When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa
by Peter Godwin
Little, Brown and Company, 2007
344 pp $24.99
Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa
by Peter Godwin
Grove Press, 1996 418 pp $14 (paper)
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight:
An African Childhood
by Alexandra Fuller
Random House, 2001 315 pp $13.95 (paper)
African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe
by Doris Lessing
HarperPerennial, 1992 442 pp $13 (paper)
The Stone Virgins
by Yvonne Vera
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002
184 pp $12 (paper)
ZIMBABWE was known as the 'jewel of Africa,' as Samora Machel, the Marxist president of Mozambique, told Robert Mugabe when the new nation won its independence in 1980. As the second-most-industrialized country on the continent, the former Southern Rhodesia already had a decent infrastructure, including roads and railways ('You were lucky to have had the British,' another Mozambican leader told Mugabe, no doubt wistfully); an energetic, talented, book-hungry populace; and democratic institutions such as a relatively free press and a functioning judiciary. The problems, of course, were immense: there was the need to recover'economically, psychically, spiritually'from over a decade of brutal civil war; and there were vast disparities between whites and blacks in wealth, education, skills, and land ownership. But in addition to having had some historic, manmade luck, Zimbabwe was naturally lucky, too: beautiful, mineral-rich, and astoundingly fertile. Zimbabwe's vast, sophisticated commercial farms were ingeniously irrigated and passionately tended; they produced, and often exported, fruits, flowers, peanuts, grains, tobacco, cotton, coffee, poultry, pigs, and some of the best beef in the world. Doris Lessing, who was raised in Southern Rhodesia, called the country 'paradise,' and she is among the least sentimental of writers.
This year, Zimbabwe ranks number four'perched between Somalia and Chad'on the Failed States Index of Foreign Policy magazine. Zimbabwe's catastrophe is so multilayered, its paradise so lost, that to describe it is a daunting task. Mugabe's government has tortured, raped, and killed opposition activists; closed newspapers; jailed journalists. But not only opponents are targeted. In 2005, in an operation called 'drive out the rubbish,' the state forcibly evicted an estimated 700,000 black, mainly poor city dwellers: burning their homes, destroying their businesses, savagely beating them. Zimbabwe's human-rights score on the Failed States Index equals Iraq's; only Sudan is worse.
The country's once-promising economy is in a grotesque free-fall. Beginning in 2000, most of the country's commercial farmers, who were white, were driven from their lands, violently and without compensation; hundreds of thousands of black farm workers have, consequently, also lost their homes, livelihoods, and access to medical care'particularly devastating in a country where at least one-fifth of the population is HIV-positive. The newly appropriated farms, many now in the hands of Mugabe's cronies, lie in ruins: and so in what was once the breadbasket of Africa, famine looms for millions.
Zimbabwe's inflation rate is the highest in the world: as of late June, it stood officially at 4,500 percent and unofficially at 9,000 percent, though both those figures will in all likelihood be obsolete by the time you read this. (The U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe has predicted that inflation will reach 1.5 million percent by the end of the year, which conjures images of Weimar-era wheelbarrows stuffed with cash; last year, the government estimated that a family of five would need seventeen million Zimbabwean dollars'per month'to survive.) Four out of five Zimbabweans are out of work; a quarter of its citizens, including many of the most skilled, now live abroad; and thousands of Zimbabweans stream each week into a none-too-welcoming South Africa in search of food, jobs, and asylum. This summer, in a belated response to the inflation'which, bizarrely, he has blamed on Britain'Mugabe imposed dramatic price controls; this led to panic buying, closed stores, and production shutdowns. Armed youth militias were sent to patrol the markets and threaten shopkeepers.
