May 1, 2016

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, by Peter Godwin

Picking up this memoir of a white man born and raised in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), I expected something similar to Alexandra Fuller's Don't Lets Go To the Dogs Tonight. This is an altogether different beast, not at all like Fuller's remembrance of her African childhood. Instead, this is a stirring and disturbing account of Zimbabwe's shockingly fast decline under the notorious dictator Robert Mugabe. Ravaged by AIDS - in 1980 the life expectancy was 54 while at the time of publishing (2006), it was a depressing 34 - and decimated by hyperinflation, Zimbabwe's "free democracy" obliterates the middle class and improverishes even further the already poor, both black and white. And Mugabe's anti-white rhetoric, after years of relatively peaceful existence, stirred up a well-armed (and military-supported) mob to threaten white farmers with violence if they didn't hand over their farms to black Zimbabweans. Farmers and their families are run off, robbed, and murdered, and since the men who seize their farms know nothing of farming, crops lie rotting in fields and never get replanted, contributing to the food shortage, rampant inflation, and healthy black market.

In the middle of all this, Godwin's parents are aging and their health is fading. His father has a heart attack, his mother needs a hip replacement, his father is in constant pain due to gangrene in his feet. The book starts with his father's funeral pyre and ends with the same, and in the middle we learn much about the Rhodesia that was, the Zimbabwe that briefly was, and the Zimbabwe that is now (at least in 2006). And through all this, Godwin's father offers a startling piece of personal history: he isn't actually the proper British gentleman he'd always presented himself as. George Godwin was born in Poland to a Jewish family and was sent to England to study when he was fourteen. The outbreak of World War II prevented him ever returning to Poland, from ever seeing his family again, and leaving his mother and sister victims of the Treblinka gas chambers

The writing is very good, powerful and passionate and helpless at the same time, as Godwin watches his country and parents fall apart. While the parts about his father's heritage and Godwin's research into his family's fate during the war are fantastic, they do seem a bit out of place in a memoir ostensibly about Africa. He ties the themes together nicely, but I couldn't help feeling that Godwin really had two books here, one about Africa and one about discovering his Jewish identity. My only other complaint would be the persistent use of the present tense throughout the book. It makes sense for his trips back home and the narration of his current life, but doesn't really work for the flashbacks to his parents' history or the history of Zimbabwe. Reading about something you know happened in the past but that's written about in the present tense, just like the stuff that is actually happening in the present, is jarring and confusing. It's a small problem in an otherwise fantastic book, a heartbreaking look at a once-promising nation that languishes under a dictator one can only call evil with no sense of irony or hyperbole. It's well-worth reading, and certainly inspires me to look into the state of Zimbabwe now, ten years after its publication.

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