Namwali Serpell’s novel The Old Drift arrives at a moment in contemporary African literature deeply committed to revisiting the past. The thicket of historical novels released in recent years overwhelms: Yvonne Owuor’s Dust (2013), Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu (2014), Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016), Novuyo Tshuma’s House of Stone (2018), Ayesha Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga (2019), and Wayétu Moore’s She Would Be King (2019) were joined most recently by Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King (already optioned for cinema).
What’s more, these recent novels join a field already populated by breakout historical hits such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) and Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness (2000). Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) is itself a historical novel so we could even argue that the African novel emerges precisely to address the problem of history.
When theorised, the historical novel is most frequently understood as a nationalist undertaking that affirms the nation through literature or, as is the case more recently with various postcolonial historical novels, critiques it, excoriating its material and political failures.
True to form, The Old Drift tells mainly a Zambian history. And like many historical novels, this history unfolds through a series of interconnected chapters that trace one sprawling Zambian family’s 20th century. What counts as Zambian is complicated from the start, because the white paterfamilias, who recounts his arrival at Victoria Falls in 1901, is a mediocre racist British colonialist who stays on to become a postcard photographer.
As the novel progresses, its Zambian ambit includes the family’s Italian, British and Indian branches, as well as the Tonga and Bemba ones. Zambia’s proximity to Zimbabwe —“Zim or Zam?”one character asks — forms another theme in the book so that Zambia’s history is always local and pan-African; matriarchal and patrilinear; international, multilingual and interracial. But it is the stories of individuals that flesh out the trajectory of the nation.
We meet people from across the social and economic and racial spectrum: sex workers who become hairdressers, HIV researchers, dam builders, teachers, tennis players, wig sellers— and even the astronauts who spearheaded Zambia’s space race to the moon, which Serpell has written about here. For Serpell writes actual history.
As she puts it in the book’s acknowledgements, “The Old Drift includes many fictions and quite a few facts,” a central one of which is the monumental fact of the Kariba Dam. Located on the Zambezi River between Zambia and Zimbabwe, the Kariba Dam forms the world’s largest man-made reservoir still in continual use for hydroelectric power.
Two improbable lovers escape Italy early in the novel to administer the construction of the dam. Circuitously tracing the dam’s disastrous history, Serpell recalls the deaths involved in its construction in 1958, six years before Zambia’s independence.
“So many men” died—the majority of whom were African locals. Some “died in a collapsed tunnel” while others “plunged seventy metres into wet concrete when a platform collapsed”. Joan Didion, in a brief essay on the Hoover Dam, also recalls the men who lost their lives “to make the desert bloom”. But unlike at the Hoover Dam, on the borders of the states of Nevada and Arizona, where a plaque memorialises these losses, Serpell’s novel must do this salvage work in fiction instead, because the state has buried these everyday histories beneath the more triumphalist fictions of national progress and technological advance.
As the gravestones at The Old Drift burying ground bemoan, so many of the dead resurrected in this novel are otherwise “Unknown. Unknown.”
The dam’s creation relocated wildlife —“lions, leopards, elephants, antelopes, rhinos, zebras, warthogs, even snakes” — and the project forced about 57000 Tonga to resettle elsewhere. Their displacement on less arable lands had dire and ongoing economic consequences, made even harder by the periodic flooding caused by the new dam.
And so at the book’s end, set in the near future, Serpell imagines that the descendants of those who constructed Kariba Dam inadvertently become those who destroy it, annihilating this enormous symbol of exploitation and devastation. A trio of friends (and lovers) — Jacob, Joseph and Naila—set out to protest against the government’s increasing technological control over everyday life, but instead they bring about a flood of biblical proportions accidentally terminating the family line by drowning Naila, the story’s last pregnant protagonist.
A novel this large in scope, that plays with genre, too, defies neat review. But its turn at the end to an Afro-future freed of this symbol of man’s dominance over the natural world aligns neatly with its focus throughout the rest of the book on a host of other technological dreamers.
In addition to the Zambian astronauts, one character makes the development of an AIDs vaccine the centre piece of his life’s work, while his illegitimate son works furiously to perfect new drone technology. (Here is another instance of Serpell’s art imitating life, because drones are used on the continent for delivering medicine to remote areas.)
The historical novel exists then to help us understand our present as much as our past, so we might envision other schemes for thinking about tomorrow that extend beyond the quarantine of our present. Her focus on the innovators who have dared to think otherwise is no exception.
But a postmodern narrative thread operates like an intermittent Greek chorus to comment on the characters in the novel through the collective voice of a swarm of mosquitoes. They caution us about the role played by accident in history’s haphazard trajectory, with the mistaken destruction of the dam providing one such example. What causes things to happen is not only the forces of domination, racial capitalism, and patriarchy that the novel interrogates, but also what the mosquitoes praise as “that tiny chaos”, randomness and error that disrupt political and social agendas. This force of mishap and misrule renders the future opaque, reminding us, too, that the past is as heterogeneous and unpredictable as any future we dare imagine.
This is an edited version of an article that was first published on Africa is a Country. Lily Saint is the author of Black Cultural Life in South Africa: Reception, Apartheid, and Ethics