Alexandra Fuller grew up in Rhodesia, a country that doesn't exist anymore. Her memoir "Don't Let's Go To the Dogs Tonight" was published a couple of years back, an honest, thoughtful story told in the easy flow of a natural writer. At the centre of that book was the description of her parents; hard-drinking and tough white farmers, leading what would be a life of hardship according to European standards, but luxury compared with what most people around them faced. It seemed striking how ready Fuller was to expose her family; it was, obviously, also what made it a compelling book.
In "Scribbling the Cat", it's once again this willingness to pin down the often unpalatable attitudes of her fellow white Africans without much moralising that turns it into an uncomfortable but honest read. On a visit back to Zambia, where her parents have washed up following Zimbabwe's independence, Fuller meets a veteran of that war, only referred to as K. Hiding his name seems to be a strange concession to anonymity, because Fuller exposes everything else about him; theirs is the vulnerable relationship between a person and his biographer, and Fuller writes compassionately but incisively about K's violent past.
However, she is much more reticent and protective of her own emotions and reactions. For example, is she infatuated by K, as some passages in the beginning hint? Or is she merely interested in his story? At no point does she indulge herself in lengthy condemnations of what K has done: she seems to accept that his guilt is hers as well, not as a white girl in Africa, but as a person, full stop. This is what we're all capable of, is the harsh message of the book; in certain circumstances, most men are capable of murder, of torturing women to death. Is that moral laxity? Or once again, is it just the truth? I have no answer myself, but I can't shake off the question.
The two of them end up journeying back to Mozambique in some vague quest for K to confront his demons. Fuller is an evocative writer, maybe sometimes a little bit too flowery, but always adept at recreating an atmosphere. This is a world she knows very well, but also one that she has left behind, so her eyes are both those of an insider and an observer... surely the perfect vantage point for a travel writer!
It's a pacey read, carrying the reader along effortlessly, but comes to a rather abrupt end. Their journey is interrupted. Suddenly they are home. Nothing has been really resolved, neither regarding the intriguing relationship between K and Fuller, or K and his past. Maybe that's another sign of Fuller's honesty? Or the clever make-do of a woman who grew up in Africa, and knows how to find a lot in a little?