Big Echo

Critical SF

 Power is an Accident: Five More Reasons to Read Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift

by William Squirrell


The reviews are in and they are good. It is dazzling. It is unforgettable. And charming. It is a multigenerational family epic. It is the Great Zambian Novel you never knew you wanted to read. Plus it is on many lists (and if I had a list it would be on mine too). And if that’s not enough here are five more reasons to give it a go:  

1. Zambia is a Site of Modernity

The marketing of The Old Drift as magic realism is interesting. Surely the right call to move product. But the Zambia in these pages is a seething crucible of modernity and not a processed fetish object for cosmopolitan nostalgia to fix in its gaze. There is no comforting magic here. Not really. No ineffability. It is an anti-sentimental book. Its ironies allow for no romanticization of past or place or person. This Zambia is the Zambia that was invented by people caught up in the vortices of capital flows, migration, and happenstance: Livingstone pursuing the supply lines of the Atlantic Slave Trade; the proliferation of Evangelical Christianity in mission schools and hospitals, in the countryside and in the towns; the transmission into those communities of the petty bourgeois values. This is the Zambia trapped in an Oedipal Triangle with the inhuman hubris of Cecil Rhodes and the humanist paternalism of Kenneth Kaunda. This the Zambia built on the crooked back of the Copper Belt; of urbanization; of the Kwacha. This is the Zambia that produced the Manchester School, Victor Turner, and the invention of liminality. The Zambia that saw the decline of the British Empire and the rise of the American; the decline of the American and the rise of the Chinese. This is Zambia in the Sun; the home in exile of the ANC; of Zanla and Zipra; of earnest expat revolutionaries; of development workers trained in state colleges and provincial universities; of Brutalist architecture; of chitenges and Indian shop consumerism; of midcentury optimism and late century despair; of the IMF; of Neocolonialism and Neoliberalism; of Austerity; of AIDS; of cell phones; of second-hand western clothes shipped in bulk across the Atlantic;  of shanty towns and suburbs; of millions of people who were and are and will be born into such complexity and whose lives complicate it further. Serpell skirts some of these aspects of Zambia’s past, pursues others, slips in and out of the histories of the region and period she is dealing with as easily as she slips in and out of the blind alleys and cul-de-sacs of genre expectation, but she does so to an end, even if it is a merry chase. The Old Drift has the feel of an archival novel meticulously constructed out of type-written reports and yellowed catalogue cards, newspaper clippings, the BBC Africa Service, out of rags and fragments, memories and anecdote, committed to the data of things rather than their theory. But in the relentless wash of its narrative we lose sight of that raw material and become lost in the drama, in the what-happens-next of character and plot. It remains, though, a profoundly historical, even historiographical book. In the last quarter century the study of the British Empire has been transformed by scholars driven to pursue the actual movement of human beings across the globe, to explore the tangled relations of colonizer and colonized, to deconstruct the language in which those relations have been articulated, to reconstruct the domestic and sexual lives of the people who lived through that articulation. This new historiography is less interested in Whitehall and the Colonial Office and the men who imagine themselves handling the levers of power than in the immense world of social interactions that exist beyond the constricted horizon of civil servants and elected officials. The Old Drift does exactly this sort of critical work for the reader, it illuminates the colonial situation in a flash, we catch a glimpse through these pages of the more-or-less incomprehensible complexities of human relations stretched out in all directions as far as the eye can see. The Old Drift knows that modernity does not belong to the West any more than malaria belongs to the mosquito.

2. Hybridity all the Way Down

There are no easy essentialisms in The Old Drift, it is hybridity all the way down. The characters are products of shifting fields of floating racial and linguistic signifiers; intensities form, catch our attention, hold on to that attention until they have produced the effects Serpell wants, then disperse, perhaps to reform later, perhaps not. Even the language moves around, from English to Italian, to Bemba, to Tonga. In a perfect world it would have been written in three of four languages and we would have read it as such. The book has drawn comparisons to One Hundred Years of Solitude, in part because it is a transgenerational epic in a non-western situation, but the differences in how the books are constructed are more interesting than the similarities. Marquez’ book is a slow-motion murder-suicide in which the family springs into existence with the establishment of a provincial bourgeois bloodline and is destroyed because the incestuous logics of patriarchal control cannot survive contact with capitalist modernity. By contrast, in The Old Drift subversive genetic dispersals disrupt the hierarchies of race and nationhood and drive the engines of multiple plot lines in which the tragedies are not that family names die out and communities vanish, but that individuals end up trapped in emotional doldrums not so very different from the ones they fled, constrained by cultural, economic and psychological forces which they can recognize and name but which are beyond their control. The lines of escape people pursue in The Old Drift produce moments of ecstatic freedom, but the currents across which these lines cut carry the characters, swimmers caught in a riptide, to places they did not mean to go, to the places where they will die. This is no great catastrophe but simply the pattern of human life. If One Hundred Years of Solitude was a meditation on the relation of tradition to modernity, The Old Drift is indifferent to that particular formulation of the colonial problem. There is no essential Zambia in this book, let alone an essential Africa. There is no village Africa. There is no precontact Africa. There is no Africa in mythic solitude. No gorillas in the mist or lions in the night. There is only a shifting, open-ended multiplicity of human experience that makes a mockery of not just western essentialism but also nationalist exceptionalism.

