Geoffrey Wheatcroft

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565

[Under the Skin] is an odd ragbag of a book, impressionistic, episodic, anecdotal. It does not pretend to give a conventional narrative of the last days of Rhodesia. That has already been done by Martin Meredith in The Past is Another Country, and by other writers also. David Caute's object is to get inside the white settlers, and to describe—and applaud—the end of the country they ruled using a "historian's power of analysis … a journalist's eyewitness reporting … and a novelist's sense of detail".

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But a historian, however much his sympathies may be engaged and however recently the events took place, stands back and looks at them critically; a reporter—rather than a polemical journalist—tells the story plainly and untendentiously; a novelist has a feeling for a character and speech. Caute's book fits none of these. It is a sort of jeu d'esprit, a mixture of fine writing and journalese breathlessly striving for effect….

[Caute] does not much like most white Rhodesians, which is a drawback in a writer trying to get under their collective skin…. Like other critics of the Rhodesian whites he seems to dislike them almost more for being common than for being racist—rampant social snobbery?…

Because it is a personal impression the book should not perhaps be judged by rigorous historical or journalistic standards; but the "novelist's sense" is a catch as well as a let out. Some of the large quantity of reported speech was clearly tape-recorded and rings true; not all of it. Whites in southern Africa have a rich vocabulary of racial abuse but they rarely talk about "munts" and "kaffirs" in front of visitors, not from the New Statesman. In any case, Caute has a tin ear for dialogue. Even where the gist may be right he fails to capture the nuances. He makes people talk the way they are supposed to talk, not the way they actually talk.

It is not, then, the theme of the book which is wrong but its tone. Rhodesia was taken from its original inhabitants by force and fraud. Its story epitomizes the line in Heart of Darkness: the white man's incursion into Africa is "not a pretty picture when you look into it too closely". By the same token it is a serious story and neither the coming or the going of white Rhodesia ought to be written about with a snigger. The guerrilla war was fought with great brutality on both sides….

[Caute] describes the misgivings and anxieties of whites in the last days and then adds: "Is this the spirit of the Battle of Britain? Are these truly Churchill's children?" But although he understands—all too well—irony as a literary technique he quite misses the ironies of his story. Like so many others he falls into the obvious trap of supposing that because white supremacy is morally and in the end physically indefensible, then it will be followed by a golden age: a foredoomed hope. The rhetoric of the guerrilla movement, which Caute implicitly endorses, held that there was such a thing as a "Zimbabwean people". In fact, the black peoples of Rhodesia were united by a desire to be rid of white rule, and by nothing else.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, "An RIP for UDI," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1983; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4171, March 11, 1983, p. 234.

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