This 1980 work is a novel of adventure, and also a work of literature. From the very first pages, it drew me into its world. First, because of narrator newspaperman Charlie Gage’s point of view; he is a burnt-out case and full of guilt. The guilt is both for the story he will tell and for his role in the deaths of men with whom he shared a mission. And, second, this novel drew me in with its creation of a vivid, tangible foreign world, first that of Cairo, Egypt, and then of a stress-filled crossing of African deserts into the mountains of Ethiopia.
This is the early text that drew me into Caputo’s world, as narrated by Gage: “This story may be an exorcism of sorts; but it is not an apology for the things we did and the things we allowed him to do out there….Certainly we would have been indicted if everything had happened in a place where lawyers and judges stage the little dumbshows we call justice; but it all took place in the empty desert in the midst of a revolution….Each eventually dispensed its own form of justice, crude and unfair, but forms of justice nevertheless. The last few days on the desert were the worse, racking us with agonies more exquisite that could be inflicted by the worst prison in the world. The wilderness, however, was not entirely merciless; it allowed me to escape, to bear witness, and to experience a kind of expiation. The professional moralists, from their pulpits, from their editorial offices, from their speaker’s dias…might say it was not a genuine expiation and call for investigating commissions, inquiries, punishments. Let them chatter. We paid whatever debt we owed. Nordstrand and Moody paid all a man can pay, Nordstrand with interest because his liability was the greatest. I took his last installment and closed his account.”
That is what hooked me. This is Greene territory, Conrad territory, the territory of moral novelists exploring the roles of consience and justice in a violent, unjust world.
The mission, called Operation Atropos, is to bring armaments to Moslem Ethiopian rebels who wish to carve out a piece of Ethiopia and create a separate country called Bejaya. Charlie Gage, the American newspaperman, is recruited in Cairo by an ambitious American agent called Colfax, who seeks to make a name for himself. Colfax also recruits a level-headed but ineffectual English officer named Moody, who is to be in charge, and a dominating, headstrong, powerful soldier named Nordstrand, who is to provide the muscle and, as he himself believes, the leadership. Nordstrand is clearly the novel’s major character. After delivering the arms, he sees himself as the leader of the new nation, which is why he exerts brutal control over everyone he deals with.
What complements such conflict among the characters is the physical detail, whether in the streets of Cairo or the desert outside, whether in the villages or valleys of Africa, its sands or its swamps, its mountains or ravines, and whether one treks in the heat of day or the chill of night. The trio must also deal with the loyalty and the fickleness of both the natives they encounter and the rebels they join. Indeed, one so marvels at the physical detail that one is convinced that Caputo himself must have explored that same rugged terrain and lived the same exotic life of the African native. Because he makes that world come so alive.
The novel moves back and forth between its two strengths, character and description. And more than a reader expects, straight narration plays a major role, both forays into the past and extended descriptions of the present. Particularly effective are the constant physical and human obstacles when crossing deserts, confronting armed men, and hiking into the mountains. This vivid environment ranges from thornbushes to mosquitos, from swamp muck to endless sand, and includes even the sounds of snorting camels and jingling harnesses, plus the darkness, the burning heat, and the exhaustion. And yet…the narrative sustains our interest, even as little else happens.
In another complication, the arms the trio expects to deliver to the rebels do not arrive; but the trio continue on, hoping the promise to deliver those arms will justify their trek into rebel territory. That they will not be held for ransom by Jima, the rebel leader who awaits the weapons. Which reverts to the second strength of the novel, the relationships among the trio and their local contacts, Murrah and Osman, as well as with Jima. All of which comes across in both violent disputes and moments of introspection and doubt. Particularly effective is the intimidation by Nordstrand, whether he is trying to dominate narrator Gage, officer Moody, or the local natives.
Nordstrand is a violent schemer who seeks to control every obstacle he meets, and who does not care about the pain he inflicts on others. He meets an ironic fate however, when his installation into a native tribe, which he seeks as the first step in dominating them, results in an infection that weakens him and begins his downfall. This is the character Caputo wants the reader to remember. How his maniacal ambition brings his own destruction.
But Caputo also wants to demonstrate the foolhardiness of the entire operation. First, the foolish effort by Colfax to create the operation; and then, on the scene, the muscle that Nordstrand uses to control his colleagues, and the even greater violence he resorts to, murder, in order to take over, first, the revolution and then the new country. With the guilty conscience of narrator Gage underscoring that evil by allowing it to happen.
In the novel’s climax, the rebels capture a vital town and then the more powerful government forces bombard and destroy it. The horror of warfare is brilliantly portrayed here, and leads each character to his fate—a fate we have been prepared for. Except we learn how the various characters die, and where the responsibility lies for their deaths.
To sum up, this brilliant novel blends adventure, morality, and justice. It brings alive both its characters and its African setting. It contrasts the brutal Nordstrand, the “civilized” Moody, and the pliant Gage, along with the pragmatic, deceitful, and violent natives. I rarely use a novel’s blurb to help sum it up, but this blurb works: “Set in a bleak landscape where none of the signposts of civilization as we know it exist, [this novel] exposes the dark side of human nature—the side that, freed of all restraints, acts without pity, without conscience, without remorse.” (May, 2015)