The African Library: The old drift by Namwali Serpell

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Title: The old drift
Author: Namwali Serpell
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 9781781090497

Serpell’s massive debut novel (published 2019) is a big work in every sense of the word – its historical sweep covers well over a century of Zambian history, and the text tackles the big issues, such as colonial-origin development projects (past, present and future) in an African country, social coherence and cultural divisions, class and race tensions, memory and history, technology usurping nature, et cetera – while being stylistically various and happily mixing scrupulous realism with futuristic visions or magical realism. Relationships of many and various kinds are a core focus of the text, which, in its clever connections across generations and in ironic juxtapositions, organises the work so that it remains absorbingly interesting as it proceeds (more or less chronologically), without falling into a confusing jumble of narrated evocations. The table of contents page is placed alongside an old-fashioned novelistic “reader’s aid”: a map of the main role players and the interconnections that link them – a bit like the even older device of the “family tree”. The text moves between an ironic opening chapter evoking a gung-ho British explorer-settler’s view of Mosi-oa-Tunya, the awesome “Smoke-that-Thunders”, which “a goodly Scottish doctor” (the missionary traveller David Livingstone) renamed Victoria Falls, and a closing chapter called “The dam”, ie Kariba Dam – planned and overseen by an Italian firm with British political consultants and constructed on the same Zambezi River in the late fifties – describing the future partly accidental destruction of this dam by three young Zambian revolutionaries. The main body of the novel is structured like a series of novellas evoking (in order) three grandmothers (Italian, British and Zambian), three mothers (Zambian, Italian and, again, Zambian) and three children (two young Zambian men, and a young woman with an Indian father and an Italian mother – also Zambian). This may seem like a neatly organised family saga, but its function is to take us through the social and historical evolution of the country Zambia was and is becoming. In between, and preceding each chapter, short italicised sections suggest that the entire narrative emerges from the superior vantage point of the anopheles mosquito, which carries malarial infection, and – as the swarm’s mocking tone implies – not only controls human habitation in this region, but has a vastly superior understanding of human nature in its hubris, foolishness and failure. To them fall both the first and the last lines of the text, respectively an onomatopoeic mimicry of a mosquito’s maddening whine, and the portentous, sardonic statement that discounts all human endeavour and achievement or planned development: “And so we roil in the oldest of drifts – a slow, slant spin at the pit of the void, the darkest heart of them all” (563); this puns on this text’s own title, or “first word”, and on the (in)famous novella, “Heart of darkness” by Joseph Conrad, as if to suggest to the European author that he underestimated the depth of darkness that extends far beyond the human heart to the essence of the universe itself.

Serpell’s novel is nowhere near as grim as the authorially italicised citation above may suggest. It is tremendously entertaining and often very funny in its examination of some of the bizarre extremes of human conduct. It is also appreciative and admiring of idealism and moral decency. The old drift is intellectually sophisticated and incidentally informative; it appears to take none of its characters too solemnly as “model citizens”, while refusing any facile racial-cultural preferences. The creative effort that had to have been involved in making the work is carried lightly, and the narrative confidence of an author in control of the entire abundance of fact and fiction prevents any sense of strain; there is a vital energy pulsing through its pages. My first textual example of how the story functions comes from its first paragraph, in which the mosquitoes’ “voice” intones: “This is the story of a nation – not a kingdom or a people – so it begins, of course, with a white man” (1). The mockery of European hubris that compares the African wonder of the great waterfall on the Zambezi “to British things: to fleece and snow and the sparks from burning steel” is, in Livingstone’s words, without indignation or malice, but Livingstone’s circumscription within Eurocentrism can be contrasted with the Italian woman Sibilla – whose name suggests an ability to envision a future – who instinctively sides with the Tonga elders, resisting without violence or threat the incursion of the Kariba Dam, which will drown their communal lands and ancestral graves.

The title of Serpell’s novel refers to a small, early European “settlement” at a point (upstream from the falls) where it is possible to cross the Zambezi in canoes punted over by Barotse navigators. In its opening section (“The falls”), the narrator is the first ancestor of the novel’s large cast of characters – Percy Clark, grandfather to the second of the three grandmother figures in the novel. In an editorial for the settler paper, called the Livingstone Pioneer, Percy tells us, he once warned: “cursed is he who forgetteth his quinine o’nights, for the shakes and the pukes [of malaria] shall surely take him” (9–10). At the end of his section, Percy bemoans the “fact” that “there is no romance left here” (18), as the modernisation process leaves nothing African unchanged. The mosquitoes’ preamble to the chapter about the first of the grandmothers, Sibilla, explains Serpell’s vision of the supernarrative function of these insects: “with enough time, a swarm will evolve a conscience. Thus we’ve woven a worldly wily web[!], contrived a hive mind, if you will. Spindle bodies strung in a net of spacetime” (19).