Zimbabwe's decimated health care system, combined with AIDS and poverty, have produced a life expectancy for women of thirty-four years: shockingly, the world's lowest. (Equally shocking: it was sixty-one years in 1991.) On the political front, Zimbabwe's judiciary and electoral processes have become bitter farces, the rule of law is virtually nonexistent, and its corruption is considered startling even on a continent known for kleptocracy. The World Bank has called Zimbabwe's woes unprecedented for a country not at war, while the International Crisis Group has, ominously, compared its meltdown to that of the Congo at the end of Mobutu's rule.
For a calamity of this magnitude, there can be no one cause. Zimbabwe experienced two wrenching years of severe drought in the early 1990s. At the same time, unwise structural readjustment programs, imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, led the country to sell its grain reserves in search of foreign currency; the confluence of these factors couldn't have been worse. In the 1980s, Zimbabwe was surrounded by the destabilizing forces of violence and failure'in Angola, Mozambique, Namibia'much of it fueled by the apartheid regime in South Africa; this deepened an already paranoid style of governance. Still, however complex Zimbabwe's recent history may be, every discussion of its ruin centers, always and inevitably, on one factor: Robert Gabriel Mugabe, head of the country's ZANU-PF party and Zimbabwe's president for twenty-seven years. As the Failed States Index report points out, 'Though many events'natural disasters, economic shocks, an influx of refugees from a neighboring country'can lead to state failure, few are as decisive or as deadly as bad leadership.'
MUGABE'S authoritarian tendencies'and his murderous ones'were evident early on. Just two years after his election in the country's first multiracial vote, he unleashed a reign of terror against Matabeleland, a province in the southwest that he suspected of housing a dissident movement. The word 'genocide' has been used to describe this assault, which lasted five years; it may or may not be accurate, but there is no doubt that tens of thousands of unarmed civilians were beaten, raped, starved, and killed in a merciless scorched-earth policy. And from the first, the ruling party's rapaciousness, combined with its sense of utter impunity, was startling to outside observers and native citizens alike; one United Nations official remarked on the rapidity with which Zimbabwe had created a 'boss class . . . to the accompaniment of Marxist rhetoric.'
But the early years under Mugabe were full of good things too. Even as Matabeleland was massacred, the rest of the country hummed with hopeful energy, and literacy zoomed to almost 80 percent: an astonishing figure for Africa. (Lessing writes that on the day the education budget surpassed that for defense, members of Parliament 'cheered and wept.') Mugabe's policy of racial reconciliation was rare and inspirational; an early speech welcoming all citizens of the new nation as friends and allies is 'still remembered,' Philip Gourevitch wrote, 'as one of the great declarations of the age.' There is no doubt that the vast majority of Zimbabweans, especially in the rural areas, trusted Mugabe and, in many cases, loved him; as Lessing noted, 'Never has a ruler come to power with more goodwill.' Mugabe's descent into unrestrained tyranny, and the bizarre wreckage of his country, were not inevitable: one can easily imagine very different scenarios that are neither fantasies nor wishful thinking. This makes the country's destruction even more bewildering, infuriating, and tragic.
IN HIS NEW BOOK, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, the journalist Peter Godwin paints a portrait of an imploding Zimbabwe that is alternately tender and furious. But it is a portrait that is also startlingly, almost willfully, partial, and it sent me looking to Zimbabwe's complex past'exactly the place Godwin refuses to go'in an attempt to understand its present despair. And to try, too, to find voices other than those of Zimbabwe's liberal whites'not because their views are wrong or unimportant, but because there is much that they cannot tell us.
Godwin was born and raised in Southern Rhodesia; his mother was a doctor who often worked in the countryside, his father the manager of a mine. They were tolerant, and progressive, and they knew that white rule was wrong. So did their son; still, as he recounts in his first memoir, Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa, he fought for Ian Smith's apartheid government. Duty was considered a higher value than individual conscience; and anyway, an eighteen-year-old Peter naively promises himself when he enters the war, 'I wouldn't do anything I disagreed with or was ashamed of.'
