Namwali Serpell’s vibrant, intellectually rich debut novel, “The Old Drift,” is in keeping with that tradition, and like any good nation-hoovering novel, it too refuses to conform to expectations. It is a novel about colonialism in Serpell’s native country of Zambia, but it addresses themes of oppression and victimization from a slant angle. It is a multigenerational saga, stretching from the late 19th century to the near future, but the family tree gets so knotted that it complicates matters of legacy and inheritance. It is a story particular to Zambia, but also fiercely concerned with how all our lives will be remade by technology, which Serpell suggests is just old colonialist wine in new bottles.
“The Old Drift” of the title refers to the name the region was given by British colonists in the 1800s, starting with the infamous explorer David Livingstone. “Oh, father muzungu!” intones an impish chorus as the story begins. “The word means white man, but it describes not a skin colour but a tendency.” The novel repels easy summary, but figure it is about that tendency — the urge to exploit in the name of “Civilization.”
The story opens in the colony, where the British uneasily intersect with natives, and the natives with an Italian family running a hotel there. Those three groups provide the novel with three families followed across three generations, a trio of threads that dangle and eventually braid. The most peculiar among a host of peculiar characters is Sibilla, a daughter of an Italian hotelier born coated in hair, Cousin Itt-like — “if you suspended it from her body, it would form a sphere.” That mane will become an important plot point. But more immediately, by marrying a civil engineer, Sibilla will bear witness to a massive dam construction project in the 1950s that kills local workers and floods a town. She becomes alert to how the West “had brought its worst tendencies with it: bureaucracy, venality, banality.”
Alongside Sibilla, Serpell introduces Agnes, a blind young Englishwoman who falls for a young Zambian history scholar and is promptly banished by her racist parents; she will become increasingly engaged in Zambia’s politics after the country gains its independence in 1964. And alongside her, a young revolutionary named Matha will become enmeshed in Zambia’s nascent and absurd 1960s space program. The effort was much mocked by Western outsiders — reporters snickered at its jury-rigged rockets, made of copper and launched by catapult to an altitude of six feet — but it also played a meaningful role in its political resistance.
On one level, this oddball cast of characters simply represents the joys of the picaresque novel, in which the author’s set design is intentionally surreal and ironic. Zambians, as Serpell writes, “were so used to foreigners being strange, they had no expectations or judgments about the nature of that strangeness.” Serpell is a natural social novelist, capable of conjuring a Dickensian range of characters with a painterly eye for detail. But her three root characters are also, pointedly, women who are to some degree marginalized by the muzungu society they were raised in or forced to confront, and the generations that follow them suffer its consequences; their children will enter prostitution, suffer from AIDS and grow eager to escape. “Every family is a war but some are more civil than others,” as Serpell writes.
Zambia’s history as a colony and independent state is critical to the narrative. But Serpell feels no particular loyalty to the demands of the historical novel, and as the story moves toward the present day and then beyond it, she is on her own turf, imagining a vaccine for AIDS and the unforeseen consequences that it, too, might present. Two half brothers, one researching the cure while the other works on micro-drone technology, have an idea about how the country might mobilize to resist further exploitation. But the exploitative technology is advancing, too, most visibly in the form of the “Bead” — effectively a smartphone installed into your hand. Where some see progress in the device, Naila, a spitfire revolutionary in the closing chapters, sees only the African continent once again leveraged for somebody else’s profit. “Black people have always made great guinea pigs,” she says.
Here, too, Serpell gets to have it both ways. She delivers a satisfying, dramatic climax that represents the comeuppance of 19th-century colonialism, as Naila and the half brothers monkey-wrench the tools of the oppressor. And yet Serpell is too much the realist — the skeptical social novelist — to believe the fate of a nation can be resolved so tidily. After more than 550 pages, the novel is breathtaking, yet it feels like only one chapter in an ongoing story about people who see profit in Africa and who get sacrificed for profit’s sake.
“What ruined this country was efficiency — the British worship of efficiency,” Naila says. “The first settlers weren’t smart or royal. They were not kings. The empire was a frikkin sham. They were colonists, and for that you only need brute force — nothing to boast of when you have it.” Serpell resists the simple efficiency she critiques, and her clear-eyed, energetic and richly entertaining novel is all the better for it.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Phoenix.