Monday, August 24, 2009

Scribbling the Cat - a personal insight to war, and to Africa

Mon Aug 24

I wanted to share this review with my friends. It was written more formally, for posting on an online review, but I decided on a much shorter version there. However, Scribbling the Cat is a remarkable book. The author, Alexandra Fuller, captures vividly the impact of war on its warriors. She gets the warriors to tell us things I've known, but I don't think I've ever heard anyone who has been through war talk about. Read the excerpts I've got here, and see if you don't agree that Fuller has managed to capture something bigger.

The personal story that serves as the vehicle for this insight is an unremarkable story - but very real. The ending, was to my mind, unsatisfying, but absolutely out of real life. There is no great protagonist, and there is no catharsis. The last chapters are anti-climactic when a classic would just be reaching a fever-pitch of interest.

But, the insights into the psyche of war, and into the people and life of Africa rank with the best descriptions of war ever written. "A Red Badge of Courage", and Hemingway come to mind. What the author catches about war is not so much what was done, but what the people felt about it, and in this, she is quite remarkable. Her writings contain many vignettes, some of which also offer snippets of deep insight into why modern Africa is what it is, politically and culturally.

Corwin Linson, in "My Stephen Crane" quotes Crane as saying,before he wrote the classic "A Red Badge of Courage": "I wonder that some of those fellows don't tell how they felt in those scraps. They spout enough of what they did, but they're as emotionless as rocks". Fuller, in "Scribbling the Cat", notes that people who fought in war will seldom talk about it. We see this same phenomenon in veterans of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Now, she has gotten them to talk about it, captured what some warriors feel, why they feel that way, and done it in a way that is universal. These stories could be from Vietnam, Korea, WW1, the French Revolution, Napoleon in Russia, or ancient Greece.

One passage illustrates this: when asked if he regrets being part of his war, her subject responds: "Not like you'd expect . . .My whole life would have been different if it hadn't been for the war so . . .In some ways, the war years were the best of my life. Those boys that I fought with -- there were four of us in a troop, that's it . . .man, I knew them better than I knew myself. You walk into the shateen with three strangers and a month later you walk out with ous" (sic: men) "that you've had to trust with your life and who have trusted you with their lives and you know them so well. You've seen them shit themselves with fright, you've cried with them, you've laughed a lot. . ." "Always, forever after" . . ."you will not forget them."

He continues "We were all in it together, it didn't matter where you came from. . . ."Unless you've licked the arse end of the world with a man, you can't know what it's like to have that kind of relationship with someone. It's closer than family."

When you think of this, this goes back all the way to the classical Greek civilization, and therefore it must be even deeper - back to the beginning of man. The classical Greeks made great warriors in part because they made the warriors INTO family. The men who fought together in that time were intentionally lovers, to increase the binding of them as a unit.

Later in the book, Fuller captures the part of luck in war, in three sentences, from the same man. "I think I've used up all the luck I'm ever going to have against land mines. I've gone over three and I'm not dead yet. Four might be the unlucky number." And, in that small paragraph, I can also taste the fear that would come if this man were to face land mines again.

Real life comes to hit afterwards - the same man houses one of his army mates who is in hard times, only to discover him, later, with his wife, in an affair. Who he becomes later in life is also molded by the death of his son - but these events only worked the metal smelted in the war.

The book is primarily about white Africans, but black Africans are not slighted or ignored. Rather, she talks about the reality of who and what they are. "Places have their own peculiar smells . . ." and here "it was the smell of Africans, which is soil-on-skin, sun-on-skin, wood smoke, and the tinny smell of fresh sweat . . . It is not a romantic smell. It is not the smell of free people, living as they would choose. Rather, it is the smell of people who labor, strain, and toil for every drop of sustenance their body receives from the earth. . . It is the smell of people who are alive only because they are cunning, ingenious, and endlessly resourceful. In theory they are 'peasants'. In practice they are brilliantly versed in the skill of surviving. "
The author's father "once said to me, 'When the world goes up and we're back to square one, I'd bet my money on these buggers surviving. Your bally Wall Street fundi would last about half a day'."

Through Fuller's vignettes and vivid descriptive phrasings, we learn more about what it feels like to be in war, and why things fall out the way they do. While it is not as clear to me, I also felt that I finished reading, having some understanding of the "why" of the mess Africa is in.

The book is a quick read, and I highly recommend it. It is not a classic, but it has bits that are.

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