This would prove to be untrue'all the more reason, at war's end, for Godwin to welcome ZANU's triumph and the end of Zimbabwe's international isolation. 'I reveled in that brief and liberating period of social anarchy that marked the change between societies,' he recalls. 'I loved the bizarre mix of people. The Scandinavian sandal brigade and the Third World groupies, the sudden flood of communist diplomats . . . .The cultural boycott was over. . . .Now Bob Marley performed at our independence celebrations.' But disillusion arrives quickly: Godwin becomes one of the first reporters'and risks his life'to expose the Matabeleland massacres. (An old black woman, whose name Godwin never learns, tips him off: 'You must write about this thing in your newspapers, otherwise it will never stop until all of us are killed.') Appearing in the Sunday Times of London, Godwin's expos's infuriate the government, which declares him an enemy of the state. On the eve of arrest, he flees the country.
But it is the little details of Godwin's early childhood in Rhodesia rather than the dramatic later events in Zimbabwe that are the most engaging parts of Mukiwa: for it is in these details that the complexity of life, and of human relations, in a racist regime are revealed. We see how inequality'how difference'looks to a child; the injustices peek through, so there is no need to shout about them. 'We had cook boys and garden boys, however old they might be,' Godwin writes. 'We knew them just by their Christian names, which were often fairly strange. . . .They believed that having a name in the white man's language would attract the white man's power. . . Sixpence, Cigarette or Matches were commonly used. . . . Baby girls were often called after the emotion felt by the mother at birth'Joy, Happiness, Delight. But, as far as I know, there were no girls called Disappointment, Pain or Exhaustion.'
Godwin spends his early years roaming the countryside with his nanny, Violet, whom he dearly loves; unbeknownst to his parents, he even joins her Apostolic sect, whose revival meetings thrill him. And he trails his mother as she makes her rounds (there were, of course, separate clinics for blacks and whites), helping to dispense sugar-cube vaccinations. (Years later, as a reporter in Mozambique, Godwin's life will be saved when the fierce guerrilla who captures him turns out to be a grateful former patient.) We watch a young Peter begin to notice his world, and to try to make sense of it: 'White people didn't get such interesting diseases as Africans. They sometimes got ill, and even died, but this was rare.'
In his new book, the childhood idyll is long gone. Godwin, who now lives in New York, charts the decline of his country, and of his parents as they age, and the ways in which the former makes the latter so much sadder and scarier and worse. This is a book written in bitter anger: Mugabe, Godwin writes, is 'the man who would grimly turn his country into an African Albania rather than relinquish power.' And disappointed sorrow: 'A people who once rose against white rule and joined guerrilla movements in the thousands has now been cowed.'
Godwin offers a panoramic look at a crumbling nation. There is the human-rights collapse, epitomized by a hospital full of wounded protesters, including 'middle-aged black ladies' beaten by Mugabe's thugs. There is the explosion of crime, forcing his parents to install a 'rape gate' to protect against violent intruders'though his father is viciously carjacked anyway. There is, most crucially, the takeover and ruin of the once-proud farms by drunken, unskilled youths; and the rigged, indeed absurd, elections: ' 'I shan't be voting for Mr. Mau Mau,' says Dad.'
GODWIN is especially sharp, and heartbreaking, in evoking his parents' descent into penury (their pensions aren't adjusted for inflation). In one scene, at a bakery, 'Dad loads his little basket with a small selection of loaves, which he will later freeze, and, as a special treat . . . two croissants.' The total: Z$12,000. 'The black shop assistant manages to look sympathetic and embarrassed at the same time. . . . Dad slowly counts out all the notes in his wallet but they fall short. . . . He points to one of the loaves, and she removes it. . . .But the total is still too much, so he hands back the rolls one at a time.' Through it all his parents, then in their seventies and ailing, remain modest, level-headed, sane. They insist on using the public hospital rather than seek out special treatment; they hold hands like teenagers, 'murmuring to each other like new lovers'; most of all, they refuse self-pity. Godwin is lucky to have such folks.
