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Critical Review by K. Anthony Appiah
SOURCE: "The Art of Sympathy," in The New Republic, Vol. 208, No. 26, June 28, 1993, pp. 30-4, 36-7.
Appiah is an English-born American critic and educator who has written extensively on philosophy, literature, and African culture. In the following largely positive review of African Laughter, he discusses some of the major themes of Lessing's work, namely her depiction of "the moral intricacy of human life."
Early in African Laughter, Doris Lessing recalls a childhood visit to her brother's colonial school:
Everything was clean and tidy and there were green English lawns. I felt alien to the place. This was because I was alien to the English middle class, playing out its rituals here, as if on a stage. I knew even then they were anachronistic, absurd and, of course, admirable in their tenacity.
It is the last phrase, the sting in the tail, that alerts you that this is Lessing, not some moralizing theorist. Absurd people, of course, have admirable traits: that is one of the ways in which moral life, even the most passive moral judgment, is intricate. In the face of the glaring injustices of racial domination in Southern Rhodesia, it is a moral achievement to keep such complexities in mind; and to do so requires a clear-eyed attention to the everyday details of human life.
It is unfashionable in the literary academy to discuss such worn-out themes as the moral vision of novelists, the sort of thing that Lionel Trilling did those long years ago; and it is correspondingly de rigueur to expatiate upon their politics, and to complain about them. Since Lessing has often been weighed in a "progressive" political scale—that is, according to her views on racism, communism and feminism—there has been an especially strong pressure to neglect those aspects of her moral imagination that cannot be reduced to politics. And this is a disaster, since distinguishing between morality and politics is especially important with a writer like Lessing, whose moral intuitions so strongly resist implementation as a social program.
Lessing's first and last lesson—a lesson that has been announced by theorists but can only be grasped, it seems, through narrative—is precisely the moral intricacy of human life. She seems to have come out of Africa already aware of this complexity. You might have thought she had learned it from the circumstances of her upbringing, were it not a secret that many with histories like hers have not known.
Her circumstances were extraordinary enough. Though she was born in Iran, in 1919, to British parents, Lessing was raised in Southern Rhodesia. Her father, Alfred Cook Tayler, invalided (like so many) in the First World War, married (like so many) the woman who had nursed him back to health. After his wartime experiences, Tayler "could not face being a bank clerk in England," as Lessing once wrote, and so he took a job with the Imperial Bank of Persia. On leave in England in 1925, he saw a Southern Rhodesian display at one of the empire exhibitions, discovered that he could buy 3,000 acres at 10 shillings an acre and emigrated "on an impulse" with his wife and two children, Doris and her younger brother, Harry.
The land on which they lived had been alienated, like most of Rhodesia, by the colonial government, which had crowded the Africans into what were called "Native Reserves." Her father grazed cattle. In an autobiographical essay, his daughter reports that he
… cultivated about 300 acres of his land; the rest was left unused. He employed between 50 and 100 black men, and their wages were 12s. and 6d. a month, with rations of maize meal, beans and a little meat. The laborers came from the Reserves, Nyasaland [Malawi], Portuguese territory [Mozambique]. They built themselves a mud hut in the "compound." They were given a day to do this…. They worked from six in the morning till six at night with an hour off at midday, seven days a week in the busy season. These were the conditions of the whole country: my father was a better, more humane employer than most. But no one can be more humane than an economic framework allows one to be.
The nearest white neighbors were several miles off, and Rhodesian racial etiquette kept the Tayler children from real friendship with black children. Her brother was away at boarding school. So Lessing grew up with books and with the African landscape. Though she was sent to a convent school in Salisbury (now Harare), she was allowed to stop her formal education at 14, staying on in the city to work for a couple of years as a nanny, before returning to the family farm, convinced of her calling as a writer. At home and after school she educated herself, reading "the best—the classics of European and American literature." Two years later, having written and destroyed some "bad novels," she returned to Salisbury to work. Then, on the brink of the Second World War, she married a Rhodesian civil servant, with whom she had two children.
In 1942, in her early 20s, after the failure of her first marriage, she joined the local Communist Party and became, as she says, a "rackety 'revolutionary,'" "interested in the possibilities of black resistance." She had learned, as she grew up, that she did not want to belong to the master race in a society of white masters and black servants. Now the party gave to her conviction a theoretical framework and helped to complete her shapeless education. The party also provided the introduction to Gottfried Lessing, her second husband, a German Communist, whom she married in 1945. In 1949 she left Lessing and made her way to London, bearing his name, their young son and the manuscript of her first novel. "Let us put it this way: I do not think marriage is one of my talents," she told Roy Newquist in the early '60's.
