Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier

by Alexandra Fuller

Hardcover, 2004

Call number

968.49 F



The Penguin Press (2004), Edition: 1st, 258 pages


When Alexandra ("Bo") Fuller was home in Zambia a few years ago, visiting her parents for Christmas, she asked her father about a nearby banana farmer who was known for being a "tough bugger." Her father's response was a warning to steer clear of him; he told Bo: "Curiosity scribbled the cat." Nonetheless, Fuller began her strange friendship with the man she calls K, a white African and veteran of the Rhodesian war. With the same fiercely beautiful prose that won her acclaim for Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Fuller here recounts her friendship with K. K is, seemingly, a man of contradictions: tattooed, battle scarred, and weathered by farm work, he is a lion of a man, feral and bulletproof. Yet he is also a born-again Christian, given to weeping when he recollects his failed romantic life, and more than anything else welling up inside with memories of battle. For his war, like all wars, was a brutal one, marked by racial strife, jungle battles, unimaginable tortures, and the murdering of innocent civilians-and K, like all the veterans of the war, has blood on his hands. Driven by K's memories, Fuller and K decide to enter the heart of darkness in the most literal way-by traveling from Zambia through Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and Mozambique to visit the scenes of the war and to meet other veterans. It is a strange journey into the past, one marked at once by somber reflections and odd humor and featuring characters such as Mapenga, a fellow veteran who lives with his pet lion on a little island in the middle of a lake and is known to cope with his personal demons by refusing to speak for days on end. What results from Fuller's journey is a remarkably unbiased and unsentimental glimpse of men who have killed, mutilated, tortured, and scrambled to survive during wartime and who now must attempt to live with their past and live past their sins. In these men, too, we get a glimpse of life in Africa, a land that besets its creatures with pests, plagues, and natural disasters, making the people there at once more hardened and more vulnerable than elsewhere.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member cestovatela
Colonialism wasn't all glamorous British ex-pats trying to re-create high society in hill stations and pseudo-pubs across the world. It was also a new hope for thousands of European families oppressed and impoverished in their homeland. These were among the people who settled Rhodesia and South
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Africa and who, much like my American ancestors, came to feel that their labor entitled them to the land -- no matter who had been living there first. It's no wonder that these were also the first people to wage war against the indigenous Africans who launched independence movements in the 1960s. Fuller's own father became a soldier in Rhodesia's army of independence and soon 13-year-old Fuller was on the run across 3 different African countries, an experience she chronicles in detail in her memoir Don't Let's Go the Dogs Tonight. "Those of us who grow in war are like clay pots fired in an oven that is overhot. Confusingly shaped like the rest of humanity, we nonetheless contain fatal cracks that we spend the rest of our lives itching to fill," she explains. Meeting K., a physically and emotionally scarred former soldier, at first appears to Fuller as way to fill those cracks. This book is the account of their journey across the former battle fields of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, visiting shattered soldiers and listening to the atrocities they committed and how each of them got Born Again or drowned their sorrows in a bottle. This is a deeply unsettling, extraordinarily powerful book guaranteed to take you places you've never been before.
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LibraryThing member shazjhb
Intense story about Africa and war. What people will do to each other is amazing. Well written and very sad. Living in Africa did we know what was happening during the war and could we have done anything. Now with freedom has anything changed. In 1969 Zim (Rhodesia) sent food to all parts of Africa
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and now people are starving and dying but with a black government. Read both Fuller's books
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LibraryThing member FicusFan
I was intrigued by the title and then the recap on the back. Traveling with an old African (white) soldier who fought on the side of Colonialism, and has demons to face. Unfortunately, I found the reading rather empty and unsatisfying.

I did not read Fuller's earlier book about her childhood in
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war-torn Africa, so her statement at the end of this book about it being her war too, seemed preposterous. All she mentions in this book is seeing her dad go off at 13 and waving at soldiers, that doesn't equate to living in the bush like an animal, killing/torturing others, and then losing the war and their way of life.

