St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

The cover of 'The Old Drift'.

The Old Drift is a dynastic saga following three families in Zambia over three generations from 1903 into the near future. I was sold it on the basis that it’s like The Aeneid, but I think that comparison only goes as far as the quote that prefaces the novel, which is from book VI when Aeneas is in the underworld and sees the spirits of souls waiting to be reborn. I would say it comes out more like One Hundred Years of Solitude meets I, Claudius — which is one hell of an achievement. Serpell’s novel is spellbinding, beautiful, and original. Her prose is a double-edged sword carrying meanings that cut two ways, not to mention the delight she has in invention and wordplay. It’s a pleasure to read.

It is, as far as I can tell, about the colour and spirit of the Zambian people — how they respond to each other and manage their hardships — and how all the fruits of empire self-destruct. The poverty, colonialism, and exploitation that were present in 1903 are still here in the present, just in a different guise. Instead of being brutalised by colonists they are exploited by tech companies and used as test subjects for experimental medical treatments. The colonialism has extended beyond the invasion and exploitation of their land and into the invasion and exploitation of their bodies. Meanwhile the Zambians’ revolutionary tactics are at once pathetic and wonderful. One of the double-edged moments in the book is the Zambian space programme in the 1960s, which consists of rolling people down hills in barrels as training for zero gravity. It’s a ridiculous image but it’s also filled with a passion and a dignity that almost makes you believe they could reach the moon. That ingenuity bubbles up again at the end and actually succeeds at things the space programme could only have dreamt of. But again, victory here cuts both ways.

Queer characters are conspicuous by their absence. I enjoyed this novel so much and I’m not trying to make it about something else when it has enough on its plate already with race, politics, and colonialism, but one hundred and twenty years is a long time to go without even mentioning that queer people exist. There was time for a score of heterosexual romances and relationships, there was time for extended sequences of magical realism, there was time for a bunch of politics and revolutionary speechifying, even into the sexually liberated 2020s. For a novel that basks in the awful and endearing ways that humans bond with one another, that covers the spectrum of human aspiration and despair, it feels strange that queer characters should be entirely left out of it.

Yes, The Old Drift is a bit tragically heterosexual, but it’s still an extraordinary novel. Its structure channels some old classics but its style is entirely new. I picked it up at a bookshop on a “blind date with a book” where all the books were wrapped in brown paper so you couldn’t see the titles, and I can’t imagine a more rewarding book to have wound up on a date with.