Horn of Africa, by Philip Caputo

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)

Sacred Hunger, by Barry Unsworth

Again, a book sat on the shelf for a long time, and I kept avoiding it. Because it is about the terrors of a slave ship, the horror of kidnapping the blacks of Africa and transporting them for profit to the West Indies. Who wants to read that? Who wants to know the details of that brutal voyage?

But, surprise, surprise, that is not what this 1992 novel is about. It is about greed, the drive for profit, the sacred hunger of the title. Yes, there are the details of the brutality on board a slave ship, but it comprises only a quarter to a third of this book. The rest is about two cousins, Erasmus Kemp and Matthew Paris. Erasmus hates Matthew because when a boy Matthew picked him up and carried him away from a miniature dam he was building. Erasmus didn’t understand that Matthew was saving him from being swamped by a surge of water, just as he does not understand others as a grown man—beginning with Sarah, to whom he proposes and imperiously assumes her consent.

As the real story starts, Matthew has been unjustly disgraced; he has written “blasphemies,” such as supporting Darwin. And he has lost his wife, for whose death he blames himself. So, to escape a sense of guilt, he signs on to a slave ship, Liverpool Merchant, leaving England, a ship that is owned by his uncle, Erasmus’ father. The captain of the ship, Thurso, is a brutal taskmaster and a vital character in his every scene. Resenting Matthew’s relation to the owner, he makes his shipboard life doubly hard.

The heart of this book is the contrasting portraits of Erasmus and Matthew. Erasmus is full of himself, distorts every motivation to his own benefit, and is blind to reality. The reader recognizes this from his early dealings with Sarah. But while she sees through him, others do not. And Matthew, who has not dealt with him for years, does not realize that Erasmus still remembers their affair on the beach, and is intent on revenge. And, indeed, Erasmus sees the perfect opportunity when he learns of the fate of the slave ship Liverpool Merchant; he will see that Matthew is hanged for mutiny and murder.

Meanwhile, we have followed Matthew aboard the ship. As a doctor, he cares equally for the crew and the slaves below deck. Through his journal, we come to understand he is a just man, not worthy of Erasmus’ resentment. This pursuit of justice culminates with a small community he helps build on the shore at Florida following the sinking of the slave ship. It is a community of equals, whether white survivors from the crew or the black slaves. Together, they live under a fair administration of justice, including the sharing of women by the men who far outnumber them. It is a community that lasts a decade, with no awareness of Erasmus and the English justice waiting in the wings.

These are the story details, but more significant is this portrait of mercantile life in the 1750s and 1760s. The priorities, the selfish motivations, the duel between fairness vs. justice, the cutthroat dealings, the physical brutality, the greed, the role of influence, etc.—all enrich that portrait. And on a more practical level, this novel puts the reader in bars and whorehouses as a crew is “recruited” by force, then on the deck of a rolling ship in the Atlantic as cruelties abound in the name of discipline, then below in the filthy hold with the slaves, and, finally, prowling the jungles of Africa and, later, Florida.

Unsworth himself commented on the choice of his theme in a 1992 interview. “It was impossible to live in the [19] Eighties without being affected by the sanctification of greed. My image of the slave ship was based on the desire to find the perfect symbol for that entrepreneurial spirit. The arguments used to justify it [then] are the same used now to justify the closure of these pits and the throwing out of work of all these miners. I used the term ‘wealth creation’ deliberately. I knew it was anachronistic.”

And not to be overlooked is the large cast of believable characters that populated that life of greed, ranging from English capitalists to angry sailors to despairing slaves. Some live for the moment, some for the long term. Some think only of themselves, some of others. Some are brave and confident, some afraid. Some relate to others and learn how to survive, some do not. Some seek to dominate, some to get along, and some to help the unfortunate. Each one is distinctive, and alive on these pages.

The finale of the novel is written to be inevitable, given the violence of those distant times. And the final confrontation between Erasmus and Matthew does work. But the fate of Matthew, for me, does not. It reflects too much an author’s choice, an author’s denial of the justice he has created, an author’s attempt to create for the reader a “justice” he can be comfortable with. In addition, Unsworth shows Erasmus reaching a self-understanding at the end that seems too brief, too tidy. and is barely credible.

A review in the Manchester Guardian sums up the novel’s qualities.  “It’s a cracking adventure story. It isn’t pleasant – slavery is a disgusting business – but there are rewards. The story moves at a smart pace, the cast is huge and colorful, and there’s enough detail to make us feel we are breathing in the salt air, the scent of the ship’s timbers and the claustrophobic stink of the slave’s quarters – but not so much that it smells of the lamp. Above all, there is fine writing. As with the period details, Unsworth’s prose has enough 18th-century inflections to create the right mood, but not so many that it feels laboured.”

This work has to be the highlight of Unsworth’s literary career. It has breadth, it has power, and it has strong emotions. One marvels at the research into that era’s shipboard life, the inhuman treatment of the enslaved, the primitive level of medicine, and the daily environment of that distant era.

