Review: The Old Drift

“Your desire to conquer, to colonise others, is both too fixed and too free. Nothing escapes your dull dialectic: either it takes a village to live or to each his own to survive. Even your debate on the best way to be falls on either side of this blade. The social contract or individual free will, the walls of a commune must keep us close or capital must run rampant. That’s how you froze your long Cold War, with this endless, mindless divide.”

Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, a work that feels thoroughly litfic in sensibility but which was nevertheless awarded the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2020, troubles boundaries and binaries in more ways than one. Set in what is now Zambia, it charts the fortunes of three families throughout the country’s history, from the colonial period of the early 20th century to a near-authoritarian 2023.

Colonialism, racism and structural oppression in their various forms are thus key interests of the text. The novel begins – more or less – with an act of racist violence: in the European settlement of the Old Drift, on the banks of the Zambezi, Lina, the daughter of an Italian restaurant manager assaults a local boy, N’gulube, who is later shot at by the narrator of this first section, the Englishman Percy C. Clarke. As we follow the descendants of Lina, N’gulube and Percy through the novel, we see how the consequences of this violence reverberate down into Zambia’s present and near future.

One effect of the intertwining of these three families – Italian, Zambian and British – is to challenge the racial categories on which the structures of imperialism are based. As family trees spread and merge, these categories break down: Percy’s granddaughter Agnes defies the wishes of her parents to marry a Zambian man named Ronald; Lina’s grand-niece Isabella marries an Indian man called Balaji; N’gulube’s great-granddaughter Sylvia becomes the lover of Lionel, Agnes’ and Ronald’s son and thus Percy’s great-grandson. Percy’s ultimate descendant is an unnamed boy whose heritage is Italian, Zambian and British: his racist sense of superiority and separateness to the Zambians who live near the Old Drift is proved to be mistaken.

But this is no straightforwardly utopian narrative. Questions of race, colonialism and national identity turn out to be bound up in complex ways with other forms of structural oppression: particularly misogyny and classism. Thus N’gulube’s granddaughter Matha is excluded from an anti-colonial resistance movement when she becomes pregnant. At around the same time, the man for whom Agnes left her parents realises she is not the idealised woman he thought her, and begins to despise her. Later on, their middle-class son Lionel betrays his wife Thandiwe in embarking on an affair with hair stylist and sex worker Sylvia, whom he also uses, often without her consent or real understanding, for his experimental HIV research. Again, here we see definitions and boundaries shifting as our perception of who these characters are changes with time and depending on who is narrating them.

The final section of the novel depicts a future so close it is virtually the present: a future of mass surveillance, extreme wealth inequality and corporate exploitation. The tyranny of colonialism has given way to the tyranny of capital. Three teenagers, the children of Thandiwe, Lionel, Sylvia and Isabella, stage an inchoate rebellion against The Way Things Are, deploying grassroots technology to evade state control of the internet. They are, of course, unsuccessful. But, to me at least, their failure is not a bleak one, because the attempt itself bears out the possibility of change. The Old Drift is a novel about potentiality: even the worst of history’s excesses may be left behind by the sweep of time; and even the most committed idealist can turn out to be flawed. And positive change is only possible because negative change is too.

This is a text with ambition, then, and something to say. It didn’t quite grab me in the way I hoped it would, however: despite its speculative trappings and its generational scope, it still, to me, felt limited by its litfic focus on the individual psyche and on the nuclear family as a social structure. I felt, in other words, like Serpell hadn’t quite taken enough from SF to do justice to the broad sweep of her narrative, and to the dystopian future her youngest characters face. That’s very much a personal nitpick, though: The Old Drift is, ultimately, a well-crafted novel attempting to grapple with the profound uncertainties of our current historical moment, something I’ve seen relatively few works of litfic doing. It’s an intriguing choice for the Clarke, but not entirely a wrongheaded one.

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