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A Review of: The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell

Format: 527 pp., cloth; Size: 6.4 x 9.5″; Price: $28; Jacket Illustration: Kai and Sunny; Publisher: Hogarth; Number of mosquitoes in the book: many; Mosquitoes’ point of view: omnipotent; Another book by the author: Seven Modes of UncertaintyRepresentative Passage“Thandi had dreamt of becoming a Zambia Airways stewardess ever since she first saw that Flying Chair ad on TV as a girl: the orange Z in the logo that reclined into an airline seat that zipped a contented white man around the world, while a graceful black woman materialised like an apparition and served him a glass of whisky and a plate of fine cuisine. An infectious, optimistic jingle played at the end: Zambia Airways … We’re getting better in every way … We’re getting better every day. What elegance, young Thandi had thought, what adventure!”

Central Question: How can a novel trace the history of a political fabrication?

It is easy to think of national borders—their stately walls, vigilant patrols, and officious control of movement—as immutable. But it wasn’t that long ago that a (white) (probably not that bright) man bent over a map of Europe’s colonized territories and, more in the vein of an interior designer than a head of state, traced the lines that divvied up the spoils of colonialism. Scholar and novelist Namwali Serpell finds dark humor in this history. Her debut novel, The Old Drift, begins with a joke. “This is the story of a nation—not a kingdom or a people—so it begins, of course, with a white man,” Serpell writes. Her insight and cutting wit reveal these national borders as political fabrications imposed on people and their traditions. By chronicling the fortunes of three families over the course of a century, Serpell tracks the repercussions of the arbitrary partition that created Zambia. Her novel reflects on the unimaginable power that white men wielded—an authority so complete that, with the stroke of the quill, they could fracture long-standing cultures and forever alter the trajectory of African history.

Most novels written about migrants focus on people who leave their homes in search of a safe place to live. The Old Drift fixates on a different kind of migrant: the sort that barges into a country to plunder it for opportunity, and ends up staying to intermarry with the locals. The Old Drift spans one hundred years, and tells the story of Zambia from colonization to present day and beyond, to an imagined future. In the course of a wondrous and formally itinerant 527 pages, The Old Drift happily refuses categorization, touching down in thriller, sci-fi, magical-realist, historical, and socio-political territories as the needs of the novel and Serpell’s prodigious imagination require. Following the forefathers and descendants of three different families (one white, one brown, and one black), The Old Drift gathers an enormous cast that dramatizes Zambia’s multicultural milieu, while meditating on the historical conditions that produced it. We’re introduced to a swarm of mosquitoes that serves as a chorus, a blind tennis player, an Italian woman as hairy as Big Foot, a group of African astronauts, or Afronauts, who try join the Space Race, and a young boy who invents micro-drones fashioned after mosquitoes. In a novel that frames the founding of national borders as the products of unfit men’s reckless behavior, it is only appropriate that the writing should itself dismiss the idea of genre boundaries.

Each chapter’s close skips anywhere from five to twenty years ahead in time, sending readers careening through a history that is both factual and speculative. This novel ranges so freely over time and space that no  review can encompass everything Serpell turns her attention to. There are three sections, allotted to three generations; Serpell bookends each section with mosquito-narrated interludes that all begin with a version of “WeeeeeweeeEEEEweeeeeeEEEeeeeee”—a good guess, I would say, at what the inner lives of mosquitoes might sound like. While I was tickled by the fact that Serpell granted one of the peskiest and consistently reviled of species the omniscient point of view, these interludes also provide an important and often poetic understanding of time, migration, and, in the case of the very first interlude, the drive for exploration:

Men never believe that chance can wreak such consequence… This sort of thing happens with nations, and tales, and humans, and signs. You go hunting … some ur-word or symbol and suddenly the path will split, cleaved by apostrophe or dash … Where you sought an origin, you find a vast bubble which is also a silence: a chasm of smoke, thundering.

The swarm—responsible for the fevers that befall European settlers at the book’s opening, and instrumental at the novel’s end—is the only character able to swoop in and opine on each generation’s doings and undoings, the only voice able to tell the story beginning to end.

The story they tell is one in which, contrary to the pretensions of colonial masters, fortune, accident, and fate direct the course of historical events. These ambitious and playful stories spiral out from a single mistake that culminates in a love triangle, a war, and a revolution. The book opens in 1903 in the settlement of Old Drift in Victoria Falls, where a border divides Zambia from Zimbabwe, and consequently cleaves a tribe in half. Soon, a freak accident entangles the lives of three families. When Percy, a British settler, quarrels with Pietro, an Italian hotelier, Pietro’s five-year-old daughter throws a tantrum and strikes N’gulube, a Tonga busboy; N’gulube suffers a brain injury that causes him to dally in the forest instead of working. Percy sees N’gulube in the forest and, mistaking him for a pig, shoots him.

Percy narrates this chapter—the only chapter to be narrated in first-person by someone other than the mosquitoes—and as a result it reads as an allegory for colonialism’s tendency to routinely unleash violence upon the colonized. Percy is celebrated for shooting “a pig”; he even wins a prize. Meanwhile the hotelier’s daughter goes unpunished. Only N’gulube, who bears the “braille” of the shrapnel on his back, carries the consequence of their encounter. The blithe tone with which Percy narrates his exploits makes the brutality N’gulube endures even more heinous. “By the greatest of good fortune, I was not asked to produce my shooting license—I didn’t have one!” he says.

