about Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, another memoir, said it was “not literally honest, mind you, but — and this is more important to me — emotionally honest”. Scribbling the Cat rings true throughout, partially thanks to her willingness to place her own motives, and actions in question throughout.
The main force driving the book though is K. An ex-soldier who has inflicted terrible violence on his enemies and those unfortunate enough to cross his path. Like many of the other veterans that we meet through the book, K. has battled with his demons, initially with alcohol, and latterly with an all encompassing dose of God. He is driven by the idea that “The almighty forgives all of us. It doesn’t matter how much of a shit you are, how much you’ve destroyed […] the Almighty forgives us. He holds us all in his hands.” A comforting thought, considering the things that it’s revealed that K. has done.
To say more, about K. or the journey they undertake, would be to risk ruining the true pleasure of reading this book, suffice to say that few works of either fiction or non-fiction this year have sounded so fresh.
An English journalist once said to Fuller: “You know, you have far too many adjectives scattered in the body of your work. Somebody needs to reign you in.” I’d beg to differ. Scribbling the Cat is the best argument in the world for giving Alexandra Fuller free rein.