Saturday, November 21, 2020

Review: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

 Rating: 4/5 stars

The Old Drift is a sweeping epic, tracing three family lines through three generations, exploring inter-generational inheritance of the effects of trauma, capitalism and colonialism. Woven into these stories is the history of Zambia, a nation similarly struggling with these wounds. Reading The Old Drift, I get the sense the Namwali Serpell feels both loving pride and intense despair about the state of her country, and has poured so much of herself into her first novel. She has a lot to say - about politics, motherhood, sociology, racism, sexuality, science, disappointment, identity, capitalism, global warming, love..... It's a tall order to successfully conduct such a symphony of ideas, and although I think at times the individual melodies get overpowered or off-tempo, it's still a very impressive book.

The three grandmothers each have some supernatural feature. One woman grows hair all over her face and body at a magically rapid pace. Leaving behind a sheltered childhood in post-World War Italy, raised by a brokenhearted mother who was worried her daughter would be stoned as a monster, she starts a new life in Zambia with her lover. Another grandmother's promising tennis career is interrupted with inexplicable blindness. She, too, makes her way to Zambia with her lover, but her immigration is instead an escape from her parent's disapprobation of her interracial relationship. The third grandmother is Zambian born and raised, and her brilliance and sense of adventure bring her to join Mukuka Nkoloso's team of revolutionaries [The Old Drift is impeccably well-researched - some of this research into Nkoloso went into a great New Yorker article]. She falls in love, becomes pregnant, and is abandoned by all her friends and family. This despair causes her to weep endlessly for decades, the skin under her eyes scarring.

The members of the mother generation escape magical distinction, but struggle to set their roots and thrive in the soil they are planted in by their mothers. They grapple with issues like being treated as a commodity by an unloving and ambitious aunt, sex work and homelessness, forming a sense of identity as an idly rich white woman in the expat enclave, an unfaithful spouse, miscarriage, AIDS, and loneliness. Their stories touch every now and then, but it isn't until the grandchildren's generation that the three storylines really merge.

The stories of the grandchildren stretch from the 2010s into the 2020s, and revolve around several fictional technological advances and how these inventions impact a developing country: smartphone successors surgical embedded into the palms of the user (exploited by the government for spying on and controlling its citizens), vaccines against AIDS (tested on brown, poor bodies without their consent), tiny drone swarms (exploited by the government for warfare, spying, controlling its citizens, and used by anti-government revolutionary forces).

The story concludes with intentionally loose ends - the final chapter literally ends halfway through a sentence. I suppose this conveys that history is never over; the offspring of the grandchildren will still be fighting the aftermath of colonialism. Still, I found that I hadn't quite had time to get invested in the final story arch, in which the grandchildren, in a move of rebellion against the government, attempt to take down the dam built by one of their grandfathers. And so the abruptness of the book ending where it did didn't quite have the impact it could have. Nor did I feel fully satisfied by the last sightings of all the mothers and grandmothers.

Parts of the book are incredibly depressing. Every relationship, no matter how strong they started, fizzled or rotted. It's a bleak look at love in general, and particularly one in which the central conceit is that each main character must have a child to narrate the next chapter. I found myself dreading the pages where the characters started to fall in love or found out they were pregnant. Beyond that, some characters - Matha and Sylvia in particular - have so much horribleness thrown their way that I found myself wondering what the point of showing so much misery was. 

Still, beyond these issues, I loved the writing. There were some lyrically beautiful passages:

