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Dinner with Mugabe By Heidi Holland, Penguin, Rs 1,395

Heidi Holland met Robert Mugabe for the first time in 1975, when he came to supper at her place in Salisbury with her friend, Arhn Palley. It was also the first time she had cooked a meal for a black man. Afterwards she drove him to the station, leaving her toddler son all alone at home. She had no idea that Mugabe, a guerrilla leader then, was on the verge of escaping to Mozambique. Just as she did not know that her homeland, Rhodesia, would cease to exist five years on, and Mugabe would become the leader of the newly liberated Zimbabwe.

As a young woman, Holland claims to have been “magnetised by Mugabe’s look of pure steel”, although as “the black Robespierre” he remained “an uncompromising, distilled man with no obvious charisma”. When she finally has the rare privilege, as a foreign journalist, of interviewing President Mugabe 30 years later in his office at the State House in Harare, she is struck by that same look of ruthlessness. “What happened to the man who was kind enough to phone a young mother and inquire about her child after a brief dinner in 1975?” she wonders, sounding rather like “Unity Mitford and Diana Mosley”, as the journalist, Trevor Grundy, says in his review of the book in The Zimbabwe Times.

Holland is wise enough to have realized the complexity of the task she’s taken on herself: “Humanising the monster, finding the three-dimensional Mugabe instead of a cartoon villain, is a process of understanding rather than exoneration.” So she goes back to Mugabe’s earliest years to decipher the roots of his later notoriety. And what she comes up with is no better than any other cardboard figure, riddled with clichés that could either be a psychiatrist’s or a Hollywood director’s delight. Little Robert was a sensitive and shy child, abandoned by his father, oppressed by a domineering mother, and chosen to be the new messiah by his Jesuit tutors. This emotionally inadequate childhood, as Holland tries to show, is the root of all subsequent evils. QED: Zimbabwe has been ruined by Bona Mugabe’s failure to bring up her son properly.

Thankfully, Holland is not entirely unmindful of the messy colonial past and the even the messier decolonization of Zimbabwe. Her narrative is faithful to history insofar as she puts everything in context: the failure of the Lancaster House conference leading to the dispute over land transfer, the incendiary letter from Clare Short, Britain’s international development secretary, denying aid to Mugabe, and Tony Blair’s general disaffection with Africa precipitated the devastatingly failed State that Zimbabwe is today. But Holland wastes no words on the intrinsic evils of colonialism, turning it merely into a historical starting point for her survey, not the source of all the trouble. So she spares no more than a pathetic glance on Ian Smith, the last premier of Rhodesia, known for his fervent racism.

Apart from sounding like an agony aunt, when she feels pity for Mugabe’s screwed up childhood, Holland’s tone varies from being patronizing (“... Martin Luther King was strutting his provocative stuff in the United States”) to downright insidiousness (“Being prevented from attending his only child’s funeral… may well have broken [Mugabe’s] heart, cracking him into pieces so that, like Humpty Dumpty, he could not be put together again”). Although Holland does not speak a word of Shona or Sindebele, the two main Zimbabwean languages, she pursues her sources with determination: beginning with Mugabe’s brother, she moves on to ministers, ex-revolutionaries, Jesuits, even his tailor and draper. Her book is entertaining, even engaging, but deeply unsatisfying in the end.

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