Yet some of Godwin's most vivid scenes are also the most problematic, and raise questions not about what he sees but about what he doesn't. One day, Godwin drives his father to a grocery store to collect bottle-deposit refunds. 'Our line sullenly watches these diplomats and black-marketeers, expatriates, and corrupt government officials packing their Pajeros and Range Rovers and Mercs with mountains of groceries,' he recalls. The point is well-taken; yet Godwin seems unaware that this is precisely what blacks must have felt about his parents, and virtually all other whites, in the pre-independence days. In another vignette, white farmers at a pre-departure party speak of the 'great life' and 'good fun' they have lost. But Godwin doesn't stop to think that for most blacks, the former dispensation was probably not great, or good, or fun. Godwin is right to insist that the politics of resentment that Mugabe has fomented'evidenced most clearly in the farm takeovers'are both practically destructive and morally ugly, and should never be mistaken for justice. But he seems loath to acknowledge that the vast inequities between blacks and whites, both before and since independence, were both unsustainable and wrong.
Another striking scene takes place at Godwin's sister's gravesite. (She had been killed, at age twenty-seven, by 'friendly fire' during the civil war.) The cemetery is a shambles, and apparently people now live, or at least farm, in it: dirty toilet paper is littered among little plots of maize. Coming upon his sister's grave, Godwin finds a fresh mound of excrement. ' 'Fuck this!' I shout, and I hurl the flowers away. . . .It lands near two women who are bent over, hoeing their cemetery corn, their babies strapped to their backs. They stop their hoeing, look up for a moment . . . and one laughs.'
Godwin's anger is not only justified, but bracing. Who would not feel the same? Yet there is something puzzling about his lack of interest in the women's plight. What does it say, what does it mean, that women must raise their food, and their babies, among graves? To ask this question is not a matter of political correctness or pity, nor does it suggest that Godwin should mute his rage. It is a matter of broadening one's perspective, of expanding one's sightline, of synthesizing one's personal reactions with the realities of the wider world. The critic Vivian Gornick once observed how George Orwell, in 'Shooting an Elephant,' 'shrinks from the natives, yet his repulsion is tinged with compassion. At all times he is possessed of a sense of history, proportion, and paradox.' This is precisely what Godwin too often lacks.
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun contains another story, too. On one of Godwin's visits home, his mother abruptly reveals a secret about Godwin's father, a man of propriety and deep reserve who had always struck his son as the quintessential Englishman: 'George Godwin, this Anglo-African in a safari suit and desert boots, with his clipped English accent.' But it turns out that George Godwin was actually Kazimierz Jerzy Goldfarb, and Kazimierz Jerzy Goldfarb was a Jew from Warsaw whose mother and sister were murdered at Treblinka.
Naturally, this sends his son'who, as an expatriate white from Africa, is already struggling with his 'mongrel' identity'into a tailspin. Large chunks of Crocodile chart Godwin's search for his father's family's fate, and his more general research into the Holocaust, about which he apparently knew almost nothing. But Godwin attempts, also, to synthesize his father's history with the present realities of Zimbabwe, and this is where the book falters most. Because Godwin fails to discover, or to formulate, any organic link between the destruction of the Jews and of Zimbabwe, he slips into a series of sloppy, fundamentally misleading analogies.
'A white in Africa is like a Jew everywhere'on sufferance, watching warily, waiting for the next great tidal swell of hostility,' Godwin claims. Well, no. Mugabe's treatment of the white farmers is utterly indefensible: they were terrorized and sometimes assaulted, and an estimated fifteen were killed. But Harare is not Sderot'much less Warsaw in 1939. And more than that: can it be that Godwin has forgotten, so quickly, the violence and inequities of Rhodesia's white-supremacist regime? Earlier, and in a similar vein, Godwin writes that Zionism 'resonated too closely with my white African narrative,' and that Israel's similarities to apartheid-era South Africa are 'uncanny': a truism of the Southern African left. But this comparison, too, mistakes discrete parts for a much wider whole, and therefore clouds rather than illuminates reality. Godwin substitutes hyperbolic, emotionally charged parallels'a 'this equals that''for the difficulties of real thought.