I need to catch up on more of Unsworth’s work. It has the broad vision I seek, and yet a concern for individual souls. There is a philosophy of life, a sense of humanity, that underlies the surface action. (April, 2013)

Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh

How witty and tongue-in-cheek can one get? This is a delightful novel written in 1938. It is a satire on the field of journalism, conveyed through the experiences of William Boot, a naive nature writer with no ambition who is hired in error as a foreign correspondent by the Daily Beast (now I know what inspired Tina Brown) and then sent to the fictional east African country of Ishmaelia.

The confusion begins when William Boot is contacted instead of fiction writer John Boot by the foreign editor, Salter, and the managing editor, both incomptents who are beholden to their authoritarian publisher, Lord Copper. The confusion lasts until the very end, when John is rewarded instead of William and Uncle Theodore is accepted to replace William.

But not only are the Beast people incompetent, so are the competing papers and fellow foreign correspondents that William meets in Ishmaelia. These correspondents are easily road-blocked and then sent on wild-goose chases by the local government of Ishmaelia, whose own actions are arbitrary and incompetent. Waugh, of course, is having fun with all of these people—with London society which fumbles it influences, with the newspaper editors out to please their boss, with the gullible foreign correspondents, and with the doctrinaire Ishmaelia government, a country run by one family, the Jacksons.

Some today will look back at the description of the men who run this country, and accuse Waugh of racism. Actually, however, he is having the same fun with these incompetent blacks as he is with London society and the journalistic profession. Such satire in those days, the thirties, was acceptable; but we look at such matters differently today.

The bitterest comment on the press is when both the bosses and the correspondents think that nothing is happening in Ishmaelia, so they had better come up with something to justify their time there. William, however, is too naive to understand this, and has to be taught by friendly companions both the hidden political life in that country and the meaning of the cables that he is receiving from his London bosses. Until the Scoop of the title—the scoop of what is really happening in Ishmaelia—has to be explained to him by others. A great example of his incompetence is when he meets the British ambassador and fails to inform him of what he has just learned about the plot against the Ishmaelia government—and fails to get his own resulting scoop in return.

This is Waugh at his finest, as he looks down on all these people, turning them into incompetent fools. It is perhaps characteristic of this author, who will later be revealed to be secure in his conservative faith, that here he writes with the smug attitude of a self-satisfied member of society. Unlike Greene.

Which may help to explain why Greene used his faith as the core of his early novels, because he had doubts about it; and these doubts provided the (internal) conflict that is at the heart of literature. Whereas, since Waugh had no doubts about his faith, he turned to society for his subject matter. And so, where Greene is deeply involved with his characters, Waugh is quite aloof.

The greatest fun with this novel is at the beginning, when the confusion sends the unprepared William to Africa, and at the end, when the Beast tries to reward him for his success. My favorite scene, in fact, is at the end, when Salter travels to rural England to William’s home in order to persuade him to continue working for the Beast and to attend Lord Copper’s banquet in his honor. His hike from the railroad station, his arrival unkempt (the family thinks he is drunk), and his meeting of this eccentric family—all this is delightful, Waugh’s devastating portrait of rural English society.

William’s success abroad is, of course, none of his doing. The result is a lot of byways in the early portion of his travels in Ishmaelia; and it slows the novel until the revolutionary activity is revealed. In the meantime, we are introduced to Katchen, a Polish girl without a country who is married (sort of) to a German who has disappeared into the interior of Ishmaelia.

Katchen is the “love” interest for William, who thinks he loves her but is not really interested in love. Neither is she, of course, except to get the Beast’s money she can finagle through William. Interest picks up when her husband returns, and they escape uproariously in a canoe William gives them. Her presence works, however, because her husband is involved in the search for minerals that interests both the Germans and the Russians and motivates the basic story, their attempts to take over the government of Ishmaelia.

And then there is the mysterious “Baldwin,” who travels incognito with William on his way to Africa, is helped by William, and then parachutes into Ishmaelia to save the day for the government—and William. He also provides an opportunity for Waugh, through exaggeration, to needle the Soviets.

Waugh spent time in Africa covering the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, and this novel is said to be inspired by that experience. Further speculation relates many of these fictional characters to real journalists, from Lord Beaverbrook (Lord Copper) to John Gunther (Jakes).

Waugh wraps up the fate of his various characters in the final two pages. It is clever and somewhat arbitrary, but it works, not least because it is in keeping with the aloof style of the rest of the novel.

To sum up, this is marvelous Waugh—to be appreciated especially by journalists, who are the victims of his satire. But he spreads the satire all around: to politicians, to high society, to publishers, to empire builders, to dictators, even to the Communists. The work is both witty and funny, witty in style, funny in subject matter. And most of all, its characters act believably even as they act deviously or stupidly. The naïve William is truly three-dimensional. The remaining characters are not, but they are alive on these pages because they are so incompetent. (June, 2013)