When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin

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When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Peter Godwin chronicles the collapse of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe by holding it up as a mirror to the last years of his father's life. Wonderful writing with a clear and lucid analysis that doesn't lose its grip on your heart for even an instant. Remarkable stuff.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: March 2007
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330433693

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When A Crocodile Eats The Sun is the name given to a solar eclipse by Zimbabwean tribespeople. It is a terrible omen, demonstrating great celestial displeasure at man's behaviour. This second volume of memoirs from Peter Godwin covers the years from 1996 to 2004, when there were two such portentous occurrences. Still worse, the crocodile is the sign of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's dictator.

The book opens with a phone call to Godwin from his mother, announcing that his father's heart is failing and he is lying in hospital, close to death. His father recovers and Godwin chronicles the last eight years of his life as its decline follows Zimbabwe's decline - a country once deemed a post-colonial success story. It's just heartbreaking. Seeing the disintegration of a country through the prism of Godwin's increasingly frail and embattled parents brings the sorrow of it all into such sharp focus.

Land redistribution, off the agenda for some years while South Africa made its transition to majority rule, is horribly handled. The British refuse to continue underwriting it (not one of Clare Short's finest moments) and it all disintegrates from a planned transition to a mess of sieges and murders. Godwin's parents see their friends murdered by thugs who have no intention of running commercial farms and who are supported by a sometimes frightened, sometimes corrupt police force. Yields collapse. Starvation becomes an issue in a country once known as the bread basket of Africa. Life expectancy falls from the 60s to the 30s, among the continent's lowest. AIDS affects 40% of the population.

Against this backdrop, Godwin finally discovers the reason for his father's lifelong reticence. This distant, if loving, figure with his clipped upper class British accent isn't British at all. In fact, he is a Polish Jew, one of the few who escaped from Poland before the Nazis rolled in. It's the ultimate irony for Godwin's father to end his life under siege in his home, viewed by a mad dictator as an interloper, not a man who supported and worked for equal rights and democracy all his life.

Like Mukiwa, When A Crocodile Eats The Sun is beautifully written and tugs at your heartstrings. Despite everything, Godwin's parents refuse to leave Africa. It is their home and its beauty and potential has become their lifeblood. You can only hope against hope that some day that potential is realised.

My thanks to the publisher, Macmillan, for sending the book.

Don't miss Peter Godwin's earlier memoir, Mukiwa. Those interested in the struggles of post colonial Africa might also enjoy Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel, Half of a Yellow Sun.

Booklists.jpg When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin is in the Top Ten Books About Africa.

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Jennifer Harmer said:

I have literally just completed reading " When A Crocodile Eats The Sun ". Peter has captured every emotion that Zimbabweans of all races feel - all the sadness, anger and frustration, bitterness, and the sense of waste and sheer stupidity. Our beautiful country had so much going for it at Independence, and we all had such high hopes for it. Three generations of my family were born there and considered themselves African. Almost all of its members have had to leave. The sense of bereavement at the loss of one's home, family and friends, is shocking and sometimes almost unbearable.

The book reminded me vividly of the events that we have lived through during the past quarter century, and have made me realise how grateful I am that my father, and father-in law were both English born, giving our family the right to live in the UK. My heart aches though, for all those people, particularly the elderly, who have nowhere to go and are, more and more, resorting to suicide, to escape the ordeal. It is a shocking indictment of the western world.

Thank-you Peter, for such a well-written, historically accurate book. When I can afford to buy a copy of it, I will. It will remind coming generations of my family, of their roots.


Jennifer Harmer Until April 2006, of Crazy Nut Farm, Umgusa Rural District Council, Matebeleland North