Shelfarian Review: When A Crocodile Eats the Sun
The Zulus and the Vendas of southern Africa believe that a solar eclipse occurs when a crocodile eats the sun. It is “the very worst of omen” explains Zimbabwean-born and raised author Peter Godwin. The prediction comes to pass and is recounted in this “white African’s” memories of Zimbabwe, an articulate, wrenching narrative of personal and political struggle that is both eloquent and tragic.
Godwin’s native Zimbabwe was once a land of promise and potential. Under the repressive regime of post-civil war dictator Robert Mugabe, the country becomes home of “the world’s fastest shrinking economy,” the politics of envy, reverse racism and “ethnic cleansing”. It’s a country where local “commanders” adopt names like “Hitler Hunzvi” and “Stalin Mau Mau.” It’s a country where Mugabe’s “farm seizure program” and “land redistribution” schemes are little more than government-sanctioned stealing. It’s a country of massacres, thievery and thuggery, hyperinflation, collapses in farm production, fuel and food shortfalls and a disintegrating, phantom infrastructure. It’s a mess. But it’s not the only thing that’s a mess.
Godwin writes, “This is what this vile president (Mugabe) has done to us – made scavengers of us all and stripped these grown men of their dignity as they fight over a worn bike tire. Reduced us all to desperadoes and thieves, made us small and bleak and old and tired. Made us lose our love of life itself. Split our families and left my parents impoverished, alone, afraid”. As the country disintegrates, so does Godwin’s family.
Beginning and ending with his father’s death, which parallels the country’s, Godwin chronicles the activities and excesses of the Mugabe government over eight years - July 1996 to February 2004. He reports on kangaroo courts, threats, intimidation, violence, extortion, massive voter fraud, mayhem, “Mugabe’s race-baiting stagecraft,” and marauding “war vets” and their effect on his family and friends. Godwin also details some of the desperate, often futile but courageous attempts of opposition parties and private citizens to stay the madness or aid their neighbors and friends.
Possibly the most wrenching portion of Godwin’s tome is chapter 17. Here the conflicted son and sibling narrates the deteriorating physical health of his parents, the reburial of his sister Jain, and the death throes of his home country. As Zimbabwe descends further into madness, Godwin’s elderly, frail parents resolutely refuse to leave, clinging to their farm and his mother’s clinic, where she’s served as a physician for decades. Godwin’s distant, aloof father, George, to whom the book is dedicated, reluctantly – and finally - reveals his own family secrets and the source of his “autobiographical amnesia.”
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun is a haunting, harrowing narrative of the disintegration of a family and a country. Exquisitely written with fascinating detail and occasional rough edges, Crocodile is a highly readable, heart-rending memoir brimming with panache, pathos, hope and despair. A modern tragedy too powerful to ignore.