Not more than three days ago I complained to a friend that his recommended book wasn’t holding my attention. Of course, there are dozens, hundreds of books that grab the reader from the first page, which if nothing else displays the writer’s talent for devising a grab-hold start. Then there are an equal number of books and stories that start off with a bang but drift into an ultimately slow and turbid telling. Happily, the one that didn’t hold my attention a few days prior suddenly caught fire and swooped me up into an almost tactile surge of life, love and growing up in Africa. The book is Alexandra Fuller’s 2002 memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dog’s Tonight, and along with being a chronicle of the author’s and her family’s attachment to Africa, is also a gritty but loving portrait of an amazing and astonishing mother; and add to that, caring portrait of a remarkable and uncommon father.
The years of Alexandra Fuller’s childhood and youth were spent first in white Rhodesia, which after independence became Zimbabwe, in Malawi and finally in Zambia. Most of those years were lived under constant threat from guerrillas or corrupt soldiers and officials, not to mention a landscape of utter harshness. By early childhood she had learned how to use an Uzi, smoke cigarettes and drink beer. Most times, in driving to the nearest town they were required to travel in guarded convey in armor plated cars, forced to hire government spies as houseboys and required to kill spitting cobras nesting in the kitchen pantry. Yet beneath all that was a deep and undisguised connection to the land. Fuller’s father was a jack-of-all-trades, farming tobacco in one place, managing cattle in another and often called up as a reserve soldier to fight guerrilla forces. An extremely capable man, nothing was able to get the better of or defeat him in overcoming whatever was placed before him. But apart from the African landscape, the real star of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is the author’s mother.
As a character, she is a giant of modern literature, a woman of such vibrancy and life, of such passion and devotion, it is little surprise that her mind is finally unable to handle all the drama of her life, sending her into collapse and a long spell in a mental hospital. Not easy for anyone, man or woman to lose three children, one to meningitis, another to drowning and the last stillborn, and suffer that while hacking out a life behind razor wire, drought and no electricity. Beneath the weight of those conditions she manages to raise two girls, assist her husband in the tobacco fields, decorate Christmas trees, offer first aid to the nearby blacks (despite her strong racism) and to care for the six or seven dogs always sharing their home.
Fuller’s memoir draws its title from a line in a poem by English writer and humorist, A.P. Herbert:
“Come,” said he—“a night for dancing,
Lips alight and bright eyes glancing.
Come!” the young man cried;
“Youth should never pause from pleasure,
Fill the cup and trip the measure!”
But the girl replied—
Don’t let’s go to the dogs to-night,
For mother will be there…
The reader has to wonder if there is a connection in this to the fun loving parents who sought every opportunity to fill a cup and dance the night away. Wonder too that all the drinking didn’t pull them down or prevent them from accomplishing the work ahead. There is comedy aplenty in Fuller’s stories, one of the best a Christmastime party and the crowning Christmas cake dosed daily with injections of brandy by Mother. Startling enough that any of the soused guests at the party were able to sit upright with a plate of cake. With Mother too wobbly to light a match to flambé the cake, a guest offers to help and blows the cake up, raisins, nut and bits of cake sliding down the walls. The unfortunate explosion didn’t seem to hamper anyone’s enjoyment of eating the bits and pieces off the walls.
Perhaps the richest treasure in Fuller’s pages is the bringing to life a beautiful, yet cruel land, whose fumes, fragrances, mud, dust and flowers overflow every page of the book. There are passages that crinkle the nose with the force of one or two word descriptions in perfect economy. When a pet dog is sliced up by offended blacks wielding pangas, Fuller’s mother carries the dog in her arms and you almost expect bloodstains to appear on the page. There is a brand of quirkiness nearly always delightful in the writer’s prose, but the basics of her style are never less than impressive.
Fuller’s is a memorable story of family, awakening and the love of a hard, primitive land.
‘I can hear men around the campfire singing softly, taking it in turns to pick up a tune, the rhythm as strong as blood in a body. The firelight flickers off the blue and orange tent in pale, dancing shapes and there is the sweet smell of the African bush, wood smoke, dust, sweat. My bones are so sharp and thin against the sleeping bag that they hurt me and I must cover my hip bones with my hands.
I make a vow never to leave Africa.’