LIKE PETER GODWIN, Alexandra Fuller came of age as white-led Rhodesia was bloodily transformed into majority-rule Zimbabwe. (Her family also lived in Malawi and Zambia.) The Fullers were the kind of riff-raff that the Godwins probably never met. Fuller's mother is a drunk, and she belly-dances in bars, and her hands are 'worn, blunt with work: years of digging in a garden, horses, cows, cattle, woodwork, tobacco.' Alexandra's father is rough, though very good with guns''Dad is away in the bush, fighting gooks''and the parents refer to blacks as 'Affies,' 'cheeky kaffirs,' and 'bloody baboons.' Their house is ugly, their food disgusting, and their land so bad that when Mugabe appropriates it, he gives it to an enemy. In the Fullers' garden stands 'an enormous cardboard cutout of a crouched, running terrorist,' which the family uses for target practice.
And whereas Godwin, as a child, spent long hours listening to the stories of the black servants and reverentially absorbing their wisdom, Fuller, known to her family as 'Bobo,' is a brat who bosses them around while threatening to fire them. Paradoxically, though, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, far more than Godwin's books, sings with a lush, raw love for Africa. Fuller is close to the feel of the dirt and the things that grow in it, to the shrieks of the animals and 'the smell of people who are not afraid to eat meat,' to the pitilessness of the sun and the fury of the rains.
Fuller's powers of observation are so trenchant that she suggests a world, or sometimes several worlds, in a few sentences. Also, she has a nice and useful feel for the incongruous. 'There go the horses, two white faces and one black peering over the stable doors . . . And here come the dogs running, ear-flapping hopeful after the pickup. . . .And there goes the old cook, hunched and massive . . . He is almost seventy and has just sired another baby; he looks exhausted. He's sitting in the kitchen doorway with a joint the size of a sausage hanging from his bottom lip . . . .The gardener stands to attention on his bush-broom, with which he is sweeping leaves from the dusty driveway. 'Miss Bobo,' he mouths, and raises his fist in a black power salute.'
The Fullers are not lucky. In 1974, when Alexandra is five, they move to a farm in a bad location, 'right into the middle, the very birthplace and epicenter, of the civil war in Rhodesia and a freshly stoked civil war in Mozambique. . . . We erect a massive fence with slanting-backward barbed wire at the top.' Although they work very hard, they do not prosper; the commodity price of tobacco rules their lives.
But their real bad luck lies elsewhere. Alexandra's mother gives birth to five children, three of whom die before they are toddlers. It is the second death'for which Alexandra blames herself'that tips her mother from wacky neurosis into something closer to madness. Like Godwin, Fuller tries to understand the connection between her family's trauma and her nation's. Ironically'precisely because she is less 'political' than Godwin, and because she tells her story through a child's eyes'she is more successful at allowing us to feel her sense of that terrible bond between personal and historic cataclysm.
'After Olivia dies, Mum and Dad's joyful careless embrace of life is sucked away, like water swirling down a drain,' Fuller recalls. 'The war and mosquitoes and land mines and ambushes don't seem to matter.' The parents drink constantly and the family, carrying 'our new, hungry sorrow,' takes off on a grief-stricken holiday. 'So we drive recklessly through war-ravaged Rhodesia,' Fuller writes. 'We are driving through a dreamscape. The war has cast a ghastly magic . . . .Everything is waiting and watchful and suspicious . . . .The only living creatures to celebrate our war are the plants, which spill and knot and twist victoriously around buildings and closed-down schools. . . Rhodesia's war has turned the place back on itself.'
