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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

But on her return in 1988, the world has been altered. Instead of bitterness, she finds vitality and hope. "The new Zimbabwe," she says, "chaotic, ebullient, violent, full of energy, full of optimism." Six years later, this knowing, skeptical woman who has seen it all is almost transported. She finds that Zimbabwe, unlike the countries that surround it--Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana, Malawi--seems to be working.

She travels the country with a group of young black men and women who are putting together an instructional book for villages and rural areas, places that remain desperately poor and backward. She admires these naive, idealistic young people, and feels privileged to be along as a kind of gray eminence. A long, comical train ride to Bulawayo with her book team becomes a metaphor for modern Zimbabwe: The trip is slow and inefficient, yes, but redeemed by goodwill and infinite good nature.

Even the whites seem different. The word we , among whites, once referred only to themselves; now, in 1988 and 1989, she says, we means Zimbabwe. She discovers a spirit of community. Some who have taken the gap have returned. The whites who have stayed are mainly farmers. Their reverence for the land has made them into custodians of their new country. But there is also trouble in paradise: Government corruption is pervasive. The comrades who fought in the bush have become crooks; Mugabe himself is insulated behind high walls and travels only in a bullet-proof limousine.

The centerpiece of the second half of the book is her visit to the farm on which she grew up. Her brother has warned her that a return will break her heart. She has been afraid of going back, fearful that seeing the new reality will alter her oldest memories, will rearrange the furniture of her imagination, will destroy her delicate and precious "myth-country." Even though there is a graceless bungalow where her thatched-roof farmhouse once stood, the hill is still there, the light and the great open sky are still the same, and she is relieved. She has not been deceiving herself, and realizes that her brother is in mourning for a place that never really existed.

In 1992, on her final trip, some of the brightness has darkened. A drought has dried up the crops and the country's financial reserves, the government talks of forcible acquisition of white farmland (which they have subsequently done) and Comrade Mugabe is more remote than ever. She finds that while the goodwill of the whites is increasing, that of blacks seems to be diminishing. She is reminded of Alan Paton's resonant line, uttered by a mournful black character: "I am afraid that when they turn to loving, we will have turned to hating."

But in the end, Lessing is looking forward, not backward. "To be in love with a country or a political regime," she writes, "is a tricky business. You get your heart broken even more surely than by being in love with a person." As she takes her leave, she is wary, hopeful, and her heart is not yet broken.

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