Saturday, 7 September 2019

Book review: The Old Drift, Namwali Serpell (2019)

Most Westerners won’t know much about Zambia and I’m no exception to this rule. It is located just to the north of the better-known Zimbabwe – better known for unfortunate reasons; oddly enough, Robert Mugabe died the day before this review was put up. As for Zambia, it is also land-locked and has been relatively peaceful since independence. Since the 1990s elections have been held for the president. The author of this novel lives in the US and graduated from university there.

I found this historical drama fascinating for its breadth of vision and its gentle wisdom. The writers who kept coming to mind when I was reading it were Peter Carey and, by way of the Australian’s novels, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The plot furthermore covers similar ground as was used in a genre novel that came out at the beginning of this century (so as not to give the game away, I won’t say whose it was, but he’s famous), with an original twist added by way of information technology and the internet. Toward the end of the novel, embedded in the text, there is a deliberate nod to Marquez, so Serpell confirmed my suspicions herself, but while her novel has the same large scope of one dating from an earlier era its poetics allow the writer to focus also on the minutiae of daily life.

This includes revelations of the feelings and motivations of individuals, even though there is a deadpan quality to Serpell’s delivery at certain moments in the narrative as though, despite being about to divulge things that might might seem incredible, the author doesn’t care about any potential misgivings arising from the plot devices she deploys or the characters she invents. Poker-faced as a seasoned pro, she hands it over anyway. And her sense of timing is impeccable; this novel is a genre-bender if ever there was one. Of course, without the flexible prose she uses, the performance and all it contains would be impossible to pull off, although things do get a bit bumpy near the end of the story.

It’s a long book that, especially toward the end, contains speculative elements. It starts out with some scenes from the life of an English adventurer who establishes himself, at the beginning of the 20th century, in the town of Livingstone in what would become Northern Rhodesia and that would later, in the 1960s, become Zambia. The place named in the book’s title is a stretch of the Zambezi River located in the south of the country that was used as a point of crossing before better infrastructure was built. Just as the author examines from different angles the word “drift” that appears in the title, toward the end of the book she gives the word “digital” new meaning in an innovative fashion; the scifi aspects of this novel will enthral enthusiasts of the genre who give it a go.

The lives of various characters merge and intersect as Serpell chronicles the emergence of a nation to stand among other nations in the world. Some of the people who appear in the tale are Westerners and others are local Bantu or Tonga speakers. In some parts of the book there are Indian migrants, and there are other people who have mixed backgrounds. The relations between the individuals who crop up again and again in the narrative might be based on money or they might be based on desire but always there is the undercurrent of a shared humanity.

I felt at some points early on that the poetics behind the story threatened to become tendentious but no story is given too much time to ripen before it is ended, plucked like a fruit off a branch and set aside to keep so that elements of it can be later reused in another part of the book. Between the chapters you are given sections narrated by something you understand to be mosquitoes, those pesky insects endemic to the region that are so insistent and that can bring sickness (another “old drift”). Like a mosquito’s buzz, Serpell’s story insinuates itself into your consciousness by dint of a ravishingly flexible style but, unlike a mosquito bite, reading this long book will do you good. Different chapters are written in different ways and the author is as able to render the thoughts of a child of five as a teenager of 13 or a man in his late 30s. Serpell’s ability to mimic is mind-blowing.

While there is a good deal of incisive commentary in the form of character sketches that show individuals sometimes acting badly, there are no easy or pat answers to the problems that characterise each era used for the drama. Although there are persistent feminist and Marxist themes that are explored through different characters, human frailty is the most-frequent explanation for the problems that people who appear in the story face in the course of their lives. No-one is entirely innocent; few escape some form of judgement imposed at the author’s discretion. And while racism is examined in some detail so, too, is the predisposition of the Indigenous people to using questionable thinking in an effort to control their lives.

Superstition, intolerance, misogyny, and an inability to control their own physical and psychological impulses emerge as explanations for things that go wrong, and the heady mix of youth and political self-determination is shown to be dangerous under certain conditions. People try to prosper and survive but in many cases they let themselves down.

As the author moves closer to the present, the types of characters she invents change with the times and as before we are shown the reasons for how they behave. This is done in a way that gives you confidence that what you are reading is anchored in truth. Although there is a distinct lack of worthy male characters, that early suspicion of tendentiousness dissipates under the influence of the author’s careful portraits, drawn with a very fine brush and involving renditions of the feelings behind the actions of each person she creates.

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