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Doris Lessing Goes Home Again : AFRICAN LAUGHTER: Four Visits to Zimbabwe, By Doris Lessing (HarperCollins: $25; 442 pp.)

November 01, 1992|Richard Stengel | Stengel, a contributing editor of Time magazine, is the author of "January Sun," a portrait of three families living in a small South African town

No one has ever accused Doris Lessing of being an optimist. Her novels are filled with intimations of Armageddon, of earthly tragedy and cosmic disaster, of human betrayal and heavenly indifference. Consolation comes not in the form of grace but in the hard, clear-eyed appraisal of bleakness and transience. The good rarely lasts, while brutality abideth forever. But now, at the age of 71, after more than 20 novels and assorted works of nonfiction, Lessing has returned to the land of her childhood, the places she reverently calls her "myth-country," and she is--if truth be told-- optimistic. Paradise (of a sort) has been lost, but by the end of this evocative memoir she hints that it may yet be regained.

Lessing was born in Persia in 1919, but she was raised on a farm in Southern Rhodesia. She lived in and around Salisbury (now Harare) for 25 of her first 30 years. Her early novels, including her first, "The Grass Is Singing," and her most famous, "The Golden Notebook," are set against the rich but disturbing background of white-ruled southern Africa. Her early protagonists were women who agonized not only about sexual and political emancipation but about what was known as "the color bar." These women were by no means colorblind, but they were idealistic liberals who rejected the racism of their government and their compatriots.

Lessing left Rhodesia at the age of 30 and was subsequently declared by that nation's white minority government to be a "Prohibited Immigrant." In 1982, more than a quarter-century later and two years after Southern Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe, she was allowed to return, and she did so for the first of four visits, the last of which occurred earlier this year.

In this elegant and elegiac memoir, Lessing not only returns to her native land but to her earliest themes as a writer. Once more she describes the bloody-minded refusal of whites to accept blacks as human beings, much less as equals. Once again she attempts to understand what a white observer may never be able to penetrate: the long-suffering but resilient nature of the African character. While the book recounts her travels during four trips to Zimbabwe, it is really a Proustian journey to the past, a search for the fountainhead of her own artistic sensibility.

Lessing's writing is breezy and magisterial at the same time, and she is a wise and even jolly companion as she escorts the reader on bus trips and car rides and on visits to the haunts of her youth. She has the eye of a Nikon, no detail escapes her: She notes that the sturdy blue-and-white cotton that black domestics wore in the old days now swathes the fashionable sofas of white homes in Harare.

During her first visit in 1982, she finds that everyone--black and white alike--talks about nothing but the war. This small, dirty bush war, she suggests, which had ended two years before, should never have been fought at all. Robert Mugabe's victory over Ian Smith's army was due as much to the power of sanctions as the firepower of his guerrilla army. She portrays the whole country as suffering from a kind of shellshock; the war has worn them down and they are not yet ready for the peace.

The whites with whom she grew up appear oddly unchanged. They still feast on heavy midday meals of roast beef and potatoes, even when the temperature tops 100 degrees. Self-righteous, red-faced men still complain about the stupidity of the Affs, as they call the blacks, and still avoid seeing the human being inside the black man. Many of the whites she meets are "taking the gap," as it is called, moving to South Africa, the land that is the "Last White Hope."

The central character of this first visit is her brother, a farmer who aided Ian Smith's side during the war whom she has not seen in 25 years. He is a crusty, laconic old fellow and an unreconstructed colonialist. He drinks his whisky and complains about the bloody Affs and takes her to the local country club, where the easy life of the verandas still depends on an unlimited supply of cheap and docile black labor. Here, once again, he finds his liberal sister an embarrassment. As ever, she is too outspoken, too progressive. She cannot help but stir the pot.

But her mission is to forge some kind of reconciliation with her brother, and she does so in small ways. She tells him that he has spent his life numbed, frozen, and in his quiet way, he seems to agree. She discovers that what they share is an attachment to the past and a love for the land of their childhood. When she says to him, "We lived in Eden and didn't know it," he silently nods his head. At the end of this first visit, she is dismayed because the whites seem to have experienced a change of government without undergoing a change of heart.

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