Daily Archives: January 11, 2009

‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: a memoir’ by Peter Godwin

godwin

2006, 340 p.

A memoir is not the same as an autobiography.  An autobiography is driven by the ongoing elapse of time, where chronology imposes an order onto the narrative.  A memoir, on the other hand, is a construction placed over events which can be quite independent of time.  It is, in its own way, just as much an argument as a non-fiction book can be.

Godwin uses the metaphor of the solar eclipse- the crocodile eating the sun- to frame his memoir of Mugabe-era Zimbabwe.  And oh what a descent into darkness it is.  We can read in our newspapers of the inflation, the cholera etc etc and yet be none the wiser about how people continue to live in Zimbabwe (as distinct from merely surviving).  For me, it was the footage of the bashed Morgan Tsvangirai, right in the middle of an election campaign in the glare of the world’s media, that reinforced the ruthlessness, defiance and absolute power of an autocratic regime.  If this could happen to the leader of the opposition, what was happening to people without an international political profile?

But, just as much as a political commentary, this book is about being a son and identity.  Godwin’s parents are becoming increasingly frail.  Peter, the author is seeking citizenship in America where he works as a journalist, angling for African assignments that will enable him to be return to see his parents .  His sister Georgina works as an activist broadcaster and would be endangered by a return to Zimbabwe, while another sister was killed by gangs several years earlier.  At times I just wanted to shake him- why was he allowing his work to dictate when or if he would see his parents- just go there without waiting for an employer to pick up the tab.  Isn’t there some obligation on children?- I’m old enough to think that there is.  But then again, what if parents absolutely refuse to move from a situation that puts their children into danger in meeting these obligations?

The twist in this memoir is the author’s discovery that his father has hidden from his children his  Jewish identity and his lifestory as sole survivor of his family from the holocaust.  As well as shaking the author’s confidence that he ‘knows’ his father, this knowledge leads him to reconsider the role of the outsider, statelessness and exile in  twenty-first century Zimbabwe as well.

Although it would be easy to typecast the author’s family as stubborn white colonialist farmers in a changed political situation, it is not as clearcut as this.  The opposition to Mugabe’s rule seems to be class-based as much as colour-based, and many of the relationships that Godwin’s parents have with neighbours,  fellow professionals and employees cross racial boundaries.

But, as with all  people born into a post-colonial society, there is a mixture of guilt, self-interest, love of country and one’s own national identity.  Godwin’s mother, in trying to explain to her son why she cannot leave, turns to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Roman Centurion’s Song: Roman Occupation of Britain, A. D. 300”.  She chooses this prominent poet of the Empire, knowing that he is writing from the ‘invader’s’ perspective:

Legate, I come to you in tears- My cohort ordered home!

I’ve served in Britain forty years.  What should I do in Rome?

Here is my heart, my soul, my mind- the only life I know,

I cannot leave it all behind.  Command me not to go!”

‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun’  is a beautifully crafted memoir.  The book starts with the cremation of his father, and closes with the same episode, in exactly the same words- evoking for me the circularity and rhythm of the eclipse metaphor he has chosen.  The author’s deliberate and self-consciousness construction of his narrative at times threatens to become a bit forced, but the raw conflict of loyalities on so many levels is the stronger quality of this book.