As near as I could tell Fuller was looking for something to write about and latched onto K, the old soldier. She couldn't get her father to open up about his war, and it seemed like she needed a excuse to call her trips to see her parents (she now lives in Wyoming) a business deduction. That may seem harsh, but it reflects the lack of feeling and insight that she put into the book. Everything was seen through her eyes, but she was absent for most of the story. I didn't see or feel her interest, or pain, I didn't feel K's pain either, though he seemed to cry almost every other page.

Her parents live in Zambia. She lives in Wyoming with her husband and children. She visits the parents and meets K. He is a neighbor and an old African soldier. She is interested in sucking the juice of the war and its aftermath from him, and he is interested in a finding a white woman to wed. He has found god, but the fact that she is already married doesn't seem to bother either of them. Not that they have an affair, but she is willing to go along with his obvious intent.

They have desultory conversations with the subject ending up at the war. Fuller asks to write about K, and he eventually agrees. They then decide that they will visit some of the places where K fought: Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Zimbabwe was once Rhodesia when run by whites. K was from Rhodesia, and started fighting in the Army there. They fought against the natives who wanted to have a say and even run their own country. The war period was from the 60s through the 70s. What started in one country Rhodesia, spread to others (Mozambique) because the combatants would use the other countries to hide, train, and recoup in.

When the natives won in Rhodesia and the country became Zimbabwe, many whites left, including many of the white soldiers. Some went on to become mercenaries in other African wars, and some tried to find peace and build lives for themselves. The old soldiers were and still are plagued by nightmares, drinking, divorce, violence and an inability to live quietly in civilization. And as the book depicts, the bar for civilization in Africa is pretty low. Some who have succeeded have been medicated by doctors or have found god.

On their trip they speak to some of K's old comrades, and even some of the natives who fought against the whites. The natives seem to harbor no hatred, though we don't see their personal lives, only their jobs - working for the whites. The whites say they don't hate, but their lives are still bent out of joint, and they have no real respect for the blacks.

Along the way, K talks about being in the Army, about waiting, fighting, suffering (no water, little food, being in the bush for weeks, bugs), being terrified, and becoming crazy and committing atrocities, some against civilians - even young people. He cries all the time, but I never actually feel anything from him, not his anger, his craziness, his remorse.

The book is best at describing the places they pass through, both the physical environment and the superficial arrangement of native people on the landscape. At the start Fuller's writing is so flowery that it detracts from the idea that its a non-fiction book. She tones it down but still tries to paint perfect little pictures now and then.

The book mentions Zimbabwe, but there is very little about the fighting there. They just pass through it on the way to Mozambique. Fuller does a good job of bringing in facts and figures about the conflict, explaining how it spread to Mozambique.

At the end of the trip they decide that they haven't exorcised demons so much as stirred up the pain with no resolution. She and K have a falling out, and patch up their relationship, but its not the same. When they get back home to Zambia, K asks Fuller not to contact him again. Fuller includes an email from him just before the book was published saying its OK to talk to him again. I feel as ambivalent as K does about this book.

One of the obvious issues is about the inhumanity and horror of war. How it not only destroys lives and property during the war, but it keeps destroying long after the conflict is over. There are physical remnants that destroy, the land mines and the destroyed infrastructure and missing towns; the psychological destruction is obvious in the broken lives of those who lived through it.

Also presented was the fact that fighting in the war is a constant series of adrenalin jolts. Peace is boring, so they create their own jolts: violence and conflict.

The book doesn't really look at the native side of the question. Are their lives as former combatants and survivors as damaged as the whites ? Or is their struggle to survive so incredibly difficult that they don't have time for looking back, and guilt ?

I am a great fan of ancient history and one of the questions that I have, is the current reaction to war a modern invention ? Way back in the past before monotheism and the belief that all human life should be precious, did their veterans have the same reaction to what they had seen and done ? Were the rest of their lives damaged by guilt ?