Sibilla is born to a young Italian peasant woman employed as a lowly cleaner in the local manor house, where she attracts the desultory attention of her employer’s brother, who sponges on his widowed sister’s wealth and partying lifestyle. Sibilla is born a freak, covered in constantly growing hair sprouting from every part of her skin, except “navel, nipples, ears, soles, palms, the spaces between the toes and fingers” and her genitals (25). She is kept hidden for her own safety, and has the loving daylong company of her grandmother, Giovanna, since her mother, Adriana, has to keep working at the “Signora’s” house for an income. But Sibilla is beautiful. One day, her grandmother decides to allow her to venture outside, where she has stones thrown at her by three boys, who call her a monster; fortunately, her mass of hair (which keeps growing at an abnormal speed, despite daily cutting) seems to take on a life of its own, and scares off the attackers. When her mother learns of this, she decides to ask the Signora to allow Sibilla (without it being said that the girl is the employer’s niece) to live at the house. She is assigned to the pantry as her “bedroom”, and by day assists her mother in cleaning up the incredible mess left by the raucous nightly parties held in the house. One night, the Signora wakes her up: the party requires her to come and entertain the guests. Unbeknown to Sibilla, her mother has been used in the same way. The girl ends up doing a whirling dance, and she is particularly admired by two brothers, a veteran of the colonial wars (“the Colonel”) and his unfulfilled, considerably younger brother, Federico – a mere sergeant when both the colonial and civil wars fizzle out. Federico is evoked as follows:

The broken promises of the church, the Partisans, the war: Federico had become a man always sighing in the ruins. Though it be a melancholy song, a sigh is a song all the same. It was not that he had lost his faith entirely but rather that he had been blessed with a dolorous faith – a faith premised on loss, and thus endlessly renewable. When he had first seen the hairy girl spin in the Signora’s salon, he had felt his ribs stretch near to splintering. The Colonel had muttered something crude in his ear of course, but Federico had just waved him off and watched.

The girl’s tresses dove and fluttered as they whipped around her, her pale form gleaming under the smog of heat. And when she stopped and her hair kept going, when it bound her so tight that it smothered her, when his brother cut her loose and raised her like Lazarus from his bindings, and when he himself wiped the blood from her back – then Federico Corsale knew faith again. It flooded him now, as he reached the top of a hill, and saw a thread of her hair vanish under the door of an old hunting cabin. (54)

Sibilla has been reconfined to the cabin, because her mother – long unaware of Sibilla’s nightly performances – is horrified that her daughter may simply become a reiteration of herself – used and then dropped. But Sibilla has left a clue and a trail to allow Federico to find her, in the form of a long rope, to lead him to the home in which she’s been locked up.

They become lovers, but Sibilla, who is much the stronger personality in the couple, has no luck initially in getting Federico to take her away. It is when he discovers the Colonel raping or attempting to rape Sibilla that Federico erupts; he kills his brother, buries the corpse and assumes his brother’s identity, as well as the employment (at Kariba Dam) that will take them to Zambia. When Sibilla finds out that the Tonga elders, whose whole community is to be relocated when the dam water starts flooding their valley, would prefer to stay and be drowned along with their ancestors’ graves, which will soon be covered in water, she sides with them: “Sibilla was standing on the edge of the gorge, on a rocky outcropping. There was a crowd of people around her, natives, it looked like.” But, it turns out, “Sibilla was neither their captive nor their leader. She simply stood among them in the static of the rain, her wet black hair encasing her, the Zambezi raising its red hackles behind her” (77). They are all eventually (and forcibly) “rescued”, but Sibilla never loses this moral strength and independence of mind, despite living among colonials. The mosquitoes’ observation is a sarcastic comment on the dire consequence of the main mistakes in Federico’s initially deeply loving relationship: “No drowning for the natives, Federico declared, Sibilla’s intercession be damned” – yet: “This, and his betrayal – one secret too many – would sever their bond completely. You cannot contain the manifold fury of a people, a river, a woman!” (78). The “betrayal” was Federico’s keeping from Sibilla of the revelation that she was actually the Signora’s niece and of equal status to himself. She discovers this on their eventual honeymoon at the falls, when Federico lets fall that one of the old photos of settlers on the hotel walls is that of her grandfather.

