‘The Old Drift’ charts the history of Zambia from when it was nothing more than an idea in the mind of various intrepid colonialists its future as a state which has long left behind the trappings of modernity, yet still feels entrapped in the inequities created by colonialism. Serpell’s Marquezesque narrative style coupled with her poetic depiction of Zambia, from its arboreal splendours to the all encompassing metropolises which seem to spring from the air, lend an epic feel to the story, as Serpell grapples with problems as far ranging us the outbreak of AIDS, the fall out following colonialism and the use of tech as a weapon of opression.
The novel is populated by a uniquely global set of characters, from the fratricide which caused a two characters to elope form Italy to Zambia, to the blind Englishwoman who falls in live with the visiting Zambian student or the Indian shopkeeper who seeks his fortune in wig-making, the characters are brought together for a wide variety of reasons. There is, however, an air of cynicism in Serpell’s depictions of almost of the relationships depicted in the novel, with the initial pangs of love being replaced by indifference or, at times, hatred. Indeed Serpell’s view of most of the characters in the story is laced with cynicism, whether it be outwardly progressive Europeans who harbour the same prejudices as the people they criticise for being racist, to the political revolutionaries who end up parroting the colonialists they sought to overthrow or of the corruption which is endemic is both pre and post colonial Zambia. Perhaps this is Serpell’s way of saying that maintaining any sense of empathy is difficult in a country which is as systematically unfair and impoverished as Zambia.
Yet, despite all of this, there is still considerably beauty interspersed with the brutality;
“The shadowy black forest writhed its branches before them. The lunar rainbow, pale and shimmering, gave the whole scene a touch of faery. I was awed beyond words, as if standing in the presence of a Power quite ineffable”
Although this mellifluous description of Zambia takes part early in the novel via the eye of a colonialist who is ready to plunder and poison the beauty which he discovers, brief glimpses of Zambia’s magnificence appear throughout the novel, as it becomes increasingly clear that the ugliness is a product of the corruption which has spread through the country following its colonisation, a ugliness which may have been washed away by an event which takes place at the end of the story, perhaps giving Zambians a real chance to start afresh.