Anyway, the boy suffered no great damage. Native hide is thick and the shot hadn’t penetrated any vitals. The medic didn’t even bother to remove the shrapnel embedded in the skin of his back, which left a pimply sort of rash. There followed months of ribbing me, however. ‘Who shot the pig? What’s the price of pork?’

In recalling the episode and excusing the harm he did to N’gulube, Percy misremembers the busboy’s name as “N’gulubu”—“which means none other than ‘pig’!” Percy calls this “the strangest coincidence,” but this is willful colonial violence shrouded in the enchantment of a chance encounter.

The three men involved in the accident that sets the novel in motion become the forefathers of the families whose lives continually intersect as the century unfolds: Percy’s family tree begets a blind tennis player; N’gulube’s an Afronaut; and Pietro’s a woman who is covered head to toe in luscious hair. While these men become the patriarchs of the novel’s families, The Old Drift is largely a story of mothers and daughters, and how the hungers and deceptions of mothers can live on in the daughters to come. So we get Sibilla, the illegitimate daughter of Pietro’s grandson. Her mother is a servant in the Italian’s manor. She’s covered in a coat of hair that Serpell majestically describes: “The hair on her arms and legs were the same, as if her scalp simply continued down her forehead and cheeks, skirting the eyes and the lips. The hair on her arms, legs, and torso was longer. Every day, it grew until it matched her height—if you suspended it from her body, it would form a sphere.” Due to her condition, Sibilla lives under her mother’s close supervision, in what is essentially a state of house arrest. Though years have passed, her mother still reels from the night of passion that produced Sibilla. In examining “her downfall,” Sibilla’s mother concludes that her mistake was to hunger for opulence and passion—a hunger for which she was punished with Sibilla’s birth. Her regret signals The Old Drift’s preoccupation with how women’s lives are shaped by the painful distance between their private desires and their fathers’ and husbands’ expectations. Sibilla’s descendants each encounter a world shaped by their foremothers’ agony over this chasm, their yearning for a reality that remains out of reach. This results in a generational struggle with the restrictions that male possessiveness imposes on women, and an exploration of what happens when women claim what they want.

For its part, Percy’s family produces Agnes, a renowned tennis player who gradually loses her sight. Bit by bit, “Little circles of blankness [appear] one by one, first in the left eye, then in the right.” Agnes doesn’t ascribe any importance to these circles—until she loses three games. Only then does she mention to her mother “that sometimes, when the tennis ball came speeding towards her, it simply vanished into a pocket of air.” In an echo of Sibilla’s story, Agnes eventually suffers her own version of house arrest. Limited by her blindness and gender, she spends her days confined to the family’s manor, entertaining herself by donning her tennis uniform and serving ball after ball across the net to no one. Soon Agnes falls in love with a man named Ronald—whom she realizes too late is actually black.

In exploring N’gulube’s family line, Serpell borrows from history that seems closer to fiction than fact. In 1964, a science teacher named Edward Mukuka Nkloso decided that Zambia should join the Space Race. He planned to send a woman, two cats, and a missionary to the moon. In The Old Drift, that woman is Matha, N’gulube’s granddaughter. The cats, Matha explains to a curious cluster of international press, are “technological accessories.” They will be released right after the moon landing, to test whether the planet is fit for human habitation.

Before you make fun, this is not ridiculous innocence, but canny sleight of hand. The stunt is part of an elaborate propaganda campaign designed to glorify postcolonial Zambia.

Serving as a cadet in the Zambian National Academy of Science, Space Research, and Philosophy involved quite a bit of drama. It meant waking at dawn to paint signs—DOWN WITH FEDERATION! AFRICAN FREEDOM NOW!—on the colonial governor’s house… And sometimes, it meant pretending to be an astronaut, giving interviews about cats and rockets and technology to white men with squinty eyes and sweaty lips, trying to convince them that Zambia would land a man on the moon before America or Russia.

It is not surprising that N’gulube’s progeny, though consistently oppressed by circumstance, are the ones who reach for revolution and invention. N’gulube was the butt of a settler’s cruel joke, and even revolutionary Matha in time will be broken by love and consumed by poverty. Her daughter will grapple with the same structural limits and succumb to prostitution. It isn’t until the novel’s final generation that we see how each prior generation has achieved small shifts in their political consciousness and an understanding of their own agency—developments that gradually produce a sense that a wholly different world is possible. The children are ready to risk everything in exchange for the chance to spark a revolution.

For me, this sense of possibility is present in the incandescent precision of Serpell’s prose. A woman going over a list in her head twitches her fingers “in ghostly enumeration”; a worn dress sprouts “threads like weeds from cracked pavement”; a stereo system has “dust-furred cords”; and an air conditioning unit puts out air that smells like “frosted dust.” Serpell’s command of the minutia of sentence craft, and her ability to balance that craft against this novel’s massive historical scale is thrilling. The Old Drift feels like entering a wormhole, where time is both slow enough for us to note the way a woman’s dress knocks a wine glass off balance as she walks by, and vast enough that we may see exactly how feeble, how ultimately incidental to human history, nations are. By writing across history and fiction, Serpell has written a novel where micro and macroscopic scales are inextricably combined, where power might be accidental, but the balancing of the scales is always by design.

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