South Africa

READING IN THE PRESENT TENSE: Ingenious invention: Namwali Serpell’s extraordinary debut novel

Namwali Serpell, ‘The Old Drift’, Vintage Books, London 2019.

In ‘The Old Drift’, there is fleet-footed genre-shifting between the realism of the traditional saga, the winged conceits of a mosquito chorus, fantasy and fairytale, hip-hop rants, allegory, magical realism and (palatable) science fiction.

Locked down, locked in, many of us have had time to read more books than ever before. Readers, passionate about their own favourite books, are curious to know what writers have been reading during this bleak and lonely period.  What was already on their shelves, what did they borrow, buy or read online? In this series, Reflexions: Reading in the Present Tense, Ingrid de Kok and Mark Heywood invite established and younger writers and other creative artists to reflect on a text that moved them, intellectually engaged them, frightened them or made them laugh. Our reviewer today is Zoe Wicomb who considers  Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift.  

There is a special pleasure in rereading a work you admire. No longer devouring it, driven by greed for story, you take time to savour the language, linger over lovely expressions, reread favourite passages within the revisit, and thrill to the recognition of influences and allusions to favourite works that you may share with the author. (Sheer indulgence, as the commercials have it; besides, that is what you promised yourself.) Read in the context of a different time – in this case two years later – the work is renewed. Little did I think, however, that Namwali Serpell’s extraordinary debut novel, The Old Drift, set in her native Zambia, would also be a compelling read in the present tense of Covid.  

In conversation with the phenomenal author at the August 2019 Edinburgh Festival, we did not even get round to discussing the HIV virus and experimentation on prostitutes, one of the many concerns that drives the narrative. I did not know that Sylvia, her “Lusaka Patient”, is based on actual medical research. A recent article in the Observer reports ground-breaking discoveries in the science of “elite-controllers”, people who naturally suppress the HIV virus and thus avoid developing symptoms. Their killer cell responses are now being reproduced, and already trial vaccines allow HIV patients to pause antiretroviral treatment for more than five months. It is hoped that such a “functional cure” will keep HIV permanently at bay. 

The Old Drift’s representation of the epidemic, its elite controller Sylvia, lover and victim of Dr Banda’s research, and the fictional National Virus Vaccination Programme resonate eerily with conspiracy theories about the Covid pandemic. It goes some way into explaining why so many Africans distrust vaccination.

The Old Drift’s concern with HIV feeds into a complex network of themes. Let’s start at the beginning, where mosquitoes (yes, they too are narrators in this multi-voiced, expansive story) introduce Livingstone, “our inadvertent pater muzungu”. “This is the story of a nation,” they continue, “so it begins, of course, with a white man”, but Livingstone functions purely as symbol in the novel. 

The Old Drift is a narrative of three generations of three families whose intertwined histories also constitute the history of the colonial construct called Zambia. The narrative time span is from nineteenth century exploration of the Zambezi River, followed by the tragedy of the Kariba Dam built by British and Italian engineers at the expense of the resettlement and death of the Tonga people, to the Zambian independence movement. It ends in the future, 2023, back at the Kariba Dam with sabotage of the hydro-electric plant and a new generation’s protest against the capitalists who have replaced colonialists.

It is not easy to recount the events of this vast tale, and equally difficult not to fall into the digressive mode of The Old Drift with its multiple narrators and overlapping stories of three families, characters from Europe and Asia who settle and intermarry with Zambians. 

After a short parodic history of early traders at the old drift settlement, our story shifts to Italy, fascism and fratricide. Federico Corsale, having killed his brother Giuseppe, marries the servant Sibilla, and travels to the African Federation taking on Giuseppe’s identity as well as his new post as chief engineer of the Kariba Dam. Their half-Indian granddaughter, Naila, equipped with the blueprint of the dam, is one of the third-generation revolutionaries who, outraged by modern Zambian surveillance technology and the ruin of Kaunda’s dream of independence, turns to Kariba. Another is Joseph, son of the libidinous Dr Banda, himself a descendant of a sightless English tennis champion and a first-generation Zambian academic. The third saboteur, Jacob, is the son of Banda’s guinea-pig HIV patient, Sylvia.

Jacob’s history is threaded with various strands of fantasy. South African visitors to Zeitz MOCAA’s 2019 Afro-Futurist exhibition will remember Cristina de Middel’s work, The Afronauts. Using found artefacts and documents she explores Zambia’s attempts to reach the moon at the height of the space race between the US and Russia. 

Serpell too represents the dream of the school-teacher revolutionary Nkoloso who, after Zambian independence in 1964, trained young astronauts by spinning them around a tree or down a hill in an oil drum by way of acclimatising them to space travel and teaching them to walk on their hands, “the only way”, according to Nkoloso, that “humans can walk on the moon”. In her New Yorker article (March 11, 2017) on Nkoloso’s space programme, Serpell explains: “Perhaps the question is not whether the Zambian Space Program was satirical but why so few have imagined that it could be. Zambian irony is very subtle.” In the novel, one of the astronauts says that “the idea of it was a work of art”. Small wonder that the mosquito chorus claims Nkoloso as their own, “the ultimate bug… needler of conventions and rules”. For this maverick revolutionary, freedom is intimately bound up with the imagination.

