TRAVEL LIGHT, MOVE FAST. By Alexandra Fuller. Penguin Press. 225 pages. $27.
“Travel Light, Move Fast,” Alexandra Fuller’s fourth memoir of her African family, explores the intersections of personality, history and landscape in ways that are continually fresh and frank. With each volume, Fuller digs deeper into what it means to grow up at the epicenter of a civil war (in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe) and to accept the social distortions of late imperialism.
What is it like to feel that you live your life in tandem with a continent — that your own sense of love, beauty, grief and guilt are tied up with a contested place? What is it like to love your parents — magnificent, swashbuckling survivors — while also knowing that their politics are dead wrong? Read Fuller (Bobo to her family) to enter this extreme dilemma. It’s now a well-worn story, but there’s more to say.
“Travel Light” begins with the death of Fuller’s father (“Tim Fuller of No Fixed Abode,” as he liked to say). He is on a short holiday in Budapest with her mother (“Nicola Fuller of Central Africa”) when he turns to her, says, “I think the waiter’s a spy,” and collapses. He spends 12 days dying in a foreign land, a “folkloric situation,” as Fuller points out. Beside his bed is an Ian Fleming novel (“At least he went out with a good James Bond,” says Mum).
Dad lingers long enough to let them know that he counts himself “very lucky” and to say a moving good bye to Mum. She leans in to him and says, “Thank you, hon. … That was quite a ride.” Slowly, he reaches up for Mum’s face, smooths her hair, then traces her forehead and nose, taps her chin, and slowly runs his fingers back and forth over her lips until she smiles. That night he dies.
Nicola Fuller has always imagined herself a celluloid queen, and Dad’s deathbed farewell gives her a big-screen moment. She is never far from the spotlight, but it is Dad’s stage this time around. When Fuller asked for some deathbed advice about life, her father answered, “It’s just what it is, right under your nose.”
Fuller structures her narrative around her father’s taciturn wisdom. Each of the chapter titles is a favorite Tim Fuller saying, beginning with Chapter One: “In the Unlikely Event of Money, Buy Two Tickets to Paris” and closing with “If You Stay in the Middle of Your Suffering, You’ll Never Reach the End of It.”
Dad was born to suffer through a cold and lonely British childhood, but once he stepped outside his house, dominated by mismatched parents, he knew what was what: “… outside, things made sense. Things that were supposed to sting stung. Things that were supposed to bite bit.” At 7, little Tim Fuller told his nanny that he planned to bugger off to Africa. To seal his plan, he drew her a picture of a giraffe. On the back, he wrote that he expected to be leaving in approximately 11 years for Cape Town or Mombasa.
He rattled around a bit after college until he arrived in Kenya, met the soon-to-be Nicola Fuller, and proposed within a month. None of his relatives made it to the wedding. Ultimately, they disinherited him, saying “Tim Fuller went to Africa and lost everything.”
Like Fuller’s other books, “Travel Light” anatomizes the link between losing and finding. After all the forfeitures, she counts up what’s left. It’s hard to see the Fullers as living in a state of destitution as she portrays them heading home to Zambia: “We were among our people ... we were willfully understood; our passage was assured; our word was good.” Even as they reach home with her father’s ashes, Fuller and her mother are welcomed with profuse life: “The farm croaked and sang and yelped, with life; it slithered, crackled, and exploded.” Everything carries on as usual.
The homecoming scene brims with love, as does the memorial service. When Bobo and Mum go through Dad’s papers, they find a Postal Office Savings Account Book with a page devoted to the question: “Instructions for the disposal of your income in the event of your death.” Dad’s reply? “Have a party.” Mum declares that she won’t let him down, and she doesn’t. When the songs and speeches are over, Mum demands that “someone rectify this drought,” and she takes to the dance floor surrounded by a circle of her dogs.
In the epilogue, all the hilarity ends. Fuller touches on the persistence and uncertainty of memory, the relentlessness and randomness of guilt, the interplay of personal collapse and cultural crackup. She notes that everyone from the Biblical compositors to Shakespeare understood the impact of a father’s death: “The family falls, that’s inevitable, but it either falls together or falls apart.” The Fullers fall apart.
The book leaves Bobo Fuller in limbo, evicted from her African family. Fuller’s depletion is comprehensive: first fatherless, then sisterless, lover-less and homeless. She reaches the bottom when her son dies in the night after suffering seizures.
If Fuller’s story line has always included a series of lost homes and homelands, the displacement at the close of “Travel Light” is something darker and more horrific.
Out of the darkness, Fuller hears her father’s words: “Hold on Chookies ... it’ll be all right in the end.” In the family tradition, she gets a puppy and turns her thoughts toward beginnings.