Godwin Complex: Torture Scribe Peter Godwin's Tony Life

peter godwin getty Godwin Complex: Torture Scribe Peter Godwin's Tony Life It’s amazing what a few years in the Rhodesian army will do to a man’s reputation.

“If the world was ending, I would head straight for Peter Godwin,” said André Bishop, the artistic director at Lincoln Center Theater.

Mr. Bishop recalled an episode during a holiday in Mexico when the car he was in with Mr. Godwin “either caught on fire or wouldn’t start or both.” Mr. Godwin not only put out the flames but fixed the car, found a gas station and drove everybody home. “He’s very knowledgeable about how to cope with life,” said Mr. Bishop.

“He has delivered lots of babies,” said Mr. Godwin’s wife, Joanna Coles, the editor of Marie Claire. She remembered the difficult delivery of their first son in 1999, when Mr. Godwin helped the doctor assemble an urgently needed instrument. “It was like a piece of Ikea flat-pack furniture,” she said. “Peter just sized up the situation, grabbed the instructions and immediately assembled it.”

“Thank God he’s here,” she thought at the time.

It makes sense, then, that when Peter Godwin applied for a coveted O-1 Visa (“For Individuals with Extraordinary Abilities or Achievement”), the U.S. government granted it, especially once the F.B.I. determined he was not, at the end of the day, the person responsible for mailing anthrax to midtown Manhattan. (He was briefly under suspicion after he interviewed the primary suspect for a potential New Yorker story.)

As he has become the foremost chronicler of the violence and disappointment of postcolonial Zimbabwe, Mr. Godwin’s native country has been far less encouraging. A few years ago, when Mr. Godwin tried to renew his Zimbabwean passport in Washington, D.C., a consular officer told him, “Keep it and pray for better days.”

Mr. Godwin recounted this story seated on a stool in a Tribeca loft that is not his permanent residence. He, Ms. Coles and their two sons are occupying the space while their Riverside Drive apartment serves as the set for a television show. When Mr. Godwin is not working on his latest project, a screen adaptation of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun–his 2007 memoir about the ruthlessness of Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship and his own discovery, in his 40s, that his father was a Polish Jew and his grandmother had died in the Holocaust–he worries about what their portly tabby cat might do to the furniture here. (He’s also working on a screenplay for a horror movie set in Africa.)

“It helps cover school fees,” he said of the temporary arrangement. He unloaded a case of white wine into the fridge to chill for a dinner party. He wore a cotton plaid shirt and, aside from a head of gray hair, looked very young for his 53 years. A friendship bracelet was tied around his right wrist. 

Mr. Godwin resists any attempt to separate his journalistic documentation of his native country with the glossy life he lives in Manhattan. “That’s how messy life is, actually,” he said, adding that his ability to write about Zimbabwe was enabled rather than hindered by his exile. He was first kicked out of Zimbabwe in the 1980s, after reporting on the massacres Mr. Mugabe was propagating against his political opponents. He has returned periodically ever since.

In Manhattan, he is known as one-half of a literary power couple who host the kind of parties that are, as his friend Kurt Andersen, the author and radio host, put it, “kind of the dream idea you have as a kid of what New York dinner parties are like.” But, Mr. Andersen added as an afterthought, “It seems like they’re constantly renting out their apartment for movie shoots.”

Ms. Coles is a prominent member of the club of brassy British expats who have ascended the mastheads of New York’s magazines. Their marriage unites what Mr. Godwin in his book describes as “couture versus torture” and in person more succinctly summarized as a “headfuck.” But hearing them recount the history of their relationship is sort of like watching a montage of scenes from a bad romantic comedy whose clichés one secretly hates oneself for enjoying: There’s the safari that Ms. Coles spends oblivious of the elephants, absorbed instead in a copy of The Bonfire of the Vanities. There’s Mr. Godwin’s habit of checking hotel rooms for evidence of bugging, even if it’s a Four Seasons in Milan. There’s the first vacation they took together, to Sri Lanka, where Mr. Godwin made Ms. Coles dine with the prime minister after hearing that headless bodies had washed up on the beach, and the romantic weekend holiday at Shelley’s cottage, where Mr. Godwin, as if struck by lightning, decided to ensconce himself to write the first 25,000 words of his memoir.