But if marriage was not one of her talents, writing was. The novel in her baggage, The Grass is Singing (1950), brought her immediate acclaim. There were seven reprints within five months; reviewers pronounced her the finest new novelist since the war. A year later she published her first short stories in This Was the Old Chief's Country. In the next few years she published novels and short stories regularly, mainly set in Africa; and in 1956 she made a return visit to the country of her youth (which she described in Going Home, her first travel book). Lessing was not to return to that country for more than a quarter century, though she continued to write about Africa into the late '60s. She was declared a "prohibited immigrant" by the prime minister of Southern Rhodesia, who once sharply told her: "I wasn't going to have you upsetting our natives."
Though Lessing learned that she did not want to live as a white settler, she also discovered that white Rhodesia—for all its middle-class British snobbisms, its provincialism and tedium and its even more appalling blindness to the black lives that made possible its standard of living—was not without its virtues. This sense for the intricate has made Lessing impatient with politics and parties. The Rhodesian Communist Party, which was the creation of servicemen and various war exiles, was "so pure," she felt, that "if we had been in any other part of the world … the beautiful purity of the ideas we were trying to operate couldn't have worked." Faced with the considerably less pure British Communist Party, with its deference to Stalin and its odious political correctness (the term in those days had rather more meaning than it does today), Lessing rebelled, leaving the Party in 1956, and not simply, she has insisted, out of disgust with the Russian invasion of Hungary. Her entrance into the Rhodesian Communist Party reflected the seriousness of her moral engagement with the evils of racial domination, and her departure from the British Communist Party reflected the same moral seriousness.
That Lessing would not stay long with the Party should have been obvious to anyone who had read The Grass is Singing. The novel begins with a newspaper report of the death, apparently at the hands of her "houseboy" Moses, of Mary Turner, a white woman on a remote Rhodesian farm. As the book unfolds, we live through the events that have led up to this unlikely murder, following always the life of its victim.
Mary Turner is a strange, sad woman, suffering under the burden of obligations imposed upon her as a white woman by the sad, strange conventions of a colonial settler society. The novel is intensely humane in its attentiveness to the minutest details of the mental life of this central character: her small-mindedness and her ambitions, her silent rage at her uncomprehending husband, her longing for the life of the small town where she had worked as a secretary before her marriage. As her mind goes and her husband becomes more and more distant, she begins a sexual dalliance—its true scope only hinted at, never quite clear—with Moses. And when, near the end, caught in a moment of intimacy with him by a white neighbor, she dismisses this black man disrespectfully, we understand—we know it is not our business to forgive—this betrayal of the only human meaning in the withered landscape of her existence.
Throughout her career Lessing has been able to enter sympathetically into the lives of ordinary, morally fallible people, living in circumstances that make nobility impossible. The capacity of her unloveliest characters to engage the human in each other—even when they have inherited a racism that blinds and separates, even when the physical burdens of old age have made their lives tedious to them—is one of the finest achievements of Lessing's fiction. Nothing could be further in spirit from the mechanics of socialist realism.
The fact that Lessing combines compassion with nuance is important to appreciating African Laughter, her ruminations on four visits that she made back to the country of her youth after it finally achieved its independence as Zimbabwe in 1980. Her strictures carry so much weight because they flow from a clear and sympathetic appreciation of the humanity of those whom she observes, and especially because she is able to turn the same beady eye on those she admires, and even, surprisingly often, on herself.
On the first of these visits, for example, in 1982, Lessing found herself talking to the "garden 'boy'—the old word still used, quite unself-consciously"—of a white family with whom she was staying. Once the gardener's employers were out of earshot, he asked her
… if he could come and work for me, he needed to better himself…. He said he had seen rich black people on television and in films, and he wanted to be like them. This took me back thirty odd years, to when I used to sell Communist newspapers around a certain "Coloured" (that was the correct word politically then for people of mixed race) suburb in old Salisbury. While I preached informed opposition to white domination, I was being stopped on every street corner by aspiring young men who wanted to go to America where everyone was rich. I used to give them gentle lectures on the need to think of the welfare of All before self-advancement. What a prig. What an idiot. I can see myself, an attractive but above all self-assured young woman … with revolution as a cure for everything.
