There’s a grim fascination to lives caught in the quicksand of historic denial. Scarlett O’Hara clinging to Tara in her infamous green dress. Die-hard Communists in the old Soviet Republics waxing nostalgic about the halcyon days of the hammer and sickle. British ex-colonial clerks waiting for servants to bow and scrape, even decades after India’s independence.
The regimes change, but the delusions persist.
That is the landscape Alexandra Fuller explored in her best-seller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, and again in Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and to which she returns in her new memoir, Travel Light, Move Fast.
The launching point of this latest entry in her post-colonial odyssey is her father’s death in a sterile hospital in Budapest, a serious affront to a man who’d outstayed the white retreat from Southern Africa and imagined expiring on his banana-and-fish farm in Zambia from a bout of malaria. But Travel Light, Move Fast is less the story of his demise than a patchwork of anecdotes about the pandemonium of the Fuller clan and a meditation on the author’s fears of not measuring up to the melodramatic excesses of her mother or the joyful abandon of a father whose hallmark was throwing caution to the winds.
Fuller fans are well acquainted with her dazzlingly eccentric family, ensconced in a bubble of illusions to keep their self-inflicted chaos at bay. Her mother holes up in her boudoir imagining herself a larger-than-life character in her own story—although her house is sinking. She sniffs with hauteur at those whose behavior does not rise to her standards even as she bludgeons to death the spitting cobras that killed several of her precious Jack Russell terriers.
Her dazzling family, ensconced in a bubble of illusions to keep their self-inflicted chaos at bay.
Fuller’s sister, Vanessa, rarely leaves her bedroom, wafting out occasionally wearing dark glasses, a Persian cat under each arm, to drink tea served by a cook in a starched uniform who backs out of the room once he is dismissed.
And then there’s her father, “Tim Fuller of No Fixed Abode,” who bit off life in huge chunks lest he miss even a crumb. Decades after virtually the entire white-settler community decamped, he still woke up before dawn with grand ideas, but, by noon, he was too busy at the local bar to do much about them. Like the other die-hard white hangers-on, at each sign of misfortune he blithely declared, “Make a plan.” But few of his schemes worked out very well for the madcap farmer who nonetheless dismissed the predictable results with aplomb.
“You don’t get anything from suffering itself,” Fuller quotes him as saying. “Except suffering, and more suffering. The trick is to suffer spectacularly.”
The Fullers did just that—to great amusement, both the author’s and the readers’. They drank copious quantities of gin, strolled down to the fishponds after dinner to take potshots at the crocodiles, and responded to the decimation of their banana crop from eelworms with a two-day party among the stricken trees.
“The trick is to suffer spectacularly.”
Given the misery around them, the pretense of suffering would be jarringly off-putting if Fuller were writing about Africa. But while Fuller’s nostalgia for the landscape and anarchy of her youth suffuse her work, in Travel Light, Move Fast Africa serves as little more than a backdrop—a dollop of Rhodesian history thrown in, the occasional hippo wandering about, and a handful of black Africans appearing as walk-on characters.
Rather, Fuller is wrestling with loss—of her father, of the wild unpredictability of her childhood, and of an even more shattering tragedy she appends briefly, oddly, in the final pages. The questions she grapples with are hardly virgin literary soil, although we read about them more frequently from sons than from daughters: Who will I be? How will I figure out what to do next? Can I ever live up to his legacy?
Fuller offers no path to the answers. “Grief is not a landing place,” she writes intriguingly. But she seems too trapped by both her past and present to chart a course forward.
Nonetheless, her ordeal feels compelling—and not just because of her characteristically keen eye and vivid prose. Fuller’s loss wasn’t just of a father she loved and romanticized but of the architect of the isolated eco-system in which she was raised, a world with its own idiosyncratic culture based on his belief that uncertainty was a grand adventure.
Ripped out of that environment and without her father’s mooring, Fuller, who has long lived in Wyoming, emerges as a woman displaced—by the flow of history, by her longing for uncertainty without its downsides, and by a family whose “weather system was drama.”
Both as a woman and as a writer, she remains trapped in that vortex.
Elinor Burkett is a writer and filmmaker who divides her time between New York and Zimbabwe.