Zimbabwean police have arrested New York Times correspondent Barry Bearak, who was covering last week’s still-unresolved national election. And you could hardly find better to guide to understanding how it could have happened Peter Godwin’s memoir the terrors of Robert Mugabe’s 28-year reign in Zimbabwe, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun (Back Bay, 386 pp., $14.99) www.hachettebookgroupusa.com, just out in paperback. Godwin refracts the brutality of the Mugabe years through the lens of tragedies that struck his family and friends and, in doing so, sheds light on many facts that have appeared in the news this week, including that Zimbabwe has a 100,000 percent annual inflation rate. That’s right, 100,000 percent.
April 4, 2008
Understanding the Tyranny in Zimbabwe That Has Led to the Arrest of a New York Times Correspondent — ‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun’
Tags: Africa, Book Reviews, Books, News, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe Elections
June 8, 2007
A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Peter Godwin’s ‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa’
Tags: , Africa, Book Reviews, Books, Current Events, History, Libraries, Peter Godwin, Politics, Postcolonial, Reading, Reading Groups, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe
10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa
By Peter Godwin
This guide for reading groups was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.
“In Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue,” Peter Godwin writes in this elegant memoir of the terrors of the nearly 30-year regime of dictator Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. If those words sound melodramatic, consider a few of the facts offered by the author, a former foreign correspondent for BBC TV who grew up in what was then the British colony of Rhodesia. Godwin’s sister and her fiancé were killed in 1978, just before their wedding, when they ran into army ambush during the war for independence. Mugabe later sent hit squads into the countryside to abduct and murder his opponents. The husband of Godwin family friend was forced to drink diesel oil before he was killed. The author’s father was beaten outside his home. A woman had worked for 20 years as the family housekeeper returned soon after her retirement with enforcers and demanded money. As Godwin tried to help his parents stay safe, he uncovered a family secret that he believes helps to explain a question at the heart of his memoir: Amid the terror, why didn’t his parents return to England, where they had lived before settling in Africa?
Questions for Readers
1. The title of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun comes from the belief among some Zulus that a solar eclipse occurs when a “celestial crocodile” eats the sun. [Page 201] Godwin is clearly using the eclipse as a metaphor. At least two kinds of eclipses – personal and national – occur in this memoir. What are the eclipses?
2. Godwin returns to the crocodile when he visits his godmother in a nursing home. She is reading a magazine that has a quote from Winston Churchill, who says, “Appeasement is feeding the crocodile, hoping it will eat you last.” [Page 326] We may assume Churchill was referring to Hitler (the crocodile) and the Munich Pact (the appeasement), which allowed Germany to claim parts of Czechoslovakia. Who is the crocodile in Godwin’s book? How does this image relate to the memoir as a whole?
3. In his memoir Godwin tries to draw parallels between the treatment of whites in Africa and Jews in other parts of the world. How effective were his efforts?
4. When a Crocodile Eats the Sun begins when Godwin gets a call saying that his father has had a heart attack and he needs to fly to Harare, Zimbabwe (formerly Salisbury, Rhodesia). At this point, his sister and her fiancé have already been killed. Godwin often seems to put himself in serious danger to provide aid or comfort to his parents. Do you see him as brave, crazy or something else? Would you have done what he did in the frightening situations in the book? Why or why not?
5. If you have lived in the U.K. or watch the BBC news regularly on cable, you know that the British media cover international events more extensively than their American counterparts do. Godwin seems to be reacting to this when writes: “Africa seldom makes it into the American media; even the venerable New York Times mostly smuggles in its Africa coverage as soft features on slow news days, or six-line bulletins in the news-in-brief section. Yet every single day, newspaper headlines can legitimately announce: ‘Another Five Thousand Africans Die of AIDS.’” [Page 204] Do you agree with Godwin’s comments on Africa and the American media? After reading his book, would you encourage American editors and producers to change their coverage? How?
6. If you agree with Godwin that the American media slight Africa, why do you think this is so? Is it racism, pure and simple, or do other factors come into play?
