The title of Peter Godwin’s beautifully written and magnificently poignant memoir is taken from Zulu lore, which states that solar eclipses are caused by a celestial crocodile eating the sun. Within the covers we are offered twin eclipses, one caused by life ebbing away from Godwin’s father, the other by the darkness of Robert Mugabe’s increasingly repressive regime in Zimbabwe.
Godwin was born and brought up in Zimbabwe by white immigrants. His parents were among the last of the pre-independence white arrivals, escaping the horrors of a Europe made ugly by the second world war and arriving in what was, at the time, an oasis of calm, wealth and beauty. They became good, solid citizens. His father went into business, running copper mines and timber estates before helping to write the country’s industrial standards. His mother was a doctor in one of Harare’s public hospitals. His first book, Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa, which told the story of his childhood, became an unexpected bestseller. He left Africa because of the restrictions Mugabe’s regime placed on him as a journalist after he reported on a massacre in Matabeleland, although his ambition to write for a wider audience would probably have led him elsewhere eventually. He is now based in New York, where he contributes to a range of publications including the New York Times and National Geographic.
The book opens with his mother calling to say that she thinks his father is dying. He arrives from New York with the eyes of an outsider and, watching his father unconscious in hospital, he realises how little he knows the man. This might seem a platitude and to beg the question of how many of us really know our parents. But in Godwin’s case it is apt: in the family home there are no photographs of his father’s family and very few, he realises, of his father, always the one behind the lens. And when he thinks back, he realises his father has never told him about his origins.
As the narrative proceeds he learns that, contrary to all appearances, his father was not the crisp, reticent, colonial Englishman he knew, but a Warsaw Jew caught in England at the outbreak of the second world war and unable to return to his family, who were subsequently packed off to die in Treblinka. One brilliantly suggestive detail emerges: only in the past few years had his father stopped dreaming in Polish, a language the author had never heard him use. Yet there is no criticism of his father’s deception. Instead, the author sees parallels between his father’s situation and his own. ‘Like Poland was to him, Africa is for me: a place in which I can never truly belong.’
The journey towards an understanding of the man, made over several years and several visits from New York, is also a journey through the sadness of one of Africa’s most desperate countries. Zimbabwe’s decline is particularly tragic because it was one of Africa’s success stories, its large farms keeping the economy buoyant, schools encouraging literacy, hospitals like the one Godwin’s mother worked in fostering better healthcare. Godwin doesn’t provide much in the way of explanation as to why Mugabe has turned from independence hero to crazed dictator, but perhaps that sort of analysis belongs in a different sort of book. Instead, he shares what he sees on his visits, what he hears from his family and friends as the noose is tightened, what he thinks and feels as he is caught up in the social breakdown.
When I started the book, I held on to the idea that Mugabe’s madness and the bullying rule of ‘Hitler’ Hunzvi and his War Vets was directed mainly at whites, specifically white farmers. Godwin sets this straight, showing how the land redistribution programme has hit black Zimbabweans hardest, as black farm workers have lost their jobs, and the price of basic foods has risen as the value of currency has withered. In fact Godwin is eloquent on many points connected to the sudden decline of his homeland, from the drop in life expectancy to an African low of 36 to the rise in inflation to a global high of 1,600 per cent p.a. (and still rising). He refutes Mugabe’s anti-colonial jibes against white farmers, pointing out that many of them only bought their farms after independence. He gives repeated descriptions of how the law of the jungle has replaced the rule of law, makes it clear that there is little hope for the survival of whites in Zimbabwe, perhaps even in Africa, and gives the most vivid account I have read of how a country can be undone by one man’s need for power.
The one thing Godwin seems unable to see is that his nostalgia for the Zimbabwe of old is a white man’s dream. Black Zimbabweans may have been significantly better off under white rule than they are now, but that doesn’t mean that they long for a return to the old days. Instead, like the opposition leader Morgan Changirai, they have a growing realisation that they hold their destiny in their own hands.
But in the end, and however revealing the description of the political eclipse might be, it is the personal eclipse that sets this book aside. The poised account of a father’s slow death, the inevitability of it and of the questions of identity it raises in those left behind, will bring tears to many eyes.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 24, 2007