Just as Sibilla’s fate and future are to a large extent determined by her hairiness, so those of the second of the grandmothers, the British-born Agnes, result from the rising young tennis star being beset by blindness. Without the author spelling this out, a love affair and eventual marriage between an Englishwoman of good family and a black Zambian (however bright, educated and well spoken in English) would have been unlikely in the early sixties if the woman had not been literally blind to the scholarship student’s race or, simply, his skin colour. “Sir George” and his wife, Carolyn (daughter of Percy Clark, the self-styled “Pioneer” evoked in the opening section of the novel), Agnes’s parents, have been chosen as two of a series of university holiday hosts to the Zambian student Ronald Banda. Ronald has been awarded a scholarship by an extremely wealthy settler living in colonial grandeur in Zambia, but able to call on his old British class network for small favours. Agnes develops her trust in and fondness for their visitor because of his kind and tactful assistance to the newly blind young woman, and because she enjoys his witty contributions to their conversations – undetected by her parents. The two become lovers and soon resolve to be married. Defying her scandalised parents, Agnes and Ronald set off for Zambia, with Ronald masquerading as Agnes’s “assistant”, but even there their marriage is delayed for a period by colonial racial restrictions. Ronald lectures at the University of Zambia – where he will eventually, and after further studies, be given the position of dean. However, their Zambian life leaves Agnes isolated and initially marooned in their home – another immured woman yearning to be free. Increasingly frustrated and lonely and emotionally out of touch with her husband – Ronald spending nearly a decade in Britain for further study, while his wife is left behind in the care of local domestic staff – Agnes, too, finds solace in forming an alliance with native Zambians, especially her housekeeper, Grace. “It was more like family than friendship, forged through proximity and dependence rather than affinity” (125). But another strong presence emotionally filling the more-or-less abandoned Agnes’s heart is a married colleague of Ronald’s, who invites her to join the Marxist discussion group he has started. His name is Lionel, and Agnes admires his idealism and immensely enjoys his ironic yet affectionate teasing. “African socialist concepts from Tanzania and Kenya – uhuru and ujamaa and ubuntu, words for freedom and family and humanity” are values and hopes she understands and shares, even if the advanced political theory is above her head. “It was so obvious that they were true and good, especially when conveyed by Lionel’s rich voice [which she listens to repeatedly at home on her tape recordings of the club’s meetings] and when applied to actual oppression of actual people, the Bantu” (133).

The solace of this sense of belonging and acceptance comes to an end because of a combination of two factors. Firstly, Agnes is humiliatingly and unjustly suspected of spying on the group. Secondly, a fiercely nativist group at the university “calling themselves the Zambian Caucus” (134) foments resentment against the discussion group members and the kind of texts they want to introduce into the syllabus. In what appears to be partly a political-racial enmity, and partially a type of emotional-sexual rivalry on Ronald’s part, he turns out (unbeknown to his wife) to have appropriated Agnes’s tapes as evidence to engineer the deportation from Zambia of Lionel and his whole family. Agnes is convinced that “Ronald had betrayed her and trapped her at once”, but she “could not confess to her hurt without confessing her feelings”; nevertheless, she resolves: “she would take her revenge where she could” (138) – by naming her second child Lionel to needle Ronald with this enduring reminder of his wife’s admiration for another man.

The third grandmother in the novel is Matha Mwamba, the youngest child and second daughter in a Zambian village family. Her father is a teacher, and her mother – “a fiery Tonga woman” (140) – works at the local Catholic mission. In lieu of childcare for the three children, they are left at the Roadside Academy, taught (all lessons from the King James Bible) by an eccentric former soldier returned from fighting for the British in World War II. The teacher has actually been employed to teach only the boy child, but quietly, the five-year-old girl, Matha, imbibes the instructions and is revealed to have picked up reading skills (reading upside down from the “wrong” side of the makeshift table!). Discovering her astounding achievement, Nkoloso pronounces Matha “a miracle” (144). In the war, Nkoloso realised that all men are or should be equal; now, he candidly acknowledges that this little girl has shown him that women should be included in this equality paradigm. When he has to leave after about a year of teaching, Nkoloso tells her mother that Matha’s intellect should be nurtured. Without childcare, the girls’ mother starts taking them to the mission school with her as assistant cleaners. After a while, she shaves Matha’s hair one morning and enrols her (dressed as a boy) as a pupil in this school. The family hear rumours that Nkoloso has become a leading liberationist against colonial rule; while her mother applauds this, her father scoffs. Matha thrills at the news – she has never forgotten her first teacher. Political upheavals follow, and – with the collaboration of a local chief – Nkoloso is captured and jailed along with Matha’s mother (and some other supporters). Her mother dies in jail, and, since life with her father is narrow and unfulfilling, Matha at age 13 joins Nkoloso’s family (as an ostensible childminder), moving to Lusaka with them. When, after several years, Nkoloso is released to a hero’s welcome, Matha is recognised by the great man and given a manual containing bomb recipes; her old teacher is resuming the struggle to overthrow colonial rule.

With independence about to be granted in 1964, Nkoloso next sets up the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy with the promise of developing the technology to send a rocket to the moon. He is now a minister, and even manages to convince a whole bunch of foreign correspondents and TV stations to come and view their ongoing efforts, watch aspects of a training programme in action and conduct interviews with the two “star [would-be] astronauts”, Matha and the hefty young man (and aspiring rock band leader) who will soon become her boyfriend, father their child (a girl, Sylvia) and later disappear inexplicably from her life for many years – reducing the feisty, intellectually gifted young woman to one who only and unceasingly weeps. She and Godfrey are expelled from the Academy for embarrassing Nkoloso when rumours that he is actually her child’s father start circulating. The couple seek refuge as undesirable guests with Matha’s older sister, Nkuka (Cookie), a student at a secretarial college. She soon asks them to leave.