In 2007, perhaps in revenge, Ms. Coles took him to the designer Valentino’s birthday party. At the behest of Valentino’s publicist, the couple had to avoid any mention of the Iraq war because, as Ms. Coles put it, Mr. Valentino had not heard about it. (“Peter immediately said, ‘Well, doesn’t he read the newspaper?’” remembered Ms. Coles. “The man said no, ‘Mr. Valentino is a man who lives in a world of great beauty and who produces things of great beauty.’”)

Introduced through journalist circles in London, the couple emigrated to America in 1997, when Ms. Coles became the American correspondent for The Guardian and Mr. Godwin was riding the success of Mukiwa and attempting to write a novel he never published. (He is, it turns out, mortal.) Upon their arrival, to ensure maximum integration, they initiated a policy they called “Operation America.”

“For six months, we refused to see Brits or talk to Brits,” said Ms. Coles. When British people come to America, she said, “they become professional Brits and use strange British words that even British people don’t use.”

“After six months, we went to a party that Vicky Ward was having, and we thought, ‘Oh my God! We love Brits, we love Brits!’” From then on, they allowed themselves one British encounter per month.

They married in 2001, when Ms. Coles was pregnant with their second child. It was a lunch hour ceremony in City Hall, and their clerk’s accent was such that neither one could understand the proceedings. “We probably just got a zoning variance for our apartment,” said Mr. Godwin to Ms. Coles before they returned to their respective offices.

Once established in Manhattan, Mr. Godwin followed the storied path of successful mid-list authors: He abandoned the novel; he acquired Andrew Wylie as an agent; then he saw a bidding war and a significant advance for Crocodile; and lastly he signed a contract with Vanity Fair.

The white-person-in-Africa memoir is generally fraught territory, mostly because even well-earned self-pity can be trying for readers, given the history of white people in Africa. As Ellah Allfrey, deputy editor at Granta in London, pointed out, “As a black Zimbabwean, part of me is forever disconnected from them. It’s a world of people who can leave and that’s the end of it.” But Ms. Allfrey, who commissioned Mr. Godwin to write the introduction to a Penguin reissue of Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger, added that Mr. Godwin has managed to transcend the potential blinkers of his upbringing.

“I think because his primary concern isn’t what the white population has lost, it’s what the country has lost as a whole,” she said.

Others are more critical. “He’s been an important influence on a number of levels, but I can’t say I look forward to his next book,” said Sean Christie, a Zimbabwean journalist in South Africa. “At the moment he’s a fly-in, fly-out Solzhenitsyn, and his dramatizations of events have begun to feel compensatory.”

As millions of Zimbabweans have left, however, the experience of Zimbabwean exiles is no longer coded white. Of the three books that make up his memoiristic writing about Zimbabwe, Mr. Godwin’s new book, The Fear, is the least burdened with the
past. It’s the most urgent of his works, and documents a situation that, unlike the plight of Zimbabwe’s white farmers, has previously been told in only a piecemeal fashion. When assembled into long-form narrative, the story of Mr. Mugabe’s pursuit and torture of everyday members of the Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe’s opposition party, is horrific. (Imagine if the friendly members of your neighborhood block association suddenly began turning up at hospitals and morgues after having been kidnapped in the night and beaten to the point of disability or death.) And yet it’s precisely because Mr. Mugabe’s postelection crackdown hit a peaceful section of civil society, because violence was not met with violence and because the terror was enough to keep the foreign correspondents away but not explosive enough to attract the preening flak-jacket types that the story went all but unreported here.

Or maybe it’s just that nobody does it as well as Peter Godwin.

ewitt@observer.com