7. Godwin often suggests that for all the terrors his white parents faced, Mugabe’s despotism hurt black Zimbabweans the most. Do you agree? Why? What cruelties did blacks suffers under his dictatorship?
8. As Mugabe’s stranglehold on Zimbabwe tightened, a group of women from Women of Zimbabwe Arise! (WOZA) were attacked while demonstrating against the regime. “They are middle-aged black ladies – the pillars of society, normally to be found at the Women’s Institute or organizing church teas,” Godwin writes. “Yet here they are, their arms in casts, patches over their eyes, bandages around their heads. And still they are spirited and indignant. This, it seems to me, is true courage.” [Page 224] Does this recall any episodes in American history? Which ones? Would the American women you know, white or black, have the courage to do what those of WOZA did?
9. Flashes of humor appear even in parts of this book that deal with bleak subjects like the AIDS pandemic. At a backpackers’ hangout at Victoria Falls, Godwin sees a huge jar (with one condom in it) that bears the label “AIDS Kills So Don’t Be Silly, Put A Condom on Your Willy.” [Page 107] How do details like this help When a Crocodile Eats the Sun? Without them, might this book be almost too painful to read?
10. “It is sometimes said that the worst thing to happen to Africa was the arrival of the white man,” Godwin writes. “And the second worst was his departure. Colonialism lasted just long enough to destroy much of Africa’s indigenous cultures and traditions, but not long enough to leave behind a durable replacement.” [Page 155] Do you agree or disagree? How did Godwin’s memoir affect your view of this idea?
11. You may have been taught that writers use symbols only in fiction or poetry. This clearly isn’t true (given that the crocodile stands for more than a reptile in this book). The use of symbols, metaphors and other literary devices has become common in works of narrative nonfiction such as When a Crocodile Meets the Sun. For example, rattlesnakes are a recurring motif in Joan Didion’s early books. Have you read other nonfiction books that make effective use of symbols, metaphors or similar literary devices? What are some other symbols or metaphors in Godwin’s book?
12. At least one American university, Michigan State, has given an honorary degree to Robert Mugabe. Apparently the school is reconsidering the award. What would you say to the university administrators?
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa. By Peter Godwin. Little, Brown, 344 pp., $24.99. First U.S. edition: April 2007. www.hachetteookgroupusa.com
A review of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com
on June 6, 2007, and is archived with the June posts and in the “Memoirs” category.
Contact the author: Peter Godwin, Author/When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, Hachette Book Group USA, 237 Park Ave., New York, New York 10169. (Yes, publishers do forward the letters.)
Your book group may also want to read:
Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa (Harper Perennial, $14, paperback). By Peter Godwin. Godwin writes about his childhood and the events that preceded those of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun in this earlier memoir.
A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide (Harper Perennial, $14 paperback). By Samantha Power. Godwin tries to forge links between the treatment of whites in Africa and Jews everywhere. You may want to see how Power handles a similar subject in this Pulitzer Prize–winning book, which compares the Nazi atrocities to genocide in Rwanda, Cambodia, Iraq and elsewhere.
“Showing Mugabe the Door.” By Peter Godwin. The New York Times, April 3, 2007, page A21. In this op-ed page article, Godwin provides an update on what’s happened in Zimbabwe since he finished When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. He also explores how the U.S. and other democracies could get rid of Mugabe.
“The Future Is Black.” By Anthony Sattin. The Spectator, March 24, 2007. www.spectator.co.uk. This is an unusually intelligent and well-written review of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. (Search the site for “Peter Godwin” to find it.)
For a brief history of the Mugabe era in Zimbabwe, search the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia www.wikipedia.org for “Robert Mugabe.”
Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns. If this guide helped you, please consider linking from your blog to One-Minute Book Reviews. Thank you for visiting this site.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
June 6, 2007
Tags: Africa, Blogroll, Book Reviews, Books, New York Authors, Peter Godwin, Reading, Rogert Mugabe, Terror, Zimbabwe
When tragedy struck the author’s family and others in Zimbabwe
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa. By Peter Godwin. Little Brown, 334 pp., $24.99.