Matha next seeks assistance from a wealthy aunt, but the gathering of formidable aunts sends her off to have her baby at her father’s small farm. Matha still feels the life there to be stiflingly narrow, but Godfrey does not show up to fetch her as he’d promised. She steals her father’s truck and returns to Lusaka to search for him, but Godfrey is untraceable. Her sister, Cookie, meanly lies to her that he has been bed-hopping in her absence. Desperate, Matha moves in to share a slum shack with a disgraced cousin, ironically named Grace. She grudgingly takes her in as Matha lapses into deep woe. Because her tears never stop, Matha loses her voice and – half blinded by the constant crying – is branded a witch, eventually becoming known as The Weeper. Matha, who “had always resolved that she would turn the world right over” for her mother as “the revolutionary in disguise” that her mother had been (198), now believes that being a woman thwarts every single hope and aspiration of the female person – “that to be a woman was always, somehow, to be a banishable witch” (199).

The first of the three mothers the text evokes is little Sylvia, Matha’s daughter. While Ba Mayo (as Sylvia calls Matha) is as good a mother as she can manage under her circumstances, she never suspected that the little girl (not yet six) would be snatched from her. Grace (in whose cubicle Matha and Sylvia have been living) is bribed by Matha’s sister, Cookie, to kidnap the girl – she needs a child that she can present as her own to hang on to her married lover of many years, who now claims he can no longer afford to support her, as his children’s education is expensive. The little girl is seduced with fairy dresses, toys and lots of sugary treats. When Matha eventually discovers where her Sylvia is being kept, her small daughter insists that she prefers to stay where she is, being coddled and spoilt – so, Matha gives her up. Sylvia is trained to address her aunt’s lover as “daddy”, since Cookie is now her “mummy” (218). Reluctantly, “Mr Mwape” (as the lover is referred to) accepts the deception. When Sylvia reaches puberty, Mwape starts “touching” her when he finds her alone at the flat, dressed up in her aunt’s clothes. Sylvia has made a secret friend, Loveness (a young prostitute of the same age as her), who occupies a nearby shack. She advises Sylvia to milk Mwape for expensive gifts in return for sexual favours – but Cookie soon discovers this and denounces Mwape, and Sylvia discovers (returning to her aunt’s flat the following evening) that Cookie has changed the locks. She moves in with Loveness, who herself had to flee the home of a sexually predatory and violently abusive uncle. When Sylvia also wants to start frequenting the hotel circuit for wealthy clients, Loveness warns her off – it is too risky. They run a roadside food stall and get by, but, before too long, Sylvia does also (at first secretly) ‘go professional’.

The narrative skips many years to where Sylvia (now in her thirties and the manager of a hair salon) – along with Loveness and a sizeable staff of young women – first encounters the stunningly handsome Dr Lee Banda. He, in turn, is struck by her beauty and intrigued by her cheekily “forward” manner (248). He has brought back Sylvia’s little boy, Jacob, whom he (as the good Samaritan who now runs a township clinic, along with an “upmarket” establishment in the city centre) has rescued, after a group of his mostly women clients in this area (he specialises in AIDS treatment and hopes to devise a vaccine one day) appeal to him to help find their missing boys – they are discovered on a nearby airfield, where their curiosity pushed them to trespass under Jacob’s leadership. Soon, a relationship develops between Sylvia and the married Lee – who appears to have lost sexual interest in his wife (a former Air Zambia air hostess originally from Zimbabwe). Lee and Thandiwe also have a son of much the same age as Jacob, who is named Joseph. (Lee is actually the son vengefully named Lionel by his blind mother, Agnes.) When Lee starts bringing Joseph with him (as a sort of “cover”, presumably) on his visits to Sylvia at her hair salon, the boys do not get on: Jacob despises Joseph as a “nerd”, whereas the reader and budding intellectual Joseph feels he has nothing to say to and little in common with Sylvia’s illiterate son, who is fascinated with electronics. Lee is certainly hugely taken with Sylvia, but he also needs DNA samples from her and her staff, because he is searching for someone (most likely a prostitute) who has managed to escape full-blown AIDS due to a gene mutation. But Thandiwe finds out from Joseph where Lee takes him, and shows up at the salon (apparently to confront Sylvia).

In the short “mosquito interlude” before the narrative moves to the next section, concerning the second mother (Isabella), the mozzies sardonically conclude – by analogy with their own mating patterns – that, as “Sylvia knows well, love can be hell: familial, romantic, maternal. Oh, lovers are murder! They’ll cast you aside, they’ll run you out …” (261).