Can mosquitoes and humans live peacefully together, can we forge an uneasy truce? Hover around each other enough and symbiosis sets in. Over moons, you’ll grow immune, and our flus will move through you – a mild fever and maybe a snooze. This balance can even come to your rescue, defend you against rank intruders. As Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe once said, the lowliest creature, the tiny udzudzu, is what kept the imperialists at bay! Thus when the whites first swooned to the tropics, they saw that the blacks never fell: the raging calenture that gripped the bazungu passed over the huts of the bantu. This place was The White Man’s Grave. But it wasn’t bad lands that caused their downfall – it happened on the seas as well. They say La Amistad’s crew caught a fever, while the black mutineers were spared it. Was it African skin or sweat? It was neither. It was us, and a matter of time. Reckon the wars, how a battleground festers: the British armies in the American South, the Japanese in the Pacific. Even the fall of the Roman Empire was due in part to our diseases. In every case, the nature of grace is that one side is simply more used to us. Call it invasion or world exploration: either way, it upsets this balance. Your desire to conquer, to colonise others, is both too fixed and too free. Nothing escapes your dull dialectic: either it takes a village to live or to each his own to survive. Even your debate on the best way to befalls on either side of this blade. The social contract or individual free will; the walls of a commune must keep us close or capital must run rampant. That’s how you froze your long Cold War, with this endless, mindless divide.

Other passages were just perfect little needles:

She was mainly struck by how small she looked in her reflection. She didn’t feel that small from the inside.

What sort of preparation, what sort of entertainment does a dying man want? Last things? Joseph had no idea what those would be – he was still obsessed with first things.

All she wanted was to be at home in bed, curled in a ball, alone and quietly bleeding.

During his time at university, Ronald had learned that ‘history’ was the word the English used for the record of every time a white man encountered something he had never seen and promptly claimed it as his own, often renaming it for good measure. History, in short, was the annals of the bully on the playground.

But Sibilla’s marriage had long felt like a handbag that she had neglected to empty out, that she still carried around even though she kept her money, handkerchief and comb elsewhere on her person. 

The baby started to cry again. Matha had never considered that being female would thwart her so, that it would be a hurdle she had to jump every time she wanted to learn something: to read a book, to shout the answers, to make a bomb, to love a man, to fight for freedom. She had never thought Ba Nkoloso, Godfrey and Nkuka would each abandon her in turn to poverty and lone motherhood. Matha bounced her baby in vain. Go to sleep, baby, she whimpered. Shut up, baby. She had never imagined that to be a woman was always, somehow, to be a banishable witch. Now, as her baby wept for hunger and as she herself wept distractedly – weeping was just what she did now, who she was – Matha felt that dawning shock that comes when you look at yourself and see a person you once might have pitied

Each character had a distinct voice - not an easy task for a novel with nine main characters. 

Many of the dialogues were fairly in-depth discussions of big concepts. Capitalism versus Marxism. Racism. Free tuition. The right way to effect societal change. These Socratic dialogues feel like characters naturally exploring a topic shaping their lives, rather than the author attempting to argue her own views. (Indeed, at times, I wish the author came down a little harder on what she believes.)

‘The protests,’ he said. ‘It’s crazy right now. End-times shit.’ She laughed so hard that it rocked her onto her back. ‘Are you joking?’ she asked the sky. ‘That’s why I wanted to go! They’re frikkin trying to do something! Fight the power and that!’ ‘How about fight the power cuts?’ He was surprised to hear himself echoing his grandfather. ‘Why make free education a priority when people still don’t have food or electricity or running water?’ ‘They did it in Chile!’ she exclaimed, sitting up again and crossing her legs. ‘They made it completely free. Uni for everyone, paid for by those corporate oil companies and shit.’ ‘Are you sure you want to use Chile as the example of democratic progress?’ ‘Who said anything about democracy, men? Democracy’s bankrupt. People from the West shout “democracy” but they’re vampires, sucking our resources. Bloody capitalist stooges.’ ‘Stooges?’ he chuckled. ‘You really are Zambian. So what, you give all your money away?’ ‘I’m Marxist,’ she said with disgust. ‘I’m not stupid.’

 I opened the book knowing almost nothing about Zambia, and I closed it having been inspired to read up on its history, its traditional clothing, its cuisine, its language. Serpell did a fantastic job at painting the country and its people. The books hold on me didn't end upon putting it down; various parts of the book have rattled around in my mind since I read it. And I think that is the mark of a successful book.

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