Originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Bookforum.
A traveler through Zimbabwe nearly a decade ago recalls how hyperinflation made a penniless student book-rich.
In 1922, the German mark was shedding value so fast that anyone who visited the country holding a stable foreign currency could live like a kaiser. Ernest Hemingway crossed from France into the German town of Kehl and saw that economics was not wasted on the young. Students had figured out that their francs could take them a long way across the border. “This miracle of exchange makes a swinish spectacle where the youth of the town of Strasbourg crowd into the German pastry shop to eat themselves sick and gorge on fluffy, cream-filled slices of German cake at 5 marks the slice. The contents of a pastry shop are swept clear in half an hour.”
In Zimbabwe, almost eighty years later, the swinish student was me, and I was gorging not on cream pies but on books. I have never known a more enchanting place for a penniless bibliophile, and I suspect I never will. I crossed into Zimbabwe from Mozambique in mid-2001 and instantly entered a wonderland where almost every book was criminally cheap.
In Mozambique, I had had almost no reading material. At the National Library in Maputo, I requested a copy of anything at all by Fernando Pessoa, reasoning that if they had something of literary merit it would be by the only Portuguese poet I could name from the past century. The librarian returned half an hour later with a leather-bound book with one pseudonymous essay by Pessoa inside. The book was moldy and looked as if someone had been using it as a doorstop in a sauna.
But Zimbabwe was different. The Zimbabwean dollar was death-spiraling, like a sparrow shot in midair by Robert Mugabe’s pellet gun. No one wanted Zim dollars, because suddenly the country had nothing to buy. Government-sponsored raiders had seized the commercial tobacco farms, so the country had no tobacco to sell. The other main foreign-currency earner had been tourism, but Mugabe’s paranoid government openly menaced tourists—one Dutchman I met was tackled by plainclothes police, then brought into the Interior Ministry for suspected espionage, after he tried to peer over the fence at Mugabe’s polo grounds—so in time the tourists also vanished, and their currency with them.
Soon the Zimbabweans were turning out their pockets, realizing that their currency was destined for worthlessness and buying any American dollar they could find with increasing desperation. Every time I visited a black-market exchange dealer, the rate sweetened a little more. I arrived when one American dollar bought me 120 Zimbabwean. When I left a few months later, the same greenback bought 300 Zimbabwean. Prices rose, but not at the same pace as the currency lost its value. So I went from shoestring travel to first-class trains (a few dollars for an overnight trip), dining out lavishly twice a day, and generally living with the attitude Balzac attributed to young men in Old Goriot: “They never have money for the necessities of life, but they have always money to spare for their caprices.”
For 150 Zimbabwean dollars I could rent a room in a house for one night, including a home-cooked full English breakfast the next morning. For the same sum I could buy about ten paperback books or five hardbacks. On many days I found it hard not to buy at least that many, and soon I’d stuffed nearly every free space in my backpack with books good and bad: Good-Bye to All That, Harlot’s Ghost, A Farewell to Arms, The Taking of the Stone of Destiny, various Dickens, The Atrocity Exhibition, and Moll Flanders, to name a few. I lingered in Mutare, in Zimbabwe’s chilly highlands, in the hopes that if I waited out the fall the temperature would drop, and I could wear my clothes on my back, leaving more room in my pack for books.
Almost all the books were used. But a few were fresh. The one book that sold everywhere at cover price, evidently adjusted at the black-market rates, was the newly released memoir of Ian Douglas Smith, the last white prime minister of Rhodesia, which sat most undisturbed by the cash registers. For the price of that book I could have lived for a week. Also among the brand-new books were many textbooks from Cambridge University Press, but always in paperback with their understated covers replaced by bright crimson ones with white text, announcing the title and author and stating that these discounted editions were to be sold only in Africa and a few poor countries besides. Thus could Zimbabwean medical students afford their fetal-pathology textbooks, while their counterparts in England and the United States suffered full sticker price. I wished, for the first and only time, that I had an interest in fetal pathology.
Money had run out to pay schoolteachers, and educated Zimbabweans tiptoed for the exits, but this was still a country squarely in the tradition of British literature, with a few contributions of its own—Doris Lessing and Tsitsi Dangarembga, to name two—and a despot known as something of a bookworm. The selection on the shelves was accordingly bizarre: I found in the highlands a full array of Kurt Vonnegut novels, primers on Scandinavian languages, encyclopedias and field guides to birds and lizards. English literature of the nineteenth century was well represented, and I imagined that the former owners of all those Jane Austen novels viewed the rolling green of eastern Rhodesia as a new Hertfordshire and in their minds were transposing their African estates for Longbourn.
The one book available everywhere was Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Holocaust memoirFragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood. The book was generally unavailable in the US, and a bookseller assured me that the publishers destroyed the remaining copies after a journalist revealed that the author had not survived by his wits in wartime Poland, but rather in the safety of a Swiss farm. I had assumed that destruction meant pulping, but judging by the stock of the books I saw, it instead meant crating the false memoir up and sending it in very large quantities to Zimbabwe, so generations of children could grow up reading a maudlin, utterly bogus account of the Holocaust. How many of these books in these shops were reported as “destroyed,” how many written off the ledgers in their countries of publication? I had entered a publishing netherworld.
In cafés and restaurants, I read and wrote with the contented indolence that is the prerogative of youth. The food was cheap, too: I could have a plate of fresh lasagna, a cup of juice, and an avocado salad for a dollar or two, and for another dollar or so worth of tea commandeer a table for a whole afternoon. I was too young to know then that I would not enjoy that lazy schedule again or to know that the economic crisis and book bonanza were merely a prelude to famine and full-scale social breakdown just a couple years later. I don’t know whether the smallest and most eccentric bookshops in Zimbabwe survived. Many humans did not.
At the end of August 2001, I left Zimbabwe and boarded a plane to Heathrow, buying an old copy of Les Damnés de la terre with my last hundred Zimbabwean dollars at the Harare airport. I was thirty dollars short, and an Austrian pensioner kicked in some spare change to pay for this last treat. On landing in London early on a summer day, I went to an exchange counter and converted a hundred American dollars into about sixty-five British pounds, a quantity that in a day of museums, tube tickets, and modest meals evanesced as fast as the morning fog. Near Victoria Station, I pressed my nose against the window of a WHSmith branch, and it was like looking into a Ferrari showroom. The store displayed the predictable array of titles, all mint condition and with comically high prices. Within a few days I was home, rummaging though my desk to find my library card.
Graeme Wood has written for The Atlantic, the New Yorker, and The Walrus.