The irregular coughs of the man sleeping in the bunk beneath him had been chiselling into his sleep all night, but it was the slap of the sea against the ship’s hull that finally woke Arthur. There was something different about it, a change in its register and rhythm. Keeping his eyes shut, he tried to work out what it was. And then he realised: they were still, the ship was no longer moving. They must have finally been allowed into harbour. They had arrived.
So not having had the chance to get to Foyles to get some new books, and partly with a desire to go back to read some of my Brazilian favourites ahead of a potential visit next year, I decided to dive into my library and re-read some of my collection.
I decided to kick off with The Dust Diaries by Owen Sheers, having just emerged from the engrossing novel Street of Thieves, I fancied something non-fictional. I can’t remember why I picked this up, the travel element certainly, but also the chance to read a prose book by a poet, certainly the recommendation from Louis de Bernieres on the front would of done it no harm at all.
We follow Owen Sheers as he travels Zimbabwe, on the trail of his great, great uncle, Arthur Shearly Cripps, or Mpandi as he was called in the Shona language. Sheers starts off by stating that while the account of his own travels is true, the story of Cripps is fiction, based on fact, is a reflection of Cripps that Sheers has brought to life. And it is an incredible job done as well. I think this blend of historical fiction with biography is not something I have come across elsewhere and although this time around I found it harder to edge out the nagging in my mind that this is only what might have happened, which barely featured on my first reading, it is still a thoroughly enjoyable read.
At first I was frustrated, I had gone into this to read it as a travel book, and there was barely any travel in it, certainly not in the first few parts. We were meeting Arthur, his trip to Southern Rhodesia and the beginning of his life there. Sheers prose, seemed, to me, excessively ornate, an eager emotional poet wringing every last adjective into every sentence or phrase, which blurred and meant it took longer to read. Slowly I realised though that it was me that was causing the frustration. Certainly I had loved the poets prose on the first reading, why was I frustrated this time? Eventually I realised it was my own attitude, in deciding I was going to read a travel book, I was frustrated that it wasn’t really a travel book, and therefore was shutting down everything that wasn’t what I wanted it to be. Slowly, I relaxed my grip on the expected, and enjoyed the story of Arthur’s life, brought elegantly to life by Sheers. There were still moments, like Cloud Road I felt I was being led somewhere, the hidden love story and the rumoured child, but actually, Sheers I think puts this in as it should be, as he has to work you out, and then fill in how would fit in with your story.
Cripps was a man out of time, a likeable, passionate, stubborn, straight as an arrow missionary who embraced Rhodesisa and the native people in it as his home and family, and they in part responded to him. The moment Sheers first visits the grave, brief in the book, is a special moment, as is the festival at the end. But it is the story of Cripps that dominates Dust Diaries, as it should. An angry advocate for the local people, Cripps lived in a rondavel next to his church and over time understood the tensions between them and the colonisers. He fought against the small mindedness and discrimination and ended up almost disowned by one side, and universally adored by the other.
As you read his story, even though you know that Sheers is writing, his textured picture of Cripps is so well painted that the thoughts he puts in the missionary’s head are believable and plausible.
Minutes before, word had passed up the ship, whispered from officer to officer, that they had crossed the border with German East Africa. Arthur studied the water below him again. He had seen no border interrupt it’s continuity. He had seen nothing but the moonlight, mineral across it’s supple surface. He thought to himself how ridiculous it was to take a ruler and a pencil and dash a border through a lake. Like portioning the sky or claiming the stars. And how childlike to label one side of the lake German and the other British. Childlike and futile. The imbricated obsession to own, to possess. And yet that rule and pencil laid over the lake was enough to send two thousand of them across her waters tonight, weighed down with ammunition and intent. Two thousand of them, steaming towards the land on the other side, the land labelled German. It was all they needed to consider killing and being killed. Words on a map.
This particular part made me think of Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, who points out that nations are entirely made up, and exist only in the minds of humans, yet it is humans that die for nations. Cripps certainly seemed more enlightened than most others at the time and pointed out that land would be the cause of later trouble if it was not sorted out, sadly an accurate prediction of what was to come as Sheers finished this book.
Even as the trouble flairs up and Sheers gazes in from it’s periphary, Cripps’s legacy remained strong and the annual festival in his honour is a chance for Sheers to meet people that knew his relative and in a poignant turning of the narrative, you meet the people who had quite clearly given the stories and anecdotes that had allowed such a compelling portrait to be drawn of a wonderful man.
Cripps was by no means without faults, and while there can be no doubt about his love for Ada, in the end it is the Veld and it’s people that capture his heart, and Sheers eloquently and beautifully weaves his story with his own journey into understanding this maverick missionary, a journey he has thankfully shared with us.
The men return with the lioness as Arthur is shutting up the church and padlocking the door to the vestry. The light has almost faded from the day and a streak of sunset lies across the horizon, setting off the trees and thorn bushes in sharp silhouettes. They return triumphant, the dogs barking at their heels and the body of the lioness slung across an old Scotch cart which they pull themselves, four at the front holding the shafts and two on either side, like a royal procession. Except in this procession the queen is dead, shot through the heart, the stomach and the hip, dried blood caked on her golden coat. Her eyes are still open and her tongue hangs from the side of her jaw, a slab of pink flesh, shaking with the movement of the cart.