“Isabella was eleven years old before she learned that she was white – white in the sense of being a thing” (262) is how her section begins. She is the daughter of the Corsales: her mother, Sibilla, always covered in hair, which eventually turns white, and her father, Federico, “pink and grey” because of his boozing. The parents live, we are told, like most of Lusaka’s expats do: “Every weekend was another house party, that never-ending house party that has been swatting mosquitoes and swimming in gin and quinine for more than a century” (262). In contrast with her cheerful, sociable mother, Isabella is a lonely, quiet girl, by turns bossy and sulky when she has to host children of visiting families. When Isabella is an unemployed, rather listless young woman of 22, she is in their chauffeur-driven car when, as a last item on a shopping list, she has to get her mother some special olive oil for her hair at a shop in the Indian area of Lusaka. Balaji, the owner, is over 40, and, having evaded all the matchmaking mothers in the area who consider him a catch, he is decent-looking and a savvy businessman who makes good money. They are instantly attracted to each other. Pretending that the oil is out of stock, Balaji ensures that Isabella will come back to the shop; he sells her only small amounts of oil, the depletion of which Isabella helps along by using some herself. On one visit, Balaji contrives to convey to her that he is unmarried and childless, and not long afterwards, Isabella decides to accept his proposal. “Balaji was the only person who listened to her. Balaji didn’t care that she had no sense of fashion. Balaji was a respected businessman. Balaji was strong and kind” (280) is how she reasons it out to herself. By contrast: “Everyone else had ignored Isa all her life. Her parents were too busy … and she never got along with the other expat kids. She looked down on them for fear of being looked down upon – a self-perpetuating cycle” (281). When Balaji arrives on his first visit to meet the Corsale parents, the rude and contemptuous host (Federico) soon passes out (drunk, as usual) in his chair. Sibilla decides that if he cannot even remain sober long enough to conclude the visit with a decision, she will simply give her permission to the couple to wed. In any case, Federico soon afterwards dies in a drunken stupor. Unwilling to remain in the rambling house, Sibilla decides to go and stay with them, awaiting grandchildren whom she will help the parents to take care of.

Sibilla is glad and slightly surprised that “boring little Isa” has found herself “this boisterous man nearly twice her age” (284), but the sexual attraction between them is powerful enough to last throughout their marriage. Nevertheless, the narrative voice observes ambiguously, “Every family is a war but some are more civil than others” (284). There are intermittent battles between the spouses that are sometimes carried to hilarious extremes. The first child, Naila, is her father Balaji’s favourite; she is followed after four years by three more girls in quick succession. In due course, Isabella discovers not only that her daughters’ hair grows twice as fast as normal, but that she can regularly “harvest” their hair and sell it to wig-makers for good money. Sibilla is scandalised at such exploitation (as she sees it), but when she hears from her maid, Chanda, about the hairdresser business, run by Sylvia and Loveness, she is impressed by their entrepreneurial flair and skill (in contrast with how Isabella reaps her daughters’ tresses for sale); and, as if in rebuke of Isa’s “enslavement” of her own children, she gives the women enough money to start a proper hair salon – even donating (for free) her own incredibly abundant and self-replenishing hair for dyeing and wig-making on the premises. She evidently feels (against the background of her own early life as a household servant in Italy) that these hardworking township women deserve her help, whereas her daughter, brought up in wealth with every advantage, does not. She worries that Naila is being taught wrong values in comfortable isolation from poverty. “It’s not a question of power. It’s a question of generosity, what is freely given, what is tossed from a window to help others” (316), she thinks to herself, driving in a taxi with Naila to introduce the girl to the hair salon and township dwellers – poor but worthy, Sibilla believes.

Thandiwe (Lee Banda’s originally Zimbabwean wife) is the third mother. Thandiwe and Lee (who meet during a flight) are attracted to each other, and eventually form a relationship sufficiently serious for Lee to introduce her to his parents. She finds his father cold and distant, but Thandi warms to Lee’s mother, Agnes, who evidently also likes her. Lee, one evening, confides to Thandi about finding the little red book that Agnes has kept from the communist discussion group in which she participated, and discovering a tape marked with what he thinks is his own name, Lionel, inside it. He and Thandi work out that this is another Lionel, speculating whether the man was Agnes’s lover, even possibly his father. Not long afterwards, Thandi gets the depressing news that Air Zambia is shutting down, and that she’ll soon be out of a job. Looking for solace, she lets herself into Lee’s flat in Harare (where he is studying), and discovers Lee’s list of names and telephone numbers of women he has been “dating” – where her own name is only one among others. Humiliated, she walks out after confronting him. On the rebound from Lee, and working now as a tour guide, Thandi falls for another handsome man, who turns out to be an even more blatant womaniser than Lee. She decides to leave her job and seek reconciliation with Lee. Soon after this, they marry. Thandi is an obsessive mother to their first (and, for a long time, only) child, Joseph, so much so that at first she hardly notices that they are no longer having sex. But when Joseph is more self-sufficient, and by the time she is 31, her unassuaged sexual need has become a huge problem. Lee is constantly working at his two clinics, engaging in research after hours, or away on lengthy trips to medical conferences all over the world. When he comes in, he falls asleep beside her, exhausted, and is off early again the next morning. Serpell does not spare us the pathetic details – how Thandiwe resorts to masturbation in the spare bedroom while Lee snoozes on, oblivious. Thandi has an untreated dental infection, and starts taking antibiotics to treat it. Although she assumes that a genital infection that appears soon afterwards is a sort of “punishment” for her lonely masturbatory manipulations (even though Thandi is not really religiously inclined), the chemist reassures her that it is merely thrush – a common result or side effect of taking antibiotics. Nevertheless, she is afraid to resume pleasuring herself. Instead, she decides to find out where, whether and with whom Lee is having sex.