Jacob, Sylvia’s son, is the grandson of Nkoloso’s two star astronauts. His grandmother, thwarted by her gender and abandoned during pregnancy by her lover, is through the deluge of her literally unstoppable tears turned into a mythical Weeping Woman. (Is her crying an auto-immune disease? Dr Banda wonders.) The legacy of Zambia’s bizarre National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy is Jacob’s ingenious invention of micro-drones that resemble and mimic mosquitoes. Equipped with these, the young people attack Kariba. In this irony-laden novel their bungled attempt, resulting in deluge and clearance, has undertones of the original tragedy of the Tonga. It is only the Lusaka shantytown where Jacob was raised that survives as a “new, small, humble egalitarian community”.

Given the weight of her subject, Serpell’s capacious narrative (all of 566 pages) is woven with light and humour, and impudent liberties are taken with the form. There is fleet-footed genre-shifting between the realism of the traditional saga, the winged conceits of a mosquito chorus, fantasy and fairytale, hip-hop rants, allegory, magical realism and (palatable) science fiction. This author seems to know her science: she is able to riff on AIDS research; vaccinations via digital beads embedded in citizens’ hands; as well as electro-technology and futuristic micro-drones that merge with pesky mosquitoes, once a threat to European settlement with their “deft haematology”. But for all its erudition and scientific realism, it remains a novel that delights in story, that demonstrates how in the act of telling, stories beget stories, and within such proliferation a dazzling network is constructed, producing a novel that hums with humour. 

Serpell offers a magical mixture of personal and political histories spanning across colonial and postcolonial Zambia, a weave of tales marked by wordplay and poetry, so that history itself is rescued from an early definition as “the annals of the bully on the playground”. Instead, it is highlighted with memory and recurrence, not least through referencing and rewriting of other texts. Nowhere is the yeast of allusion more buoyant than in the final cadenza of drones-cum-mosquitoes on Time, 

“ …that ancient and  endless meander, stretches out and into the distance, but along the way, a cumulative stray swerves it into a  lazy, loose curve…This is the turning that unrolls the day, that turns the turns that the season obey, and the cycle of years, and the decades. But outer space too, that celestial gyre, the great Milky Way, turns inward and outward at once. 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.  

And all in a single paragraph – leavened by Lucretius’s swerve, Yeats’s The Second Coming, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – of a novel that is heir to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

African women’s fiction may have established hair as a trope, but Serpell does something far more radical than explore black women’s ambivalence about Caucasian hair or the traditional art of elaborate African hair sculptures. It is in one of the grandmothers of the tale that we first encounter hair as pathology. The Italian Sibilla’s hair grows at a hideous rate; it covers every surface of her body, so that she goes about shaved and veiled in the African heat; she remains an enigmatic and admired character throughout the novel. Hair is dressed into the stuff of fairytales. As a young servant, Sibilla was required to perform a nightly whirling dance for her masters until she was entirely spun in a cocoon of hair out of which she would be cut with Giuseppe Corsale’s hunting knife. Hair as trope is again transformed when Sylvia’s shanty-town salon becomes the location of various struggles in the story. Here, where Dr Banda also swab-tests women for genetic mutations, Sibilla becomes a client. She donates her discarded hair to Sylvia for weaves and wigs, a practice continued when her granddaughters’ hair is regularly harvested for their Indian father’s lucrative trade. Thus the frantic “big-wig business… but biggest for the blacks, thirsty for hair” is reiterated as pathology in this novel of recursions and retold stories.

Besides hair, the issue of miscegenation too speaks directly to me as a reader from the Cape where some have been so strangely exercised by the question of ancestry. The mosquitoes’ riff on the word gene – genocide, genre, gender, generations – and the novel’s take on blood, roots, or origins is as refreshing as that of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, another of the many influences found in The Old Drift. Miscegenation drives Serpell’s interwoven tales, and origins, indigeneity, and lineage are presented as givens rather than categories to brood upon or to revere. We do not know whether Jacob and Joseph are, in fact, brothers, just as we are not told who the father of Naila’s son is. The mosquito chorus swerve into hip-hop mode to advise: 

“Trust our biology, it teaches you better. If you grip too tight you’ll lose the fight. If you stay in one place you’ll fester and waste. When young ones grow full, they must drift from the pool, lest it turn to a watery grave.” 

The Old Drift shows artfully how events (which is to say history) are driven by chance, error, straying and swerving, and above all, how these feed the imagination. Riffed upon, Livingstone’s geographical error finds imaginative transformation in the fervour of young revolutionaries with their blueprint who, failing to factor in the distortions of climate change, try to blow up Kariba and drown the country instead, leaving only Lusaka as a new, small city-state.

Given the gnomic statement by the drones-cum-mosquitoes, “the best kind of tale tells you you in the end”, this reader, humbled by the brilliance of The Old Drift is left to ponder her only misgiving. Certain characters’ Zambian-accented speech is phonetically represented. Might the explanation be found in another reread? DM/MC/ML

Zoe Wicomb is a South African writer. Her books include a collection of short stories and five novels.  She is the recipient of many prizes including Yale’s inaugural Windham Campbell Prize. Her latest novel is Still Life (2020) and her work on South African writing and culture, Race, Nation, Translation was published in 2019. She is Emeritus Professor in English Studies at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, where she lives.

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