In our mistrustful times it will no doubt occur ungenerously to some that moments such as these are rhetorical ploys, designed to put careless readers off their guard: "See, I can criticize myself! You can have faith in my objectivity. You can rely on my criticisms of others." But this suspicious reading of such passages misses what is, I think, their moral thrust: they are meant to exemplify the balanced assessment of all sides, even one's own. Clearly Lessing believes that such balance is the only way to heal Zimbabwe's racial and ethnic wounds. Lessing, in short, is practicing what she preaches.
Another kind of skeptic will see in Lessing only another ex-lefty, banging on about the moral blindness of those who left the Party later than she did. This suspicion, too, is misplaced. Lessing is able to recognize the decent impulses that lie behind political rhetorics—on the left and the right—and that recognition does not weaken her loathing for oppression. The result is a kind of judicious human accounting, a credit here, a debit there, that is reflected in the episodic character of the book. Just when we have had too much of the bad news—corruption in high places, despair among the poor—Lessing reminds us of the splendid new energies released by the end of Rhodesian apartheid.
At least as important as this moral good sense is the clearsighted human understanding that makes it possible. One is oneself fixed in the beam of Lessing's penetrating gaze from the first moments of the book. The opening chapter begins:
Southern Rhodesia was a shield-shaped country in the middle of the map of Southern Africa, and it was bright pink because Cecil Rhodes had said the map of Africa should be painted red from Cape to Cairo, as an outward sign of its happy allegiance to the British Empire. The hearts of innumerable men and women responded with idealistic fervor to his clarion, because it went without saying that it would be good for Africa, or for anywhere else, to be made British. At this point it might be useful to wonder which of the idealisms that make our hearts beast faster will seem wrong headed to people a hundred years from now.
At the start of this passage it might seem that we are being asked simply to mock Rhodes's ambitions or to condemn imperialism. But once Lessing has tempted us to this simple response (the irony of "happy allegiance" cheerfully baiting the trap) she deprives us of the confidence of our moral superiority. The British in Rhodesia, she points out soon, did not engage in genocide; they did build hospitals for "natives"; they banned alcohol out of paternalism, not out of spite. "If it is asked, How did these people, no more or less intelligent than ourselves, manage to accommodate so many incompatibles in their minds at the same time, then this belongs to a wider query: How and why do we all do it …?" Indeed, Lessing often suggests that our contemporary openness to these earlier sins of the fathers conceals from us our own new sins, among them the destruction of the natural world.
The book is pervaded with a kind of ecological gloom. When she is speaking on the first of her visits, in 1982, with three black men to whom she has offered a ride in her car, Lessing reflects:
I wanted to talk about the emptying and thinning of the bush, how the animals had gone, and the birds and the insects, how this meant everything had changed; how myriads of small balances, hundreds in every small patch of bush, necessary for water, soil, foliage, climate, had been disturbed. I had already begun to suspect that these changes were more important than, even, the War, and the overthrow of the whites, the coming of the black government. Now, years later, I am sure of it. But I could not talk like this to these people then, at that time. It would have sounded like an irrelevance: at best, like one of the eccentricities the whites go in for.
This death of the bush is one of her themes, a theme that connects her with her own childhood in Southern Rhodesia and her own memories of what the bush meant to her as a child. She writes of long-ago trips with her family through this landscape she loves; of lying in their encampment, surrounded by an enclosure of cut branches to keep out the leopards, sleeping on a platform of fresh grass under the stars. ("Being in the bush was to be with animals, one of them.") But the disappearance of the bush is more than the subjective loss of childhood, it is also the real end of the dawn chorus that woke the Taylers from those nights of wonder.
This concern for nature is something that binds Lessing to the world of her childhood and to the whites whom she visits in the present. Sometimes she suggests, as in some of her short stories, that the blacks, too, some of them, love this land, but she never quite puts her finger on their feelings. She cannot chart their sense of the landscape as she can map out the nature-worship of the strange white settler culture she grew up in.
This reticence about black sentiments is part of a longstanding pattern. In her work of the '50s, when Lessing was writing about Africa, it was almost never from an African point of view. The one exception is instructive. It is the short novel Hunger, a piece of socialist realism, which almost all her critics (the predictable exception being the Soviets) agree with Lessing in regarding as a failure. Lessing reports the origins of this story in her ruminations after a gathering of writers in Moscow in 1952, where the British contingent, united in little else, agreed that "writing had to be a product of the individual conscience, or soul." The Russians, of course, did not agree. Then, one hot day, after leaving the rest of the party on a tour of "a building full of presents for Stalin," Lessing sat down by herself and began to ruminate. Were they, the British writers, really right?
