Under the Skin 
by David Caute.
Allen Lane, 447 pp., £14.95, February 1983, 0 7139 1357 6
Show More
The K-Factor 
by David Caute.
Joseph, 216 pp., £8.95, May 1983, 0 7181 2260 7
Show More
Show More

‘What will you tell your children?’ asks the Zipra guerrilla as he says goodbye to Caute and vanishes back into the bush. (The Zimbabwean handshake: hands, thumbs, then hands again.) What did you do in the war, Daddy? Tell us, what was it like?

It seems so long ago. Zimbabwe has just celebrated the third anniversary of its independence. Comrade Robert Mugabe rules. Ministers have been fired, reinstated, shuffled sideways. The British have made an integrated national army out of the two guerrilla forces and the North Koreans have invited themselves to train a separate praetorian guard. The IMF has been reluctantly admitted. The Development Plan, long delayed, has been published, seen to be a nonsense, and stands gospel on the shelf. Landless peasants have occupied farms, been tolerated as squatters for a time, and have now mostly been thrown off. The whites have ‘gapped it’ to the south in large numbers (an abbreviation of ‘taken the gap’, a homegrown metaphor borrowed from the rugby field). The South Africans have meddled, because Mugabe to them is the Antichrist and a successful black government cannot be endured, least of all on the north bank of the Limpopo. But it wasn’t Pretoria’s mischief that caused Zimbabwe to split open along the fundamental tribal divide of Shona and Ndebele, as everyone forecast though many deceived themselves that it would not happen. Dissidents; drought; recession. The place must sound a mess.

It has indeed changed. Today the school-children wearing ‘bashers’ (panama hats) in the streets of Harare are black as well as white. State television urges us ‘Towards a New Social Order’ where previously stern-faced white women would lecture us about security. (South Africa is invariably on Zimbabwean television described as ‘racist’, which is accurate but repetitious in a news bulletin: it is not true, though often reported, that the weather forecast speaks of a high-pressure area moving northwards from ‘racist South Africa’.) The Prime Minister’s entourage speeds through town with sirens screaming, which was never Ian Smith’s style. There are soldiers everywhere, which was always the case. The Bulgarians have a long-running and unattended exhibition at the same National Gallery where the wonderful art of Shona sculpture was rediscovered twenty years ago. The shelves in the shops are often empty, as they have been since UDI in 1965. Ministers sometimes do or say foolish things, which is nothing new, but the new bureaucrats have not yet learned their predecessors’ competence. There is too much evidence of torture in the security world, and now as then, the Government does not appear to care unduly. Except in dangerous Matabeleland the commercial farmers (white) are surprisingly cheery despite the worst drought of the century; the communal-land farmers (black) are less able to cope. No one goes to Beira any more for a ‘continental’ holiday, but Troutbeck and the Inyanga Mountains are once again favoured, though you share the view with the Koreans. It is agreed by all that the Zimbabwe Ruins were built by blacks, not – as Mr Smith’s supporters insisted – by Medieval white transients. The sun shines all the time. It is a remarkably beautiful country.

The white liberals are as few as ever, and as ever in despair. At white social gatherings, everyone drinks like a fish and there are even more racist jokes than before. Example of a Rhodesian joke: ‘Why is the black power sign a clenched fist?’ (Demonstration of a clenched fist.) Answer: ‘Because if it was a normal salute’ (demonstration of an open palm), ‘they’d fall out of the trees!’ White jokes in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe have always been much more racist than in ‘racist South Africa’. Nevertheless, multi-racial life is growing, precariously and slowly, but growing. And some Rhodesian standards live on: the towns and highways are still manicured to a degree rarely found elsewhere in Africa. ‘Watch the state of the rest-rooms in the service stations,’ an old Rhodie counselled me. I can assure him that Zimbabwe may or may not be on its way to a new social order but standards are still holding up.

‘Rhodesia is super,’ the T-shirts used to say. The new version is ‘Zimbabwe is kenge,’ which means roughly the same thing. David Caute’s portrait of white mores is savage, but like so many visitors before and after him, he was fascinated – seduced – by Rhodesia. It was, and is, a country which captivates even as it appals, and it has always been so much easier to explain the latter response than the former. Caute’s captivation is manifest though never admitted. What else could have led him to devote such energy, so many years, to the affairs of a suburban colony? It cannot be simply the beauty of the place, the smell of Africa. Was it the sense of history being made as the penultimate colony went up in flames – a radical’s relish at the sight of the end of Empire? Or is there an echo here of Winstanley’s vision about which he wrote in Comrade Jacob: ‘fire in the bush’, sweeping down the enclosure fences on St George’s Hill while ‘the wind deafened my ears’?

