Is it possible to be funny about the ruin of a country? Apparently so, if Douglas Rogers can set the example. What’s fair game is absurdity and people’s pretensions being punctured, but the humor has to make way for the serious stuff, too — the life-and-death matters that don’t stop short of tragedy. It’s all included in The Last Resort.
The resort of the title is Rogers’ parents’ backpacker lodge “Drifters.” In its heyday in the 1990s it did a pleasant business, with cottages and chalets to rent, a small pool, herds of antelope and zebra roaming within an electrified game fence, and a busy little bar.
But you don’t write a book about your parents’ successful business venture, do you? No conflict there: nothing to keep the reader going. Of course there’s always the man-vs.-nature drama in African memoirs, but the stronger story sometimes springs from contemporary political conditions. In Zimbabwe, that would be the effect of Robert Mugabe’s administration on the well-being of the country. Now you’ve got a narrative, if it doesn’t break your heart to tell it.
Douglas Rogers has been away from Africa long enough to know how to sell it to readers across the world. He begins with a visit to his parents that introduces the lodge, the staff, the situation. His parents are eccentric enough to be entertaining, and coming from his expatriate life in Brooklyn, Rogers is startled afresh at some of the features of his parents’ life like the refusal of nature to stay outside the house and the constant battle to remain solvent in the face of a crumbling tourist economy. Over successive visits, nature gets more aggressive, his parents get more resourceful. Drifters becomes an ad hoc brothel for the professional men of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. Rogers‘ father becomes a successful grower of pot. (Great climate for it, apparently.)
But the through-story is serious. Lyn and Rosalind Rogers are white landowners, and the Mugabe government has instituted a widespread and irrational program of land redistribution. The Rogers land is hilly and dry, ineligible for farming, but it is still coveted by certain members of the government. By the end of the book, Lyn Rogers’ crafty interactions with the government are worthy of Kafka.
This isn’t a black vs. white narrative, though. Plenty of support and company come from black neighbors and allies. When a white neighbor dies and a Shona (the local ethnic group) choir agrees to perform at her funeral, they aren’t sure what to sing. They’re told, “Mrs. James was an African, just like you. Sing what you normally sing.”
The climax of the book moves from the particular to the general — it almost had to, since Douglas Rogers was in Zimbabwe in 2006, for the botched election when members of the party opposing Mugabe were threatened, injured, and killed. The Rogers, having supported the opposition, being white, being landowners, are in terrible danger. But as Rogers points out, while armed thugs are closing in on his parents, something new happened to his father. “For the first time in his life, for the first time in his seventy-two years in Africa, he knew that he was on the right side. In fact, it was bigger than that. For the first time in three hundred and fifty years that his people had been on this tormented continent, they were — at last — on the right side of history.”
Here’s a link to a travel blog with pictures of Drifters in June 2013. It made me happy to know the Rogers are still OK.