Lee comes home in the early hours of one night/morning, drunk out of his mind. He, his associate researcher, “Dr” Musadabwe, and Sylvia went out to celebrate; a Johannesburg laboratory has confirmed that Sylvia’s body has not just one but two adapted or mutant receptors that prevent the HI virus from developing into full-blown AIDS. She is now “The Lusaka Patient”, likely to make their names in the search to revolutionise “the hunt for the Virus vaccine” (365). Thandi wakes up as the drunken Lee gets into bed beside her, for the first time challenging him to explain his absences. In his terribly inebriated state, Lee succumbs to the temptation to have sex with his wife, in spite of “his [unspoken] resolve to keep her safe from his secret store of deviousness” (366). It is hinted at later that Lee has deliberately subjected himself, in the course of his research, to the risk of AIDS infection; and the unintended bout of marital sex – which, in any case, ends without Lee bringing poor Thandi to orgasm, and her exploding into coarse verbal fury – will infect Thandi and their unborn second son, conceived that night. The ugly ensuing quarrel – Thandi threatening to leave Lee and going to live in London with Joseph, Lee in turn threatening to hit her – is not the only terrible result of what initially seemed a possible revival of their marriage. Their second son, whom Thandi brings up in London, will need constant medical treatment. At this point, Thandi still thinks that confronting Sylvia at the salon will be sufficient emotional compensation. “She had wanted to shame Sylvia … with the unspoken truth … I know all about you”, but after “the thrill of confrontation … Thandi felt that she had just exposed herself to more humiliation” (373). She subsequently notices three things: smoke rising from an electrical short circuit near copious strands of grey hair (Sibilla’s); a commotion coming from the back garden, from where an injured Naila (who fell or was pushed by Jacob from a tree) is carried in by Sylvia; and a movement at the front door, where Lee enters, summoned by Joseph to help the hurt girl. When Thandi is overcome with hurt at the evidence of how intimately Lee and Sylvia know each other – “visible” to her as Sylvia hands the injured girl over into Lee’s arms, even though he summons Thandi as the more experienced nurse to assist him – she kicks a sparking electrical wire into the highly flammable piles of hair. This, of course, results in a massive fire, since everyone at the salon is, at first, still too preoccupied with the injured girl to put out the fire. The clinic will burn down in its entirety. The chapter ends on the following words: “Thandi felt at peace. She had been brave. She had done exactly what she needed to do” (374).

The mosquitoes pronounce a small, ironic elegy for Dr Lee Banda: “Lee the brave, the bold, the bright. Brinksman of love and science. His ultimate aim is laudable, true, to free mankind of The Virus. But … to play chromosomes, is to tinker with nature’s design. … Shirk primal laws at your peril! … [W]e know far more virology than you do. …” (375). The following chapter – about the first of the children, Lee’s son, Joseph – opens with the sentence, “Dad was coming home to die. …. He wasn’t yet forty but he could have been sixty” (379). We learn later that Lee wanted to return to one of the three Lusaka houses he owned – where he was putting up Sylvia, to whom he’d promised to return when dying. Lee has recently married an Ethiopian woman. He does not die of an AIDS-related infection, but of “the side effects of the vaccine” – as he himself acknowledges (381). Lee dies, and the usual practicalities ensue; since he failed to put the three local houses or his accommodation of Sylvia into the will, she is thought to be a squatter. Thandi has to assist with the practicalities of selling these properties, as Lee’s second wife (and heir) is a foreigner. Thandi secretly recognises Sylvia when they arrive at the house to evict “the squatters”, but, in a final heartless act of vengeance, turns a deaf ear to a pleading, weeping Sylvia: Joseph, without understanding, sees only that his mother’s face is “frozen in an odd little smile, sudden tears leaving runnels in her make-up” (394). She wept uncontrollably when she arrived only just after Lee died – clearly, she still loves him, and still hurts at evidence of his love for Sylvia.

