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African Laughter

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African Laughter

Current Status:
In Season
Doris Lessing
Politics and Current Events, Nonfiction

We gave it an A-

Fiction is made of memory, and for many novelists in exile, no foreign country can ever replace the landscape of childhood. Regardless of how bitter the parting — think of Joyce, Nabokov, Kundera, even Gore Vidal — the artist’s imagination remains rooted in native soil. But Doris Lessing, who now makes her home in England, has always seemed exempt from the claims of her past. Born in Persia and raised by British parents on a remote farm in Southern Rhodesia, Lessing has certainly written about Africa before. Much of The Golden Notebook is set there, as are numerous short stories and some nonfiction. Even so, her intense patriotism for the country now known as Zimbabwe — not to mention her nostalgia for aspects of life in the colonialist past — may take readers of African Laughter by surprise.

Lessing immigrated to London in 1949, and after a final visit in 1956, her opposition to the white-ruled government made her a ”prohibited immigrant” in her homeland for more than 25 years. A nonfiction account of four journeys made during the period between 1982 and 1992, African Laughter is above all a book of reconciliation and hope, but also of sorrow and humane apprehension. No country could ever live up to the arrogant, quixotic idealism of Lessing’s youth. ”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.”

Ambivalence colors every page. When she professes guarded optimism about the country’s future, readers may wonder where it comes from. On her first visit, when the wounds of Zimbabwe’s civil war were still fresh, she grew weary of what she calls ”the Monologue,” the ”bitter, self-pitying, peevish” complaints of whites against the incompetence and corruption of the new government of former guerrilla leader Robert Mugabe. The rhetoric of that regime, however, ”as senseless and torrential as in any communist country,” strikes her as equally stupid — as does the appalling corruption. The onetime leftist also questions the Western aid programs that a black economist tells her ”have turned the African nations into a pack of beggars.” And the shadow of AIDS is particularly ominous in a country where many men believe they can be cured by sleeping with a virgin.

For all that, Lessing’s vivid portrait makes it impossible to see the country as merely the sum of its difficulties. An idiosyncratic, entertaining book that does what travel literature should, it makes the reader long to see Zimbabwe. A-