After the third child's death, 'things get worse,' and Fuller's mother has a breakdown. For Alexandra, the center cannot hold in either home or world'the war is over but the violence continues'and she watches a dance of disaster unfold. '[Mum's] is a contained, soggy madness, which does little more than humidify the dry, unspoken grief we all feel. But then the outside world starts to join in and has a nervous breakdown all its own, so that it starts to get hard for me to know where Mum's madness ends and the world's madness begins. . . .The world is a terrifying, unhinged blur and I cannot determine whether it is me, or the world, that has come off its axis.' It is Alexandra's older sister, Vanessa, who finally explains the simple, prosaic truth: 'Bad-luck things happen. That's just the way it is. . . .It doesn't mean anything, Bobo. . . .If you start thinking that bad luck comes all together on purpose or that it has to do . . . with you or with anything else, you'll go bonkers.' There is cruelty in that randomness, but perhaps a glimmer of freedom too.
DORIS LESSING left Southern Rhodesia for London in 1949, when she was thirty; as a member of the Communist Party, she had been declared a Prohibited Immigrant by the government in Salisbury. She returned to Zimbabwe for the first time in 1982, and visited again in 1988, 1989, and 1992. Of her initial exile, she recalls, 'I did not want to live in Southern Rhodesia, for if its climate was perfection, probably the finest in the world, and its landscape magnificent, it was provincial and tedious.' But, she adds, 'These rational considerations did not reach some mysterious region of myself that was apparently an inexhaustible well of tears, for night after night I wept in my sleep and woke knowing I was unjustly excluded from my own best self.'
Lessing's portrait of Zimbabwe is the richest of any that I know. Here is the 'moment of social evolution' presented from a dizzying array of angles. Lessing shows us the 'triumphant malice' of whites eagerly pointing to black failures, and the hopefulness of those who want to help the country prosper. She meets black villagers desperately yearning for work, for literature, for the life of the cities; and she observes former guerrillas, now government 'chefs,' who have 'taken to thievery as if born to it.' She tells of the students who shout 'Tiananmen Square!' as they protest government corruption. She watches the visitors: international aid workers traipsing in and out of the country, and South African soldiers on holiday who 'have had to forgive themselves too much.' She sees the squatters, too: angry, ignorant, destroyers of the land they covet. She admires the idealistic organizers mobilizing women in the villages, who remind her of the early Russian revolutionaries. And she finds an odd parallel of arrested development: whites, she writes, were drowning in childish self-pity, while blacks were in thrall to a fantasy, equally childish, of instant modernity, instant wealth, instant justice.
What Lessing encounters, again and again, is a country of complexity, contradiction, and movement: a country in the midst of remaking itself. The stakes are high, the expectations even higher, the outcome never overdetermined. Lessing loved Zimbabweans' sense of 'intense personal involvement' in the country's future, so different from the ironic apathy of the West. Despite the country's daunting problems, she wrote in 1988, 'what came across was not the flat dreary hopelessness of Zambia, the misery of Mozambique, but vitality, exuberance, optimism, enjoyment. . . . Relish. . . in the unexpected, was very much the note of new Zimbabwe.'
Lessing discovers something else too, something subtler and deeper and harder to bear. Again and again she finds people'mainly blacks, though not only they'stunned and grief-stricken by the war, yet unwilling or unable to explore their bewildered pain. 'It is not possible to fight this kind of war, a civil war, without the poisons going deep,' she observes. 'Something has been blasted or torn deep inside people, an anger has gone bad, and bitter, there is disbelief that this horror can be happening at all.' Zimbabwe was reeling from violence, brutality, betrayal, yet determined to refashion itself without acknowledging its wounds; its development was predicated, in fact, on the repression of trauma. Lessing listens to a young ex-guerrilla named Talent who says, in a rare moment of exposure, 'I was lucky, I wasn't one of the pretty girls''for the pretty ones were used for sex. Lessing continues, 'But it seems the War has never really left her: she has terrible headaches and sometimes cannot move for days. . . .A war ends, you bury the dead, you look after the cripples'but everywhere among ordinary people is this army whose wounds don't show: the numbed, or the brutalized, or those who can never, not really, believe in the innocence of life, of living; or those who will for ever be slowed by grief.'