3. The Future has Eaten Us

The science-fictional elements of the book are muted. The last fifty years of the genre have been the slow working out of the realization that we are all science fiction writers now. Even John Updike. The narcissistic bifurcation of time into the hypermodern future and the premodern past has been smoothed over by a growing awareness of the smallness of human experience. The arc of progress has been flattened by the weight of the longue durée. It turns out scientific experimentation is a local tactic and not a marker of civilizational superiority. Appropriation and adaptation, not invention and application, are the models of technological development that best show us the political and social ecology in which the practice of science finds its purchase. Kariba Dam, mathematics, scavenged parts, jury-rigged drones, the cure for AIDS, Space Programs, wigs, airports, Zamrock, electricity itself, are embedded in a text which always shows us that function too, is unstable. Function too, has a genealogy.

4. Revolution Speaks the Language of the Prophets

Religion and revolution are mixed in provocative and unsettling ways in The Old Drift, questions are raised and not answered. It is the character of the Afronaut Nkoloso, a trickster figure, who shows us the way into those labyrinthine relations, a labyrinth from which it is hard to escape (see Serpell’s brilliant essay on the historical Nkoloso here). In an echo of the manner in which nonconformist mission schools both inspired a generation of African freedom fighters and inoculated them against solutions to the problems of colonialism radical enough to invite military interventions (contra, say, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Moçambique, Seychelles), Nkoloso uses the King James Bible as the tool with which to teach his student Matha Mwamba to read, and ultimately how to become, like himself, an afronaut and a revolutionary. We also catch a glimpse in these chapters of the Prophet Alice Leshina, the founder of the Lumpa Church and the inspiration of the uprising against Kaunda’s post-independence government named after that church. And later we see the cadres of a fictional revolutionary movement confronted with the transformation of their ideology by a community of women into an overtly religious form. Such syncretism, from the view of modernity narratives is, to say the least, ironic and slippery, and it also points to two curious absences in The Old Drift. The first is the role of indigenous religious practice and discourse in twentieth and twenty-first century Zambia – there is little here in the way of witchcraft and the so-called occult economies of central and southern Africa. Which is very curious absence indeed for a book marketed as magic realist. The second absence is the Bush War in Rhodesia and the long struggle against the Apartheid regime in South Africa, both of which surely had significant impact on Zambian life and politics in general.  Which is just to say that in The Old Drift revolution – both past and future – remains a tantalizing, utopian and apocalyptic dream. A possibility, perhaps, but one that remains not quite imaginable, that has to be couched in symbol and metaphor, an event that is always at best almost occurring, the source of the Nile never quite reached.

5. Politics is Desire

The political tone of The Old Drift is of resigned pessimism. It is suspicious of revolution as planned by revolutionaries. Which is not to say the tone of the book overall is particularly pessimistic, it is exuberant, there is a barely contained energy to it which informs everything that happens to its characters. The book can be read as all flows of desire, those lines of escape all turning back on themselves, intensities and diminishments, excess and control. The two poles of the narrative are the Greek chorus that bursts through the seams of the text, an excess of language and life and thought; and the grim seamless sarcophagus of Kariba Dam – science, control, death and dislocation, colossal concrete walls holding back the ancient power of the Zambezi river, turbines translating it, monetizing it.  The figure of Matha, who has caught the attention of so many reviewers with her never-ending flow of tears, is an embodiment of this tension, and is the most magic realist element of the novel. For a good portion of it Matha is a sort of vestigial conservatism, a ghost that warns against the dangers of unchecked ambition, and yet she is the very center of revolutionary hope here, and it is her  grandchild, a brilliant bricoleur, whose relentless technological experiments are critical to the final, accidental collision of all the various uncontrolled trajectories of which this story consists. This is the great theme of the book: the accident. The arbitrary event that opens doors and closes them: a man is hit by a vehicle on a highway, a woman goes blind, a random chromosomal deletion occurs, two people fall in love, or three, a virus is transmitted unnoticed, an old blueprint is consulted instead of a new. This is The Old Drift: it is desire that drives action, not rationality; consequences are unpredictable; energy diminishes or finds new forms; there is no god but chance; consciousness is caught in a current that flows out of the depths of time; we are born and then we die. And what is politics in the face of this? What is ethics? What is intent? What then should we do? Serpell shrugs, I suspect, but does have one clear warning: there is one mistake we should not make as we proceed, and that is to avoid the pitfalls of vanity: “power,” she tells us, “is just an accident that depends on the weakness of others.”