In the early 1980s, the newly independent state of Zimbabwe had begun to resemble an African success story. It had growing industry, self-government and one of the most educated populations in the world. By 2000, though, as a result of graft, mismanagement and the ravages of AIDS, it had become a horrific example of how quickly such dreams can explode.
Peter Godwin picks up the ongoing story of his country (and his own life) in his second memoir, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, during this difficult time. Elegantly, and in prose so beautiful it often makes you pause, Godwin looks at his life through the lenses of his father’s declining health and the country’s staggering, stage-managed decline.
At the crux of the book is President Robert Mugabe’s necessary but manipulated institution of land reform, which encouraged angry war veterans to seize farms owned by white farmers. It was an extremely volatile situation. Traveling around Zimbabwe, to the farms of friends and acquaintances, as they are occupied by angry, sometimes drunk war veterans, Godwin sees violence. But he also notes the astonishing restraint which keeps the whole ugly situation from rippling out of control.
Flying in and out of this situation, his father’s health failing, the country growing ever worse, Godwin begins to feel like a stranger, racked with guilt. And then his sense of dislocation takes an entirely new twist. He discovers that his dying father had made up an entirely new identity. That he was not born George Godwin, “this Anglo-African in a safari suit and desert boots,” but Kazio Goldfarb, a Polish Jew from Warsaw.
As George reveals in a memoir he writes and mails to Peter, his mother and sister vanished during the Holocaust. George changed his name and relocated to Zimbabwe after marrying a Wren in the British Royal Navy. There is something ironic about this discovery, that in moving to the most Jewish neighborhood of the most Jewish city in America—that is, the upper west side of Manhattan—Godwin discovers that he was in fact at home.
In this sense, the book is not just a literary endeavor for Godwin. It is almost as if he sees it as an afterimage from a portrait of the country as it is, showing it as it could have been. It is a country inhabited by ghosts—and in the case of Godwin and his family, the phantom selves they left behind.
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa
Little, Brown, $24.99