The book, titled Tales of Malawi, 1950-1975, 1 is basically a transcription of the stories my dad jotted down in often extremely elliptical form while helping them plan their trip, but somehow that ellipsis and brevity bears the unmistakeable mark of his voice: the omissions, syntactic hairpin turns, jumps in association, and emphatic exclamations all definitely feel like my Dad, as I remember him speaking.
There are a few stories in this book that I remember hearing many times, often with different emphases or embellishments—chance encounters with leopards that he somehow survived; a midnight visit (complete with drugged smoke) from a secret society member, which he combatted by having a local witch doctor ostentatiously inscribe a magic circle around his house to scare the society members from repeating the visit; and the horror story of my parents’ first date, with some details swapped: in the version I knew, my Mum was left in a stuck jeep with a rifle, but in the version in the book, it’s in a tent in the bush with the radio on, while my dad went to get help from the local villagers.
Yes, folks, on my parents’ first date, my dad had to walk through the jungle to a village to get help, while my mum was left provisioned against lion attack. It’s a wonder my sisters and were ever born, a fact that’s driven home by other anecdotes in the book: fishing trips gone wrong that skirted dangerously close to crocodile attacks, brushes with all sorts of horrible tropical diseases, and run-ins with a government that was insane in the typical way of post-colonial sub-Saharan African dictatorships.
Other stories I remember hearing swarm in the blank margins: beloved friends deported, often for acts of charity towards local people; the chronic alcoholism of so many of the men involved in the sports he loved to play, but eventually walked away from; encounters with the worse sort of fellow expatriates, which he limited to a single disappointing encounter with an embezzling partner from an early attempt at private business. My grandfather, too, barely figures in these stories, though he was alive and very much around at this time, even if later on he was reduced to one leg thanks to a clueless doctor’s bad advice.
None of the local myths and folk stories he’d told me as a kid are in here either, though in jumbled form I remember a lot of them: ghostly witch-doctors guarding hidden gold in the hills, a magical mountain with the most delicious bananas in the world (which cannot be borne off the mountain); a strange encounter between a British soldier and a mysterious village in the bush, and more. Stories he told me during long drives glitter in the darkness of my memories, too, indistinct and muddled together: accidentally camping on a hippo run during a fishing trip, a tribal initiation rite he’d heard about, a Zulu dance he taught me and my fellow Beaver scouts many years ago, and so much more. A lot of those stories are too jumbled-up and half-forgotten now for me to do them justice by writing them down as his, though I imagine I’ll someday weave bits of them into something, just as I have done other things he’s told me about.
I wish he’d written them all down. I remember buying him a notebook and a pen once, and urging him to write down his stories, but I don’t think that had anything to do with his setting these stories down. He needed to sit down and tell these stories, because that was the kind of person he was: a teller of stories, not a writer.
That leopard came for him, in the end, swift and silent in the night many years later, and we lost him before we could get all those stories set down. I was too far away, and not just geographically, to spur him on with it. My sisters shared Africa with my Dad in a different way than I did: one traveled there with him soon before he passed away, and the other sat with him and got him to write his stories down. Though I don’t remember it, I lived there with him, as a very small child, and over the years he poured his memories and stories into me during long drives between cities that we made alone. He told all of us those stories, but I remember feeling lucky to hear them all one-on-one, able to interrupt with questions or ask him to tell me one or another again, as he drove me to my saxophone lessons in another city twice a month. It was a time we spent alone, just him and me. His stories probably spurred me from long before those drives—I was writing weird fantasies inflected with his tales of the wilderness since I was quite young—but I think maybe that time we spent together made me understand how stories could bind people—under a spell, yes, but also how they could bind people together. I think it’s probably because of that experience that eventually I started to get serious about writing.
Beyond that—beyond the obvious lesson of how time spent together, of telling one’s stories, can be a valuable gift from a parent to a child—I think there’s another lesson in all this. I’ve been writing an account of my son’s life for him, to accompany the photos and videos we often shoot and plan to give to him someday. The written account I’ve made for him is full of things he will not remember, and the things that will probably slip into oblivion if I don’t capture them in words as one encases a fly in amber… but I think I think I should also write something for my son about my life, to give him that story as I remember and understand it. I think some sort of project of this kind is a good idea for any parent: what better heirloom can there be but the voice of the place where you came from?
It needn’t be some grand text, no incredible work of art, but just the stories he’ll have heard from me, the stories he’ll find linger vaguely and indistinct. This may not appeal to everyone: well, videos are fine, too, and as good an approach as any. I wish I’d had a chance to sit and interview my father, to give him a chance to tell some of his stories aloud, so my son could hear his voice, and see his face.
That’s what this book means for me: there is no pouring wine and blood and honey and mare’s milk into a cleft in the ground and going into the underworld: the shades, if they speak, speak because they gave themselves a voice before it was too late. My stories my not be as exciting as my father’s—for me, as for my son, lions are beasts one sees in zoos and on television—but it’s not the wildness of the stories that made this book so welcome: it was the presence, in some form, of my father.
So even with regrets, even missing him, I don’t read the book sorrowfully. I’ve missed him for a long time, and missing him has become part of life, a wound one learns to live with. This book doesn’t fill the wound, but it does salve it; it feels like receiving back a small part of him that I’d thought lost to the howling winds and the rain that falls into the ocean. This book is something I can someday pass on to our son and say, “Your grandfather was someone I wish you could have met. Here are some of the stories he would have told you.”
I do hope I can leave him more than one book, when the time comes.
Yes, I’ve entered it into my Librarything account: it’s a catalogue of my books, as much as it is a tracker of my reading.↩