… after all, there was Dickens, and such a short time ago, and his characters were all good or bad—unbelievably Good, monstrously Bad, but that didn't stop him from being a great writer. Well, there I was, with my years in Southern Africa behind me, a society as startlingly unjust as Dickens's England. Why, then, could I not write a story of simple good and bad, with clearcut choices, set in Africa?…
I tried, but it failed. It wasn't true. Sometimes one writes things that don't come off, and feels more affectionate towards them than towards those that worked.
One wonders, at first, if it is in reaction to this single conspicuous failure that Lessing settled on the most striking strategy of African Laughter: namely, its silence about the interior lives of black Zimbabweans.
This restraint sometimes disappoints. One longs for speculation about what some of the characters she meets are "really thinking." And yet, in the end, her reticence is another expression of her good sense. I think, by contrast, of Naipaul, with his confident epistemology, his perpetual certainty that he has penetrated the true meaning of the "native," even in lands he barely knows. And immediately I prefer Lessing, who, even in this land where she grew up, is willing (and then, after so many years' absence, only carefully) to speak just for the part of it she really knows.
That these two writers are, in this way, so different, is a reflection of the depths to which the culture that we share with them—this culture of the West—is committed to an epistemology of the skin. Because Naipaul is not white, he has been encouraged to believe that he knows where he is going in the nonwhite world; and he must distance himself from that world, or risk being identified with its failings. Because she is white, Lessing has been brought up to an equal certainty that she does not know her way among the black and the brown; and she can be confident that whatever these people do, and despite her upbringing among them, she will never be held responsible for their doings.
In truth, color has very little to do with it; but the reticence of color that seems to underlie Lessing's position leads to the right judgment. She does not know much of how life looks to the peasants and workers of Zimbabwe; and she knows, too, that the reason is not their color but their experience. Lessing shows us only the exterior of the black Zimbabweans, but still we are in her debt for what that view teaches us about what is happening in Zimbabwe.
And we owe Lessing an even more substantial debt for her interior portrait of the white community in its transition out of the trauma of losing the war. On the first of her visits, soon after the war's end, Lessing goes to visit her brother Harry, a staunch supporter of white minority rule who fought in the war in the bush. On their first evening together, they begin by avoiding the subject that divides them: his sister's "funny ideas" about black equality. An angry exchange almost ensues when Harry says, "I suppose you do still have those funny ideas about—well, about everything," and Lessing replies:
"You could say that I have my funny ideas. You could say they've turned out not to be so funny in the end."
At this he goes red, he is really angry. This is the moment when we could explode into argument. I say hastily, "Today, when I came past Marandellas, I remembered how we used to camp out there, near the school."
He smiles, and nods, meaning, Yes, you're right, let's not …
But as he is going off to bed, Harry stands in the doorway, a glass of brandy in his hand.
He couldn't bear to put off what had been at the back of his mind while we talked, just as it had at mine, and now he delivered a monologue, in a hot, angry, frustrated bitter voice, and it was exactly the same as the one I had listened to only last night, on the plane, from the race-horse breeder.
"Your precious Africans …"
This diatribe becomes so familiar that Lessing quietly dubs it "The Monologue." In its canonical form, The Monologue refers not to "Your precious Africans" but to "The Affs"; dilates upon the absurdity of the name of Canaan Banana, the first president of Zimbabwe; observes that "they" don't know how to make anything—television, democracy, anything—work; talks of leaving for "The Republic" of South Africa (this is before the release of Mandela); and ends, as Harry does, with: "They're inferior to us, and that's all there is to it."
In response to problems in his business—lost white customers, newly empowered black workers—Harry has decided to do what many white Rhodesians did both before and after independence: he is going to "Take the Gap." ("White people," Lessing explains, "who left Southern Rhodesia, and then Zimbabwe, for The Republic, 'Took the Gap.'" She does not know where the phrase came from.) Lessing says that "looked at impersonally, and I certainly had been forced to do that, my brother was interesting from a cultural point of view." But it is also clear that, in 1982, his psyche was, like many white Rhodesian psyches, deeply wounded.
The historical processes that led to Zimbabwean independence—and which therefore allowed her to return—included an extremely bloody civil war in which the government's black armies, led by whites, fought against the freedom fighters of Robert Mugabe's ZANU and Joshua Nkomo's ZAPU. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the whites who lost so recently were, in 1982, still resentful and unhappy. What is slightly more surprising is that the blacks, whose frank oppression was the aim of the war, and who lost friends and families to its brutality, seem largely to have been released by victory from the necessity of resentment.
