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Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

November 28, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Five weeks ago, I wrote about starting Alexandra Fuller’s 2001 memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood. I had listened to an interview with her on NPR’s Fresh Air in which she talked about her new memoir, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, asked my Zimbabwean friend Liz if she had read one or the other, and she called the first “the best.” As I mentioned, I read the opening at the Amazon website, was immediately swept up, and only kept myself from downloading the book onto my Kindle because Liz said she would lend me a physical copy.

In the ensuing weeks, I would read a few pages at a time, putting it aside first for Open, then for The Crowded Grave. Recall that the only reason I read Open first was that I didn’t want to carry a book to Chicago with me, so I switched to the Kindle and picked up Open where I had left off over a year ago. Meanwhile, I had downloaded another book for the Kindle, a book I’ll discuss in a separate post, and started it at the end of my flight home, but then switched to The Crowded Grave. And then I downloaded yet another book for the Kindle and started that one, again to be discussed separately.

Given the episodic nature of Fuller’s memoir, I was finding reasons to defer it in favor of whatever else came along, but that wasn’t doing it justice. So a week ago I decided to put the two newer books aside and return to the memoir. As I got further along, the chapters got longer, the stories became more extended, and I realized more focused attention was required. So it was that I read about 60 pages on Saturday and the last 165 pages yesterday, finally giving in to and being swept along by Fuller’s extraordinary tales.

What a vivid world Fuller depicts, and through the eyes of a child. Of course, Fuller writes two to three decades later, as an adult, but she does the most marvelous job of making you experience, or believe you are experiencing, war-torn Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, then Malawi, and finally Zambia, as the child and then teenage Fuller did: drought, family tragedy, heat, ants, rodents, dogs, tics, horses, even more intense heat, more dogs, more family tragedy. On and on and on, in the most matter-of-fact tone. The food. The drink. Her big sister Van. Her deeply pained but resolute Mum (the principal subject of the new memoir). Every page or two there’s a passage worth quoting, for the power of the prose, the story itself, the characters. Cephas, for example, an employee on their Rhodesian farm. (They are a white farming family, but not one of the wealthy ones. Rather, they are barely surviving on poor land near the Mozambique border, hardly a prize when war ends and the farm is taken away from them for re-distribution.)

Cephas has learned secrets from his father: he can track animals that have passed by days before. He can smell where terrorists have been, see from the shift in the landscape where they are camping. He can put his mind inside the mind of any other living thing and tell you where it has gone. He can touch the earth and know if an animal has passed that way. But he can’t tell you why.

A few pages later, Cephas employs his skills in a most unexpected way, tracking not an animal but a fellow ranch hand who has committed a horrific crime.

My friend Liz had it right. Fuller’s book is the best.

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