Lee left money for his sons’ education, insisting that they go to an African university. Joseph cancels his plan of going to UCT as a stepping stone to studying abroad when news of the “Fees Must Fall!” protests reaches Zambia. Reluctantly, he enrols at the University of Zambia (where he will not spend more than a term). But it is here that he reencounters the second of the three children figures – the free-spirited, gorgeous young Indian-Italian woman Naila, Sibilla’s granddaughter, who was taken to Jacob’s mother Sylvia’s hair salon as a child, where she fell from the tree and was treated by Lee. Never one to wait, Naila takes Joseph (a shy virgin) to bed on the evening she meets him, and he is smitten for life. Joseph has appropriated his father’s cell phone, which he found in the bag of clothes sent to the family from the hospital. With Naila’s assistance, he manages at last to access Lee’s most recent articles and research findings, and is fascinated by his father’s attempts to devise an effective vaccine. He decides to take the task further, and contacts Lee’s former partner, Dr Musadabwe, visiting him at the township clinic his father largely funded. Immediately, he is “touched” by Musadabwe for further funds, as expensive new technologies have become available.

Because the clinic is next to the carpenter’s shop where the returned Godfrey [Matha the Weeper’s apparently absconding but innocent lover] is assisted by his grandson, Jacob, Joseph becomes quite interested in Jacob’s efforts to build a microdrone. He even eventually gives the resentful but needy Jacob (who sees Joseph as a spoilt “rich boy”) a large loan to acquire expensive equipment. Then, after a period of shared research work at the clinic, Musadabwe tells Joseph that there is no longer any point in continuing the research. A Chinese collaborator has appropriated their data and declared an AIDS vaccine breakthrough, and “results from our lab are just going to be absorbed in the experiments at Kuazhong [presumably to be abundantly funded]” (430). Admirably (or suspiciously?), Musadabwe will keep the clinic section running so as not to stop treating the AIDS-infected township women, who are his main clients. Disconsolately, Joseph walks off with a bag of lab equipment he’s paid for. The chapter concludes with a brief bout of fisticuffs between the two young men, for even though Joseph has lost his awed admiration of his father, Jacob resents both father and son. He believes “their” “medicine” is killing his mother, Sylvia. The benign Godfrey afterwards quietly rebukes Jacob for lacking African “solidarity” (477).

Jacob’s narrative (in the second child section of The old drift) opens with the words: “Jacob lost his mother when her hair salon burnt to the ground” (432). Perhaps partly because she mistakenly blames him for the electrical fault that was identified as the cause of the fire (not realising that Joseph fiddled with the old drier Jacob was mending, and unaware of Thandi’s sabotage), Sylvia more or less dumps him on his grandmother, Matha the Weeper, whom he has never met and Sylvia herself has ignored, while she and Loveness will find refuge initially at the clinic. Afterwards, Jacob is unable to locate Sylvia, but eventually finds a friend in the returned Godfrey (his grandfather), whose cohabitation Matha tolerates rather than desires. It is from Godfrey that Jacob learns about the two elderly people’s history as space cadets. With this knowledge, he opens his first friendly conversation with his grandma. The boy, “too young for a real job and too old to go back to school” (438), spends his time tinkering with and constructing toys and machines of different kinds from discarded parts taken from the local dump. He makes friends with two orphaned street children who survive by thieving, but this gets all three of them into the clutches of a shady military man, who eventually sexually abuses and takes “possession” of the street girl whom Jacob is in love with, getting her brother addicted to drugs and “out of the way”. The soldier becomes aware of Jacob’s talent for constructing electronic gadgets, and so the young man is roped into an unending struggle (blackmailed by “the General”) to construct ever smaller and lighter drones – the work that Joseph later helps to fund. Earlier, with a stolen drone, Jacob at last located his mother (in Lee’s home). But, subsequent to her eviction and Lee’s death, Sylvia loses interest in life. She suspects that Musadabwe (at the clinic) will secretly exchange antiretroviral medication for the kind that he and Lee concocted, the effects of which she believes are killing her. She also stops eating, even though she returns to Matha’s shack and the three generations of Mwambas are at last formally reunited in communion, in what will turn out to be a “last supper” – touchingly evoked without a trace of sentimentality:

Jacob stayed for supper. It was the first meal these three Mwambas had ever shared together. It was very quiet. His mother barely touched the food. Gogo furiously snatched hers into her mouth. But they somehow coordinated their movements – his mother reaching wordlessly and Gogo handing her whatever she wanted; Jacob pouring more water into Gogo’s cup the moment it was empty; his mother adding just the right touch of salt to Jacob’s meat. The air between them was tender when darkness fell. Gogo insisted that he stay the night. (481)

Staying the night at his grandmother’s shack, Jacob gets bitten on his finger by a passing mosquito and, woken up by this, has a eureka moment: to work, his microdrone should be as small as a mosquito, and, to make it possible to control the flight of such a lightweight, tiny machine, its “wings” should be made flexible, like the insect’s, in order to navigate air currents without getting slammed into obstacles. This results in another gathering around a table, but of a far different kind:

It turned out there was no need to build a prototype. The General brought the men in suits … three Chinese, one Zambian, one American – and sat them around a table with Jacob. Jacob explained the wing design as slowly and clearly as he could. The five men whispered to each other, nodding tersely. A short while later, the General slid a piece of paper in front of him – the second contract Jacob had received this week. Jacob scrawled his name on it and the General handed him an envelope of cash. It was enough to live on for years. (484)

Jacob’s success is followed almost immediately with the devastating discovery that a funeral for his mother is under way at his gogo Matha’s home. It takes Jacob a while to understand that the woman reading a terrible passage from the biblical book of Revelation, predicting a plague brought by monstrous figures, is his grandmother: “her grey afro in disarray, and her chitenge drooped low on her hips. … But what was most shocking – and the reason Jacob didn’t recognize his gogo at first – was that her face was completely dry.” It is this that convinces him that Sylvia is indeed dead (485).