The recognition of how damaging the war has been to the white psyche comes upon Lessing suddenly. She is talking to her brother about his conversion to a form of fundamentalism preached by his son, a young man who fought during the war against the freedom fighters (or "terrs," short for terrorists, as the whites tend to call them in their abbreviating patois). "Suddenly I understood something: … What my brother and my father had in common was not genes: at least, genes were not why both were slow, hesitant, cautious, dream-logged men who seemed always to be listening to some fateful voice only they could hear: they were both men hurt by war." The war in the bush was for Harry what the First World War had been for his father.
Harry, like Doris, mourns the loss of the bush, the death of the old ecology. As he talks of Taking the Gap, he tells his sister that "at least" he "won't have to watch" the bush "being destroyed here." The genuine love for the bush—and for farming with the land, not against it—is clearly something that Lessing understands very well, even if she is not "the right kind of Rhodie." She records, again and again, the conversations of white people truly in love with the land:
If The Monologue in its various forms was boring, and you wished only to be somewhere else as it started up again—again, again—when these people talked about farming techniques, it was a very different thing. These reformed pirates and landgrabbers know about inventions and discoveries from every part of the world. They experiment, they innovate, they wonder if tree-planting in Scotland or the thousands-of-years-old tricks used to wring water from deserts being used by Israel could be applied to Zimbabwe. They discuss wind power, solar power, water-screws from the Middle East and Egypt, new ways of building dams, the introduction of drought-resistant plants from semi-deserts, the control of pests by other pests or helpful plants, the farming of eland instead of cattle.
Indeed, Lessing's first rebuke to the new African government is that, in spreading rumors, during the war, that "making contour ridges to stop erosion" and "compulsory dipping of cattle" were sinister plots by whites "to undo the blacks," Mugabe, and his "Comrades in the bush," said "things that were less than intelligent." In taking up, for herself, this theme, Lessing is explicitly borrowing an element of The Monologue.
… I sat in cars, being driven through areas crowded with every kind of shack, hut, shanty, each surrounded by straggling mealies and a few pumpkins. The earth was eroding into gullies, the trees were being cut for fuel. Who drove me? Explosive, splenetic whites.
"Just look at that, look at it, there won't be any soil left …"
Lessing is willing to be seen agreeing with these splenetic bigots because she is convinced that, about this, they are right. Complexity rules.
Lessing second trip since independence was six years later, in 1988. Much had changed. For a start, the two black parties in the Zimbabwean parliament had amalgamated. At the same time, Lessing says, political corruption had spread everywhere. She quotes a U.N. official: "It is not exactly unknown for the victorious side in a civil war to line their pockets, but Zimbabwe is unusual in creating a boss class in less than ten years and to the accompaniment of Marxist rhetoric." You can tell this is Lessing, however, because the next paragraph goes on: "But reading newspapers from Zimbabwe, listening to travelers' tales, what came across was not the flat dreary hopelessness of Zambia, the misery of Mozambique, but vitality, exuberance, optimism, enjoyment."
In the 1980s Zimbabwe did create a class of bosses—or "Chefs," as they were called in contrast to the "Povos," or the poor (a word from the Portuguese picked up by the guerrillas when they were hiding out in Mozambique during the civil war). But in those first few years after independence, the Marxist rhetoric went with a real sense of nationalist excitement. As Lessing tells it, this feeling was shared by many, black and white.
On the verandas, where a few years earlier she had listened to the "explosive, splenetic whites," she now listens to a group of Zimbabweans (black or white, she does not say), some of them supporters, during the bush war, of Mugabe, some of Nkomo, some of Bishop Muzorewa. "Every conversation at once turns to the Unity Accord, between ZAPU and ZANU, Matabeleland and Mashonaland, Mugabe and Nkomo, the Accord which has transformed the atmosphere, everyone optimistic, everyone saying, 'At last Zimbabwe is one country.'" These people talk of Mugabe with "idealism, of a kind frightening to people"—like Lessing—"who remember similar talk about despotic leaders." They ask, "Why doesn't President Mugabe stop the corruption?" They say, "Mugabe says …" and tell Mugabe stories. "I swear this isn't far off being in love."
Because this is like love, they will not listen to Lessing when she points out that eight years is not long after a destructive war; that corruption is to be found everywhere. The particular form this love took in Zimbabwe was "the naivest, most untutored enthusiasm for communism. The newspapers printed nothing critical of Communist countries. The Gorbachev revolution was hardly mentioned."