By Janice Harayda
“In Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue,” Peter Godwin writes in this elegant memoir of the terrors inflicted on his family and others during the nearly 30-year regime of dictator Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
Godwin’s older sister and her fiancé were killed in 1978, just before their wedding, when they ran into army ambush during the war for independence. No one can know the full effects of that tragedy on his mother, a doctor, and his father, an engineer, among the last wave of English immigrants to arrive before Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. But if Helen and George Godwin thought their lives couldn’t get worse, they were wrong.
The terror escalated after voters defeated a Mugabe-backed referendum to extend presidential term limits in 2000. Mugabe sent hit squads into the countryside to abduct, torture and murder his opponents. His victims included a white farmer, the husband of a Godwin family friend, who was forced to drink diesel oil before he was killed. The author’s father, old and ill, was beaten outside his home by thugs who took his car and wallet. A woman who had worked for 20 years as the family housekeeper returned with goons after her retirement and demanded money. The elder Godwins installed a “rape gate” to seal off their bedrooms in case their home was invaded.
Why didn’t the couple leave Zimbabwe? Godwin suggests that they stayed partly because his father had decided, as a young man, to suppress his Polish-Jewish roots after his mother and sister died at Treblinka. Africa allowed him to be “a new man.” That may be true. But this aspect of his parents’ decision seems slightly overplayed in the book. Godwin doesn’t quite persuade you that there weren’t more important factors in their unwillingness to leave than his father’s submerged Jewish roots. Many whites stayed without having such tangled backgrounds. And so few people want to relocate late in life that, at least in the U.S., most people do not move to another state in retirement but stay close to home. Perhaps the Godwins dreaded returning to England’s soggy climate after living for so long in a place “where the rose blossoms are as big as babies’ heads.”
It hardly matters to the success of this memoir, which joins We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families in the first rank of personal encounters with Africa. For all his family lost, Godwin writes poignantly — and with occasional bleak humor – about Zimbabwe. On a trip to Victoria Falls he visits a backpackers’ gathering spot and sees, amid the tourist brochures, a jar with a label that reads: “AIDS Kills So Don’t Be Silly, Put A Condom on Your Willy.”
“Inside is a single foil wrapper,” Godwin writes. “Years too late, Zimbabwe has launched an AIDS education campaign.”
The title of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun refers to the belief among some Zulus that a solar eclipse occurs when a celestial crocodile eats the sun, and it suggests the parallel eclipses of Godwin’s parents and Zimbabwe. Another metaphor presents itself when Godwin speaks to a doctor about his diabetic father’s gangrenous feet.
“The pain your father feels at present, ischemic pain, is the pain of a muscle being deprived of oxygen,” the physician says. “It is the very worst, most intense kind of pain there is.” Much like that of a nation being deprived of its freedom.
Best line: Godwin writes of flying over Africa in 2003: “Our flight takes us down a continent of catastrophe. Many of the conflicts 30,000 feet below I have covered in my career as a foreign correspondent. It unfolds like a geography of doom. Sierra Leone, where the hacking off of limbs was standard practice; Liberia, where peacekeeping Bangladeshis in blue helmets were struggling to separate teenage gunmen wearing women’s clothing; Ivory Coast, divided between bitter ethnic rivals; Congo, where civil war still raged in a nation that has ceased to be and probably never was; Sudan, where a civil war still rages and triggers frequent spasms of famine; Somalia, which has no government at all now, a country that deserves the description anarchic.”
Worst line: Godwin’s father says: “Being a white here [in Zimbabwe] is starting to feel a bit like being a Jew in Poland in 1939 – an endangered minority – the target of ethnic cleansing.” This is one of number of places where Godwin tries to draw needless parallels between African tragedies and others. The terror in Zimbabwe is horrific whether or not it resembles the Holocaust or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
Editors: Judy Clain and Marie Salter
Published: April 2007 (first U.S. Edition)
Furthermore: Peter Godwin was born and raised in Zimbabwe and has been a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times of London and BBC TV. He also wrote Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa (Grove, 2005), a memoir of his childhood.
Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She also wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners www.janiceharayda.com.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.