Namwali Serpell’s “The Old Drift”

June 1st, 2019  |  Published in May 2019

A slew of great novels has appeared in the past two months, all long, and all first-rate.  But first among equals is “The Old Drift”, a first novel by Zambian writer Namwali Serpell. Be prepared to read a masterpiece of incredible complexity, a family saga crossing four generations, in which the countries of both Zambia and Zimbabwe are created. And let me mention up front that the writing itself is incredible; it’s fast-paced, never lags, and has a kind of speeded-up rhythm that’s mesmerizing and nearly unique: “The Old Drift” is the best novel of the year to date, and it reminds us that writing fiction is not only continuing, but has become a very globalized phenomenon.

One might say that the novel is written by/from the perspective of viruses and mosquitoes, those terrible plagues that we humans try (and often succeed) in ridding ourselves, but which never go away and often kill millions of people; Serpell reminds us that in a global world, Westerners, for example, don’t have the immune systems against diseases caused by insects like mosquitoes; The AIDS virus also makes a huge appearance in this novel, too: Serpell’s territory is vast, sweeping, epochal.

Three women begin the novel, one Italian, who’s covered with hair; one is white and is blind; one begins as an African girl.  Forces both native to Africa–many a myth or fable, many an African god or goddess will appear in the novel–and those coming from white colonialists from England/Europe join forces in clashes of cultures and civilizations; all are utterly fascinating and totally credible.  When, for example, the upper class white Agnes, at home in her English country house, a tennis player/champion, suddenly loses her sight, she meets African Ronald, who’s studying in England on a scholarship provided by white Englishmen, and is lodged in this same country house. These two,  from utterly different backgrounds, fall in love (the racism of her parents is exceptionally well delineated, as it’s so ordinary and full of cliches), and with the help of a sympathetic white servant, they leave for Victoria Falls, a small settlement of early white colonialists (and entire tribes of Africans).  Ronald will become part of the new professional class of new Zambians, where he becomes pompous and anti-white; Agnes survives with the help of her black servant Grace (whose life and family become an entirely new narrative, when we meet her  off-site) and Agnes’ attempts to meet others (a white man who’s a real European revolutionary: oh, how these cultures and ideas will overlap and clash and become hybrids in the deal).  Anges and Ronald’s children and grandchildren will all appear, as will the various generations created by the other original three women and their spouses.  You will simply not believe how Serpell is able to pull these narrative and plot devices together: she is a writerly genius in doing so; the reader is often surprised, delighted, and/or horrified at events that unravel through the generations, before and after Zambia is created.

Early on in the novel, the white Europeans at The Old Drift decide to dam the Zambezi river; in doing so, they flood entire villages of Africans, thousands of whom are drowned as they won’t leave their homelands and spirit guides and ancestors.  This river is one of Serpell’s great metaphors; by the end of the novel, great-grandchildren, trying to escape the shackles of the corrupt governments of their own people, will, through the use of new technologies they find/invent/create in the great wastelands of garbage (countries like Zambia import electronic garbage from The West; entrepreneurs are everywhere, of course, and these children figure out how, for example, to make drones), find themselves at this same dam (I won’t spoil from here).

Women, in particular, are the main characters in this novel; some become prostitutes; some hairdressers; some are studied for their immunity to the AIDS virus by doctors looking for a cure for the virus; the entrepreneurial activity is amazing; the human spirit soars wherever it is given the taste of freedom and hope. The first generation of these women may seem the most interesting to the reader, as they’re the pioneers, but with four generations of their heirs roaming through this novel, Serpell is able to define all sorts of characters and she intertwines them with the founding/history of these African countries. In between chapters, those mosquitoes/viruses have their field day; they are, ultimately, the novel’s main narrators, and Serpell has written these with such poetic effect, such magnificent language and wisdom and occasional wit, that they alone are worth rereading all through this novel.

Summer’s often a good time to read a long novel, and “The Old Drift” is THE novel to read right now.  Serpell’s talent will amaze and inspire every reader, and learning/understanding the history of these African countries from the points of view of the white colonialists and of the Africans themselves is essential reading for anyone trying to understand history from alternative perspectives, from those who actually lived through Western colonialism and imperialism. Serpell’s highly aware of race and gender and class and power relations but she filters these through the very complex lenses of her highly resilient characters, who are utterly unforgettable and often magnificent people.  “The Old Drift” is the first masterpiece of 2019.

–Daniel Brown

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