‘What will you tell your children?’ This white man speaks with forked tongue because he allows himself two cracks at an answer: a novel and a – what? – not a history, not a narrative, certainly not an analysis or a reckoning, more an evocation of, and a kaleidoscope of scenes from, Rhodesian life between 1977 and 1980. The two volumes are therefore both out-of-date, and both have a perfunctory postscript (the epilogue in Under the Skin is a serious error of judgment on the publisher’s part). They both use the same material – the same anecdotes, experiences, atrocities, even characters – and together they add up to a remarkable, fascinating, sometimes wrong-headed, very personal picture of Rhodesia as she turned into Zimbabwe. I know white farmers who have read on and on through the night, passionate, often angry, unable to put down this glimpse of what history will report of their modest provincial lives, and their terrible war in the bush and the sun.

They may not be the intended audience. In the only appearance of the author-as-author in Under the Skin, Caute declares: ‘Our subject is the myths, evasions, legends, reifications and strategies of false consciousness; the bones, nerves and flesh of an ideology.’ (Hence the title.) He prefaces this with a more rhetorical statement: ‘Our subject is a collective state of mind; more particularly, the extraordinary mental manoeuvres by which pillage is termed responsible government, repression becomes law and order, usurpation is called authority, violence is lauded as restraint; the peculiar indignation, the outrage, the sense of ingratitude experienced by the conquerors when the dispossessed natives attempt to recover by force what was taken from them so recently by force.’ This paragraph, it should be said, has nothing in common with the vivid reportage of the following 400 pages, but note the reference to ‘false consciousness’.

Switch for a moment to the novel, The K-Factor. (‘K’, of course, means ‘kaffir’, and the factor was and is often cited by Rhodesians to explain local phenomena.) The central character, Sonia Laslet, is a white woman representing various Rhodesian attitudes and living in a dangerous coffee-farming district at the height of the war. She entertains (most implausibly) an educated young black stranger while the ‘boys’ in the bush plan their attack. She has a baby which, it emerges, is a phantom. It is important to grasp this: the baby does not corporeally exist, but is a figment of the imagination of most but not all of the characters in the novel. Her black guest, having resisted seduction (’You are an occupying power,’ he says, pulling on his trousers) and abducted the non-existent baby, then writes to her:

False pregnancies are a common symptom of hysteria, Mrs Laslet. But false pregnancies bring forth no fruit. Yours is a rare case of an individual delusion so powerful that it transcended biological reality and assumed the force of a general myth. Now what do I mean? I mean that a general delusion takes root in a class which maintains its racial and economic domination by force and exploitation. We call this ‘false consciousness’. The class maintains its cohesion under attack by reifying reality and cultivating myths.

Caute has the wit to admit that Sonia doesn’t understand this bit. The letter then continues:

Those whites with a certain ‘sympathy’ for the black cause don’t really believe in the baby but can’t face the implications of so radical a challenge to orthodoxy and so raise no objection ... As for the blacks who work for the Laslets ... they are paid to be untrue to themselves ... I myself saw your baby, and felt it. However much we natives wrestle with the slave mentality, our freedom of perception is limited by historical circumstances and the dominant culture.

Not surprisingly, the novel is unable to survive so ponderous a burden of meaning.

It is interesting to observe how Caute reworks the material he collected for Under the Skin into a novel. (An earlier novel, The Occupation, was also linked to a play and to an ‘essay’.) St Luke’s becomes ‘St Augustine’s’. The same guerrilla corpses are displayed before the same terrified children. The white parishioners write the same hostile letter to the mission priest. Poor President Machel of Mozambique is twice described as the victim of an anti-social disease. The Monitor is twice a British quality newspaper. Heart attacks follow family massacres. Unfaithful husbands have their cars shot up at the same Leopard’s Rock Hotel. The Special Branch villain wears the same short shorts and carries the same FN rifle, and the farmer’s lady is twice driven to tears by the diary discovered on the body of a Zanla ‘terr’. Down in Chipinga district, in the remote south-east, the parents’ nightmare is that white children will be kidnapped or killed:

Cumberland Farm is surrounded by trees and a security fence. The gates are padlocked. Two large dogs bound across the lawn and rear up, their paws gripping the wire, aggression spurting from their throats, hot of tongue and terrible of jaw. Sasha Randall follows them at a leisurely pace, wearing jeans and chewing gum ... New wealth, new everything. Sasha’s husband, Roy, may be on reserve duty, perhaps abroad, in Kenya, Latin America, somewhere.

This paragraph, from Under the Skin, in effect describes the opening scene of The K-Factor, and it provokes some worrying questions about the ostensibly non-fictional Under the Skin. For instance, is it for real? Are you telling your children fact, fiction or faction? Does Sasha exist, any more than Sonia in The K-Factor? Does it matter?

Under the Skin is often brilliant in its sketches of late-Rhodesian life. Characters talk themselves off the page. Some of them the expert reader can identify. Others – surely? – must be characters, caricatures, inventions. Mugabe exists, of course: ‘The ice-cool professor with his long, solemn face perched on a slender, yoga-supple body ... the black Robespierre, pure, uncompromising and author of the terror sweeping eastern Rhodesia. It’s not a question of physical presence, still less of charisma, for he has little of either: he is a man who has stripped himself down to essentials, he is a distilled man, a general secretary in the Chinese mould.’ Smith is there too, briefly. P.K. van der Byl is insulted as usual (though he survives today): ‘The Lord Privy Seal of Western Civilisation’, ‘the swinishly suave Foreign Minister’. Garfield Todd is the hero.

