When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa (Anglais) Broché – 10 avril 2008
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"In the tradition of Rian Malan and Philip Gourevitch, a deeply moving book about the unknowability of an Africa at once thrilling and grotesque. In elegant, elegiac prose, Godwin describes his father's illness and death in Zimbabwe against the backdrop of Mugabe's descent into tyranny. His parent's waning and the country's deterioration are entwined so that personal and political tragedy become inseparable, each more profound for the presence of the other" -- Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon
"A fascinating, heartbreaking, deeply illuminating memoir that has the shape and feel of a superb novel." -Kurt Anderson, author of Heydey
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It is easy for armchair critics to point accusing fingers at colonialism, and to say that whites created many of their own problems, and bequeathed to Africa many of the problems it faces today, but it's not as simple as that. Whatever white Rhodesians did, they did not deserve to be treated the way Mugabe has treated them in the last decade. Black Zimbabweans are by far the biggest losers, though, have suffered on a far greater level, and must regret the manner in which their country - once the great hope of Africa - has been driven into the ground by the venal and short-sighted thuggery of Mugabe and his acolytes.
But it isn't just Africa or Zimbabwe - this is also a story about how bad leadership can lead to widespread social collapse, and bring out the very worst in human nature. Godwin's story about the way his family's maid Mavis was encouraged to turn against them is symbolic of how easy it is for even the best human souls to be turned by fear and intimidation. The case of Zimbabwe shows that the line between stability and anarchy, between security and insecurity, is often very fine.
The story of Godwin's family has been repeated far too many times among white Africans, and there is an additional level of sadness in the way in which his father escaped Nazism and invested most of his life in Rhodesia, only to end his life surrounded by the horrors that now afflict Zimbabwe. Worst of all is the way in which Africa's leaders have failed to turn against Mugabe, or to criticize him.
I still have friends and relatives in Zimbabwe (the doctor who gave Godwin's mother a new hip also operated on my brother, who ultimately died of peritonitis), and I hear that many of them think "When a Crocodile Eats the Sun" is an enjoyable read. Many are clearly in a state of denial - I read it in two sittings, and while it may have been a deeply compelling read, the story it tells is tragic. It mystifies me that those whites who have the option of leaving stay on in a society where death and misery are almost literally over the other side of the garden hedge. Godwin has a knack of letting the story speak for itself, and of avoiding making judgements or of bathing in self-pity. This and "Mukiwa" together will stand as testament to the plight of white Africans. I've read "Mukiwa" several times since it was published, and will certainly do the same with "When a Crocodile Eats the Sun". No-one who wants to understand the experience of white Africans will want to miss either of these books.
I picked up this book because a branch of my family settled in Southern Rhodesia sometime during the fifties; my cousin and her husband died there, as did my aunt who emigrated there from Virginia after her husband's death in the eighties. Communications from them were brief and free of political comment. I once asked why they did not write more and was told, "The mail is censored and it would be dangerous." I knew that they were moderates politically and were not in favor of the conservative Ian Smith government which determinedly maintained white minority rule from 1965 to 1980. I had no idea why this would be so dangerous, but now I know.
The book covers the years between July 1996, when Peter goes back to Zimbabwe because of his father's failing health, and February 2004, when his father dies. Only during this illness does Peter learn that his father was born Kazio Goldfarb, a Polish Jew who met and married his mother in England after serving in World War II, and who emigrated to Rhodesia in 1949 as George Godwin, "a new man...fleeing racial persecution and war, mayhem and genocide." We come to love Peter's parents George and Helen. They are honest, fair, thoughtful and loving people who show unbelievable courage and inventiveness in dealing with declining health in a society that is sinking into chaos. Whenever things look dreadful, Helen makes fun of the danger by flapping her hands beside her ears in an imitation of a "box elephant" - when an elephant charges with ears flapping (like the flaps of a cardboard box), he's just trying to scare you. You don't have to worry unless the elephant's ears are flat against his head! Black humor (no pun intended) threads delightfully through this book which is so full of sadness - much of the humor from verbal snapshots of Peter's parents.
Peter Godwin interweaves family history with much fascinating information about African/Rhodesian/Zimbabwean history. While reading it, I kept putting little markers in for things I wanted to remember, but by the end I had a forest of markers and wanted an index! That drove me to the Lonely Planet guide to Africa to get a thumbnail sketch of Zimbabwe's history and then to Wikipedia to look up Zimbabwe, Ian Smith, and Sir Garfield Todd. But you do not need this background to realize what is going on in Zimbabwe in the 21st century. Godwin witnesses many of the "land seizures" that began in 2000, in which productive commercial farmers who employed thousands of farm workers were attacked by gangs of war veterans (whose compensation fund had been raided by government fat cats). The senseless destruction of irrigation systems, animals, equipment, and people, with the help of the government, has brought Zimbabwe from a productive country to a wasteland of agricultural incompetence and poverty. Anyone who supports the opposition to Mugabe is labeled a racist and in need of conversion to the proper point of view, by murder, beating, or starvation if necessary. Shortages of food and fuel are common, except at the few outlets for those who work for Mugabe's government - who fuel their SUVs to drive out to their "farms' where they sit on their verandas drinking cocktails and surveying the cropless land.
Yes, the seeds of the "politics of envy" which fueled these attacks were sown years earlier under Cecil Rhodes and fertilized under Ian Smith. But Mugabe could still rise above his own greed and lust for power to put the interests of all his people first - Ndebele as well as Shona, white as well as black - as his regime first promised to do. He could recall the advice of an earlier prime minister, Sir Garfield Todd (expelled from office as a dangerous liberal when he supported interracial marriage and majority rule). Godwin believes that if Todd had remained in office, the years of war could perhaps have been avoided and blacks and whites could have cooperated. Perhaps this is overly idealistic, given the conservatism of many of that generation. However, Todd gave Mugabe his first chance as a teacher, supported the guerrillas during the liberation war, freely donated his land to the war vets, only to be rewarded with house arrest and stripped of his citizenship when he dared to criticize Mugabe. When he died in 2002, he was still hopeful for Zimbabwe's future. Long before, in 1958, he said, "We must make it possible for every individual to lead the good life, to win a place in the sun. We are in danger of becoming a race of fear-ridden neurotics - we who live in the finest country on earth."
Peter Godwin quotes the opinions of several living Zimbabweans:
"We don't want these extra people." - Didymus Mutasa, a senior Zimbabwean government minister.
"We've gone from bread bin to dustbin. Mugabe's persecuting his own people. But our time will come. Every dog has his day." - Tapera, municipality foreman, Pioneer Cemetery, Harare.
Zimbabwe may be the last century's "cause" when it comes to needy countries - but, like Haiti, it does not deserve to be forgotten. Please read this book!
It is really three concurrent stories - the story of a man trying to take care of his elderly parents from half way around the world; the unexpected discovery of old family secrets and coming to terms with new origins; and a first hand account of the collapse, or perhaps better described as the `Decent Into Hell', of a country as it plunges into misery and madness.
The indigenous people of Zimbabwe, the Shonas, refer to a solar eclipse as `when a crocodile eats the sun' and consider it a very bad omen. In the course of the book, there are two solar eclipses in the county, as events live up to the superstition. Besides the very personal considerations and traumas, the book reminds us of the now typical events surrounding Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe; the farm takeovers and their horrible consequences as the economy implodes, all services breaking down and leading to poverty and starvation throughout what was once one of the most promising countries in Africa.
It is a book which gives one considerable pause for thought.