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)

November 1916, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Interim comment. I write these words after reaching page 350 of this 1,000-page novel that was completed in 1984 but not published until 1993, in Russia. And my preliminary conclusion is that Solzehnitsyn is no longer novelist; he is an historian. He is not writing about the personal lives of people. He is writing about people discussing and reacting to historical moments. Yes, the people are well drawn, but they have no emotional lives.

The purpose of this work appears to be to portray the incompetence of the Russian army, the Russian government, and the Czar. To make inevitable the Revolution that is to come. It is as if after his Gulag series Solzhenitsyn is no longer comfortable in creating fiction. For fiction exists for its own sake, creating real characters in a real world, whereas this author has a message to convey to his readers: that the Russians saw the leaderless plight their county was in, took no action, and so brought on the Revolution themselves.

I have now finished this novel, which Solzhenitsyn calls Knot II of The Red Wheel. And my reaction has not changed. This work is an interpretation of history in the form of a novel. In the form of a novel, but not a novel itself. If there is a main fictional character, it is Colonel Vorotynstev, whom we follow in perhaps 25 percent of the book. But of that percent, only about half is concerned with his personal life. In that half, he become disillusioned with his wife Alina and then fascinated by the seductive Olga. It is a routine triangle of a disappointed husband and another woman, which does remind some of Tolstoy.

But this work is no War and Peace, much less an Anna Karenina. Whereas Tolstoy told us a personal story of how his characters lived in and were affected by war, there is no impact of the war—or the budding revolution—on these personal lives. Instead, Vorotynstev spends the other half of his time discussing the inept conduct of the war with his fellow soldiers, with friends, even, in fact, with Olga.

Vorotynstev is portrayed as a sensible and practical colonel, who, aside from his personal intrigue, is concerned about the conduct of the war. He sees the inevitable failure to come, and is concerned about the survival of the Russia he knows. We follow him as he joins a movement to find the right military leadership for the army. And, like some, he concludes that the only answer is for Russia to get out of the war. That that is the only way this incompetent country can survive. And, of course, no one is persuaded to act. Whereas the reader, of course, knows the tragic result of this inaction, the triumph of Lenin and his revolutionaries, and the changing of history.

In the remaining 75 percent of this work, we are basically overhearing political discussions by soldiers based in the capital, St. Petersburg, and (less so) by civilians on the homefront and in Zurich. Of course, Solzhenitsyn is skilled enough to make these conversations believable and effective. In fact, he usually sets them up with well-drawn portraits of the characters and their environment.

But these novelistic skills for me go to waste, because the author is interested only in history, and his version of history, meaning the ineptitude of the Russian government and the political maneuvering of the many characters opposed to the government.

In fact, in his Author’s Note, he tries to cajole the reader into reading what he terms “the historical matter” that he spreads throughout the work—frequently in small print, as if to make its historical excerpts more official. But after my first exposure, I skipped these historical matters. And, indeed, I skipped through much more. For example, the long section on Lenin in Zurich, much of which was earlier published as a complete book. For example, the lengthy section in which we enter the royal palace and then the mind of both the Emperor Nicholas and his wife, the Empress Alexandra. Solzhenitsyn seems particularly intent on using them to portray for us the impact of Rasputin, often called Grigori.

Finally, this work has a completely novelistic ending that is difficult to evaluate. It is highly effective, as we follow a woman, Zina, who has been seduced and abandoned by her married lover Fydor (whom we have met earlier in the company of Vorotynstev). She has lost her mother and her young child, she believes, because she has abandoned them for her lover. She enters a church and confesses her sins, and finds as a result a certain peace. But is the scene’s inconclusivness intended to represent the historic inconclusiveness of the entire novel?

This appears to be the conservative Solzhenitsyn stressing his rightist roots. For he has spent much of this work exposing the selfishness and manipulations of the leftists, along with the government’s ineptitude. This ranges from the plotting of Lenin to the Empress’ foolish belief in Rasputin.

Nothing dramatic occurs in historic terms in this work, unlike Knot I, which revolved around the initial invasion by the Germans. Here, all is political talk and political maneuvering, either by the revolutionaries, the government, or the military hierarchy. Which leaves the reader without any narrative interest, or any emotional interest (except for the two triangular affairs that have no impact on the historic substance of the work).

It appears that Solzhenitsyn is now a moralist at heart. He started out as a true novelist with Cancer Ward, etc. But then he moved to the Gulag series, and he has not been a novelist since. What he has tried to do here is use his novelistic skills to create reader interest in his historical theorizing. But I skipped his historical sections because I was interested in reading a novel, not in reading about history. Of course, one must marvel at the research that went into this work, a work written when Russia was still under the Soviets and, later, when the author was in exile in Vermont.

In the Times, both Bernstein and Bayley praise this book. Both say that Solzhenitsyn has caught the tenor of the World War I times in Russia. However, I notice that Bayley acknowledges my reaction to the work. He says that the author himself “knows that human beings interest him more as social phenomena than as unique and individual creatures.” And at the risk of sounding too much a traditionalist, I would ask, what is the purpose of a novel? Is it to involve the reader with a person (or persons) or is it to involve him in understanding history?

Bayley points out that the (historic) detail of this work reveals that the fate of Russia that we know today was not inevitable, that it resulted from the detailed (in)activity that this work portrays. And he has a point. But I would ask whether this point should apply to a work of history or to a work of fiction. We are obviously in separate camps. Is my camp so old-fashioned? That I want to be the fly on he wall of a bedroom rather than of an imperial palace.

My reaction to both Bernstein and Bayley is that they have reviewed the work that Solzhenitsyn wanted to write. And to me they have rationalized their interpretation of this work. They evaluate the author’s intentions more than his achievement. They compare him to Tolstoy: (Bernstein) “ambitious, panoramic yet intimate, prodigiously researched, invested with a strong sense of verisimilitude.” And compare Vorotynstev to (Bayley) “heroes who will never resolve their problems or escape the confrontations that in the Russian novel constitute the true livingness of life.”

But, as I see it, this “livingness” in fiction should concern one’s personal life, not the historic environment in which the characters live. Much like Solzhenitsyn, who in his personal life is more politically conservative, revealing it here in his critique of the leftist machinations, I find myself conservative in my appreciation of literature. So will I be left behind, like the Russians of 1916 were? Or will I emerge, like the Russia of 1990, as a true interpreter of our literary heritage?

Bernstein writes that, given our knowledge today, the “story has a piquancy that can come only from watching people marching toward a tragedy that they could avoid if only they knew what we know.” On the level of history this is true, but it is not on the level of the human beings we meet. Vorotyntsev’s emotional distraction between two women certainly cannot stand in for the nation’s political divide.

My own rewriting would give 75 percent to that emotional conundrum and 25 percent to the political environment. But I am not Solzhenitsyn, and I have certainly not experienced what he did. I believe, however, that fiction should be ruled by the heart, not by the intellect. He is a great man and a great writer, but here he has traded fiction for history. And the loss is literature’s. And ours. (January 2013)