Oh yeah, the title refers to Curiosity Killing the Cat. Scribbling is slang for killing.
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LibraryThing member LynnB
Upon reading the reviews posted here, it seems that those who didn't read Fuller's earlier memoir, "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight" didn't enjoy "Scribbling the Cat" as much as those who did. When I first read "Dogs", I was unsettled and confused at the end. Ms. Fuller writes in such a
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straight-forward, no frills style that I asked myself whether she really understood the policial and socio-economic context in which her family, as white Rhodesians, were living in as she looked back on her childhood. Her story haunted me and stayed with me: the photograph of her, at around age 5, stripping down, cleaning and reassembling her father's shot gun is imprinted on my brain. To her, that wasn't outrageous: that was life.

In "Scribbling the Cat", the effect living through a war had on the author is clearer. In this book, she meets a white Rhodesian soldier and travels with him through the places he fought in an attempt to exorcise his demons. She meets other veterans who are still struggling with their war-time experiences, often with the help of religion or alcohol. This is a very personal account of the impact of war; the book doesn't deal with the economy or political fall-out.

Again, Ms. Fuller's writing style is gripping in its straight-forward, non-judgemental honesty. Her perspective adds a lot to understanding what compels people to stay and fight for their homeland.
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LibraryThing member barbaracornell
Fuller returned to Africa from her home in Wyoming to visit her parents. She met a former soldier, scarred by the Rhodesian wars. The resulting road trip with him is awkward for them both and awkward to read. I don't recommend it as much as "Don't let's go to the dogs tonight".
LibraryThing member kaionvin
Alexandra “Bobo” Fuller was born in Britain and grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during its brutal civil war. In Scribbling the Cat, she recounts a friendship she strikes up with “K”, a white African and Rhodesian War veteran, and the trip they take from Zambia to Mozambique, a journey to
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the places of “K”s memories of war.

I’m almost shamefully ignorant about modern Africa, and to that end, Scribbling the Cat did introduce me to a very human level side of Africa. Fuller’s dazzling sentences (peppered with parts English, Afrikaans, and Shona) portray a place of vivid culture and complex lived history—not that of shadowy enemies and forgotten battles but of real daily compromises and consequences. “K” himself is product of all this: a born again Christian, a charismatic macho man, and tempestuously alternately angry about losing the war and wracked by guilt for his part in its atrocities (which to Fuller’s credit she reports unflinchingly).

However, the heart of piece remains elusive. The narrative itself is largely meandering- the goal of “K” and “Bobo”’s journey itself unclear without neither a mental nor physical destination that makes a impression. Writing from a subjective perspective, Fuller is, surprisingly for a memoirist, not terribly prone to self-reflection. She seems to even avoid doing so, lest she risk questioning her own hypocrisies and the true meaning of her heritage as a white African. And writing from the objective perspective, while Fuller very occasionally shows flashes of satirical bite while summarizing the bloody history of Africa , she stops short of truly examining the reasons for such conflict and the true human costs. Ultimately, while Scribbling the Cat is interesting as a portrait of the legacy of the Rhodesian war on one man, it fails to do any more.
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LibraryThing member Smits
Real and powerful.A very personal and unguarded memoir looking into the results of war to a former Rhodesian soldier and the landscape on Mozambique.
LibraryThing member sonofcarc
I found Alexandra Fuller's first two memoirs about growing up in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe very powerful. This one is also full of insights about an exceptionally dirty war. But growing distaste for the author got in my way. The core of the book is the memories of a former soldier on the losing side; it is
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very obvious that the poor guy was opening himself up to the author because he was falling increasingly in love with her, and if she had any romantic interest in him, she hides it from her readers.. The word I can't shake off is "exploitation."
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LibraryThing member jennybeast
I have yet to read an Alexandra Fuller book that didn't completely captivate me, and this one is no exception. More journalistic than autobiographical, but so much of her own story threads through the telling that it's reasonable to classify it close to memoir. I suppose it's really a biography
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that's of an white African soldier who survived war, but it's also a journey book, a trauma book, a distinct evocation of place book. Almost a romance, definitely a tragedy, and layers and layers of sorrow and racism and deep, deep love -- less for country than for the land itself, less about healing than about carrying on when broken.
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