In 1971, long before Zimbabwean independence, Lessing had written in Briefing for a Descent into Hell: "I had an old thought … that no matter what changes of government or what names were given to a nation's system of organization, there was always the same flavor or reality that remained in that place." Now she notices the continuities between the old Rhodesia and the new Zimbabwe, and the same Herodotean environmentalism suggests itself:
Sometimes one is tempted to believe that the mental attitudes of a country have something to do with its sun and soil. Old Southern Rhodesia was the same, complacently indifferent to the outside world. Leaving it was like leaving a stunned or a drugged country. The only comparable places are in certain midwestern states in America, where curiosity about the world ends at, let's say, the borders of Iowa or Nebraska. A university audience will hardly know where Afghanistan is—or Sri Lanka, or Pakistan. In California, sun-drugged youngsters will stare at the mention of Gorbachev.
Similarly, Zimbabwe. You may spend an evening with a professor of history, or of literature, whose attitudes toward the Soviet Union or China are identical with those of thirty years ago.
This strange blindness—rooted in the soil of Rhodesia-Zimbabwe—produces from Lessing her own Monologue. She "grew up when 'everyone' was a Communist"; she can recognize, as a result, in the Communist politicos the "scarcely concealed glitter of mendacity, the pride at cleverness that knows how to outwit opponents with election rigging, or the fixing of statistics, character assassinations, the whole 'bag of tricks.'"
In the records of Lessing's later trips, in 1989 and 1992, we see the decline of Zimbabwe. The enthusiasm of the mid-'80s is eaten away by corruption and economic decline. By the end even she is finding it hard to keep a balanced view. "During a game of Epitaphs, it was decided there was only one possible epitaph for Robert Mugabe: 'A good man fallen among thieves.'" Perhaps Lessing is right. I have not been to Zimbabwe since the mid-'80s. Then I saw what she saw: the excitement of a bustling new nationalism. It seems to me that I still hear some of that excitement from Zimbabwe. Things may not have been going well, but this is still a country that believes, in its new multiracial incarnation as in its old racialist one, in its own election. Robert Mugabe and the Chefs may have settled into the depressing rituals of a one-party state; cynicism may have seeped into more of the increasingly impoverished crevices of Zimbabwean life: but here and there remain these strange—perhaps even dangerous—pockets of faith.
Because she has so little taste for politics, I do not quite trust Lessing's political judgment. Indeed, it is her overwhelming hostility to politics that accounts for many of the moments when her touch seems not quite certain. "So bullied are we all by ideologues," Lessing complains at one point, "it is hard to say the Africans have anything whites do not, or that we have anything they do not, but the fact is, up and down Africa, as travelers have always averred, they enjoy themselves." The trouble with this notion (which provides her book's title) is not that it is politically incorrect, but that it is sentimental and fatuous. (They have, after all, been known to enjoy themselves "up and down" Europe, too.) Similarly, many of Lessing's complaints about Zimbabwean political rhetoric seem utterly oblivious to the task of politics: to the problems of building national solidarity in the fragile landscape left by civil war.
What we learn from this book, then, is not so much the political history of Zimbabwe in its first dozen years, but the psychic history of Southern Rhodesia, the inner history of the white settlers and what has become of them: the best of this book is the white man's story. And none the worse for that. But there is a different story to be told; and the people who tell it will be writers like Tsitsi Dangarembga, author of Nervous Conditions, as fine a novel as the subcontinent has produced in recent years, a novel for which Lessing herself declares her admiration. Dangarembga began life in a peasant family; and one need hardly add that she is black. There is no question that she could tell the story of black Zimbabwe from the inside. She has already begun to do so.
In 1982 at the Harare show—the big trade fair and, in the past, like the Salisbury Show, a great event for white society—Harry meets an elderly white woman who has been to visit South Africa. "I've been in The Republic to have a look. But I'm sticking it out here. They're a nice lot compared with there. You can always have a good laugh with our Affs." This, Lessing's book suggests, is what most white Zimbabweans were like back then, when they were feeling well-disposed toward their black fellow citizens: condescending, bluff, complaining. Not a pretty picture. But on their verandas, with their dogs and their children and their immense hospitality toward each other, they have their attractions—if, that is, you can forget, for a moment, about the black men and women who serve their vast meals and work in the landscape beyond the lawn. Anachronistic and absurd, to be sure; but also, in their sense of community, admirable.
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