The third child section focuses on Naila. When she arrives home after years away studying, her mother does not greet her, but merely observes coldly: “So you decided to come home, did you?” Enmity between them is an old story: Naila sided with her father, Balaji, and was always his favourite; she defied her disciplinarian mother’s controlling ways. Her father has been buried before her return, and Naila is furious at Isabella’s having refused to respect her husband’s beliefs and culture in the funeral arrangements. This is why she decides to steal the urn with her father’s ashes and return it to India; the backpack with the urn is stolen before she can strew the ashes at the temple, but the near-successful attempt gives her peace. On her return, she observes sadly that her beloved grandmother, Sibilla, has aged into decrepitude. “Nonna Sibilla [had been] Naila’s accomplice. She had opened an escape hatch from this family by taking Naila to [the slum area of] Kalingalinga that day ten years ago” when Naila fell out of the tree at Sylvia’s hair salon. “Nonna had covered for Naila when she had snuck out to clubs … given Naila financial support when she transferred to a university abroad … encouraged her … when Naila chose to major in political science” (491). But even Sibilla’s great spirit has had to yield to age.

In a later video call with her closest friend, Tabitha, Naila confesses that she has resumed her somewhat sex-besotted relationship with Joseph, despite remarking sardonically that she has simply “trained” the man’s penis “like a pet snake” (515). Revealingly, Tabitha has detected a burgeoning alternative interest on Naila’s part – in Jacob! At her first lunch with Joseph’s grandmother, Agnes, conversation soon turns to the state of the (Zambian) nation. Joseph comes across as relatively conservative in comparison with the two women, happy that the government is “talking with the Russians about building a nuclear plant”[!] now that Kariba’s hydroelectricity is “failing”, while Agnes laments the foreign (Russian, American, Chinese) influence – which Naila sees as a new “[s]cramble for Africa”, reminding them that “the Sino-American Consortium” now owns both the dam and the electric grid; and, Joseph adds ominously, “the SAC owns the vaccine clinic, too” (518). Meeting most evenings on the rooftop of the crumbling mansion Jacob bought from the General, Naila, Joseph and Jacob have become “the three musketeers … chilling together all the time now” (519), arguing and trading jokes and information. Jacob is the most violently inclined radical, Joseph more of a reformist, whereas Naila wants to use protest art with powerful political effectiveness. Their government is deeply corrupt and dangerously oppressive, they agree. One evening, the radio broadcast reports that Matha and her group of township women have been jailed for bombing a clinic. They don’t quite know why [it is probably vengeance for Sylvia’s death from the medication Lee administered], but Naila asks: If “even our grandmothers are tossing bombs, … why are we doing nothing?” (525).

Hence they devise an inchoate mass protest, which is foiled and exploited by government and foreign forces to implant – by means of Jacob’s drones – the prototype vaccine developed by Joseph’s father, Lee, on every person present – Africans yet again used for medical experimentation. The narrative voice intones: “But, for the next generation – the descendants of the vaccinated – there would be another illness entirely” (544). As a second venture, the three decide to thwart the implant event by interfering with the electronic communication system through “interrupting” Kariba’s power supply long enough to allow the installation of an alternative network, which will stop the implants from working. This is a difficult plan to execute. They go to Kariba Dam at night and plant drones in the sluices – but, unfortunately and accidentally, the sluices get blocked entirely, and (while the three are still on the dam on a boat from where they’d activated the drones) extreme weather (a rainstorm) causes the dam wall to break down under the onslaught of this turbulent water mass. The three of them (wearing life jackets) narrowly escape drowning, but a flood resembling the event in the biblical Noah’s time (also as punishment for “sins”?) floods and drowns all of Zambia except “the Lusaka plateau … [which] become[s] an island” (559). Naila, who flirts with and eventually couples with Jacob, dies in giving birth to a son (the mosquitoes report); the two possible fathers, Joseph and Jacob, as old men live on in an “egalitarian” Kalingalinga now the “humble” capital where people grow all the food they eat. Mosquitoes (as the creatures themselves report) mutate by interbreeding with drones as beings of a new, hybrid kind (562–3) – a fittingly sardonic and futuristic conclusion to the narrative.

It is the achievement of Serpell’s novel to be at once complex and lucid, to evoke a Zambian past, present and (imagined) future both ironically and compassionately. A profile like this can only shadow the vitality and breadth of the author’s embodied vision.

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