THIS IS THE TERRAIN that the black Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera explores in her novel, The Stone Virgins. (Vera died two years ago, at age forty.) It is set in Matabeleland during the massacres: 'Then independence arrived and brought with it a spectacular arena for a different war, in which they were all casualties.' Brutality's tenaciousness, and its mystery, is Vera's subject.
The Stone Virgins reads like a slow-motion atrocity film. Its central act is a horrific rape and mutilation'the victim's lips are sliced off'by an ex-guerrilla named Sibaso of a village girl named Nonceba. (Sibaso also decapitates Nonceba's beloved sister, Thenjiwe.) The novel, which is highly impressionistic, alludes to the ways that suffering changes Nonceba, splitting her off from a former, now irretrievable self: 'Now she is alone, the shadow to her own being. The other is vanished with a sudden and astonishing finality.'
Most striking is Vera's portrait of Sibaso. She has not an ounce of liberal sympathy, or even liberal explanation, for this monstrous predator. He is a man who not only loves violence but who needs violence: 'If he loses an enemy, he invents another.' He is good at what he does, for he has honed 'all the fine instincts of annihilation.' Most tellingly: Sibaso is 'a hunter who kills not because he is hungry but because his stomach is full, and therefore he can hunt with grace.' He is a man, in short, whose nihilistic violence foretells the civil wars of places like Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as the madness of today's jihadist groups. He kills not because he is oppressed but because killing suits him; his sadism is not a cry for help but a shout of joy.
Vera understands that sadistic violence not only shatters but actually unmakes the world of the survivors. In one scene, a group of government soldiers carefully skins alive an Indian shopkeeper, then massacres all the customers, including children, in his store. She writes: 'They committed evil as though it were a legitimate pursuit, a ritual for their own convictions. Each move meant to shock, to cure the na've mind. The mind [is] not supposed to survive it, to retell it, but to perish.'
MOST OF US accept the fact that violence is sometimes necessary in the pursuit of political aims; all of us feel comforted by this fact. For if violence has an aim, it has a limit. The violence itself may be obscene, disgusting, criminal; the aim might be impossible or unjust. Still, this kind of violence has not seceded from cause and effect, claims and demands; Primo Levi described it as 'hateful but not insane.'
But the violence that 'cures' the mind, which is to say negates it, is something different. This is the 'curing' that took place in Auschwitz, and several decades later in the hills of Rwanda, and it was the aim, I think, of the rape camps in Bosnia. This is what Levi called 'useless violence': the infliction of unbearable pain, humiliation, and suffering, just for its own sake and no other. It is a kind of moral autism. Unburdened by tradition, by politics, by consequences, it claims for itself an absolute freedom.
In The Stone Virgins, Nonceba wonders 'what exactly it took for a man to look at a woman and cut her up like a piece of dry hide without asking himself a single question.' It is we who must ask this question, especially in this age of martyrs' brigades and suicide-killers. And yet the answer, I think, may be impossible to come by, for the very texture of such violence defies reason. (This is why, Jean Am'ry claimed, in Auschwitz it was intellectuals who were particularly defenseless.) It is wishful thinking, for instance'and an odd sort of narcissism'to believe that the torture-carnage that has swept through Iraq will end if America pulls out its troops (though that might be a good idea); or that the thirst for martyrdom will be quenched if Israel pulls back her borders (though that might be a good idea). The cult of suffering and death, the exultation in suffering and death, does not necessarily answer to traditional political solutions.
Zimbabwe isn't Rwanda or Cambodia or Sierra Leone. Yet in thinking of its ruin, I am haunted by Lessing's warnings about the hidden poisons of war. One can't help wondering if Zimbabwe would, or at least could, have become a very different place had it found the space, the means, and the courage to delve into the violence of its birth. Those wounds that 'don't show' have revealed themselves, and they bleed.