Who, on the other hand, is Alex Maddocks, selling medals and souvenirs, with a taste for Annabelle’s pelvic massage parlour? Or Mrs Pennington, dead-drunk on the floor before lunch? And Eric Sinclair the estate agent? A man who ‘wears checked shirts with tropical cavalry twill and is followed around by a couple of large dogs whom he periodically kicks in a practised manner much appreciated by large dogs as a sign of true mastery and affection. His children have fair hair and fair skins: his wife Sally is English too and awfully nice.’ For if ‘our friends the Maddockses’ are fiction, or composites, or exaggerations, then what are Smith and P.K. and Todd? I think we should have been told.

There are other faults, but they are less serious. Under the Skin never gets under black skin, but no Western reporter has done so for years: it is a book largely about white society. More important, the few attempts at analysis are perfunctory – for example, South Africa’s role in the efforts to achieve a settlement; the importance of Machel in the ceasefire; British policy as implemented by Governor Soames – and explanations of how things happened are not to be taken seriously. The point needs to be made because the only books we have so far – Meredith’s The past is another country and Martin and Johnson’s The Struggle for Zimbabwe – both have major weaknesses. Thirdly, it is impossible to overlook those occasions when this cool, intelligent tale lurches into the snide or the hysterical or the plain silly. For instance, Caute’s opinion of the white liberals is undisguisedly hostile – and resented today in Harare, where he was helped by them. After three years he can still allow himself extraordinary outbursts. Of the Women for Peace, for example: ‘How beguiling to spend one’s time in their civilised and sympathetic company, sitting on their verandahs, consuming their quiches, sipping their sundowners, stroking their large but non-racist dogs, joining their Sunday houseparties, and visiting their friends’ unrepresentatively liberal farms. The Women for Peace are a veritable Lorelei upon which the hack could happily wreck his Rhine-barge. As for love, one soon recognises in oneself the belching, bent-legged sailor, unworthy of any embrace worth embracing.’

Is it the novel that offers the truth? After the sustained achievement of Comrade Jacob and the brilliance and wit of The Occupation (12 years ago), The K-Factor must be an event. It is plotted, I assume deliberately, around stereotypes who tend to talk – well, like stereotypes. Hector, black student-type, who has spent the war years safely in London, is greeted by neurotic farmer’s white wife with gin and talk of nig-nogs, coons and kaffirs, all without a trace of the local accent (‘the rr’s that rattle like a golf ball dropping too fast into the hole’. No? Let it pass). Worthy black guerrilla leader, destined to be a colonel in today’s Zimbabwe Army, sits on the distant koppie in the company of bad black Willy who has rape on his mind. Hector is evidently on a mission, though trusted by neither side, and he sees the mysterious white baby with its deaf and dumb nanny. Sonia, the wife, is in bed with an English actress who has had an affair with a drunken English journalist and faked an abortion. Husband returns briefly and tells Hector: ‘I’ve always been a liberal ... I’m more afraid of bark disease than I am of Mugabe’s rabble.’

Meanwhile the Mission priests (who are far more interesting) agonise over their relations with the guerrillas. The Jesuit Visitor is not as helpful as he might be, as his style in the confessional betrays: ‘The Holy Father wants to hear the wheels as well as the deals. The inside track. Come on, Deep Throat, cough it up, the whole scenario north of the Limpopo and no shit.’ It is only revealed on page 170 that the liberal Father Patrick is black. The Special Branch villain has his number: ‘Oh you’re a clever coon,’ he tells Patrick. ‘All those books you read. Max Weber. Karl Marx. Religion and the Rise of – what was it the rise of?’ (My experience of the Rhodesian security police is limited but I confess I was surprised by the Max Weber bit.)

The priests at the Mission do not appreciate that the baby is a literary and philosophical device. Father Joseph, who is as close as a white Rhodesian can be to the black cause, asks himself: ‘Why did Patrick always smile whenever he inquired after Mrs Laslet’s baby; and why ... had Joseph himself experienced a sense of schizophrenia when baptising the child?’ Later, he actually sees the baby in its pram although he knows it has been abducted: “Am I unhinged?” he wondered ... he felt too old and weak to perform exorcisms, whether on a single tormented woman, an entire farm, or a whole country.’ Meanwhile, ‘what most puzzles Patrick is not the abduction of the baby but its very existence.’

Hector is urged by the lady to explore the ‘landscape between my legs’ but is more concerned about the danger of an ambush from the koppie. He grabs the phantom baby, but Farmer Charles does a deal with the terrs and recovers (another) white baby. Willy the (bad) guerrilla arrives on cue. As he rapes her (‘the death of white Rhodesia is a slow one’), Sonia recalls a sentence in Hector’s rejection note: ‘It’s not original, of course, but false consciousness is always worth recording.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences