With the deliberate distortion and manipulative release of wickedly edited video from a NAACP speech by an unassuming and eminently reasonable Department of Agriculture employee, former Iowa governor (and onetime resident of Mt. Pleasant) Tom Vilsack, currently Secretary of Agriculture, got to show the stuff heʼs (not) made of. The Tighty Righty liar behind the artificial, deliberate deception was “conservative” blogger Andrew Breitbart, a wilful activist self-annointed to “bring down” the “institutional Left.” (What does his behavior do now to the Rightʼs supposed presumption of moral decency? Destroy it? Fat chance. Be sure: the spin will come — his manufactured falsities Rightly will be presented as wholly ethical, already are on Fox News, unfair and unbalanced.) And the lie was spread by that loud voice of Rightist cock-and-bull, the already mentioned remorseless propaganda machine managed by radical Roger Ailes.
The victim of the vile distortion of truth was Shirley Sherrod, whom gutless Tom, acting as dubiously obedient stooge for his boss, quickly fired (or as Jon Stewart had it, “vilsacked”). Once the truth was out, that the iniquitously edited comments presented the exact opposite of Sherradʼs gentle and honest plea for harmony, the Administrative reverse-pedalling and backfilling began. (No, spin-monkeys are not exclusive to the revisionist Right.) And for a day or two the media has pondered muddily the issue of race in the United States (except for the racists who blindly mis-see everything through their peculiar prescriptions of ethnic spectacles). Coincidentally, at the same time the synthetic brouhaha bubbled over, I finished reading a novel by an author often appropriately labeled as racist — The Sunbird by Wilbur Smith. I was intrigued at the undermining of his own stereotypes that the book posed.
Wilbur Smith isnʼt exactly one of my favorite authors, although I have enjoyed his novels, and I do own all of them, acquiring new ones even after the vast disappointment of The Quest. The book blurbs lately quote Stephen King citing Smith as the best historical novelist, and he is good. The Courtney novels (I also loved the later tall-ship prologues to that series), and the four Ballantyne novels gave me a vivid picture of Victorian and early twentieth-century southern Africa — from the colonial perspective, of course. Smith, an African by birth, a white African, effectively lost his American audience for decades because of the inherent racism in his novels, during the course of the long boycotting of South Africa for apartheid policies. In fact, after encountering one Smith book during my college days, his work vanished from our booksellersʼ shelves until the Nineties and the ending of apartheid.
I first read a Wilbur Smith novel in 1974, picking up a thick purplish paperback slotted among the science fiction and fantasy novels at Newsland in Mt. Pleasant, where I found so many richly varied books to buy, including my introduction to the poetry of Shelley. (Interesting that so many of those books were published by Signet, including my volume of Shelley and the book about to be discussed.) The Sunbird appealed to me for many reasons. I have a weakness for lost-civilization stories (thanks for the addiction, H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs) and also for African adventures (viz. my renewed enthusiasm recently for Tarzan, who also had a weakness for lost civilization, not so coincidentally). As a middle-schooler I had picked up one of my motherʼs Readers Digest Condensed books (which until today I believed contained a colonialist espionage adventure in a fictitious banana republic and the first of the Rabbi David Small detective stories, too — but both were actually in the companion autumn volume for 1966) in which I read (and multiply reread) the adventures of Jean-Pierre Hallet in Congo Kitabu (a book I later had to find, and did, in used bookstores; now I think I need to locate those old RD Condensed volumes — I owe them so much), and Iʼve been a sucker for wild exploits on the Dark Continent ever since (and possibly before). Of course, Africa is the home to Lost Civilization adventuring anyway, so Smithʼs Sunbird was an obvious choice for me, one which I devoured quickly and reread at least twice later, then for a fourth and now fifth time since rediscovering Smith in the Nineties.
Perhaps the least popular of Smithʼs novels, The Sunbird is divided into two parts. In the first section, deformed Jewish archaeologist Dr. Benjamin Kazin tells of his (fictitious) discovery of a lost ancient city, thereby proving grandiosely and gloriously his own theories of Phoenician influence dominating cultural developments in southern Africa (indeed throughout the continent). Not inconsequentially, he also narrates his ardor for an employee, Sally, who is also desired by Kazinʼs closest friend and his financier for the dig, fabulously wealthy and utterly handsome Louren Survesant. The love triangle of these South Africans complements and confuses the archaeology. Further confusion, and several vital crises, are fomented by another (former) employee of Kazinʼs Institute of African Anthropology and Prehistory, hulking black savant (and quickly communistic revolutionary — but then thatʼs also the repudiation of Nelson Mandela in the later Courtney books), Timothy Mageba, who brutally betrays his mentorʼs trust, revealing himself as a Zambian Red Chinese-directed rebel, and who later with companions in ambush slays (among very many) the other important African, Xhai, Kazinʼs beloved bushman companion. By the end of the first part, Kazinʼs archaeological reputation has been made, but his heart has been shattered to discover the affair between Sally and Louren. At the climax, he and his wealthy but now estranged friend personally discover the tombs of the ancients, only to succumb to (fictitious) neuromyces, inhaled during their mutual great discovery. In his fungoid delirium, Kazin evidently hallucinates the second part, told through third-person narrative — the events of the reign of Lannon Hycanus, final king of the lost city of Opet, and his best friend, hunchbacked high priest of the sungod Baal and Axeman of the Gods, Huy Ben-Amon.
Yep. The (possibly imagined, possibly actual) ancient events resemble and mirror the present, either because Ben Kazinʼs fevered dreams construct a vision of his discovery, especially the personal scrolls of Huy Ben-Amon, and the utter (and otherwise utterly mysterious) destruction of Opet, the influence of which covers about two-thirds of Africa and thereby evidently inspires Zimbabwe and all other African cultural progress. Lannon Hycanus is the earlier incarnation of Louren Sturvesant, as Huy is the counterpart of Ben Kazin. Is all this a psychic, metempsychotic connection between the characters and situations of the different ages (for even Sally has her parallel in the past, Huyʼs beloved mistress, the Oracle of Astarte, who actually does darkly prophesy the future, the end of their civilization)? Or is this section just Kazinʼs hallucinations as the fungus grows in his lungs, nearly killing him, as it does indeed (conveniently) kill Louren? The book simply presents the second part as events, explaining Kazinʼs discoveries and building to the extinction of the no-longer-Phoenician citizens of Opet.
However, not everything is perfectly parallel. The king has no relationship with seeress Tanith, although upon discovering her amorous connection to his best friend, he does jealously have her killed, a sacrifice to the gods on the eve of destruction (a running but essentially unconfronted and therefore unexplored theme for many Smith novels is questionable, potentially gay, male friendship — quietly here, openly in disparate-but-oddly-equal/equivalent brothers of the Courney and Ballantyne clans, one a classically alpha male, the other not necessarily homosexual but socially awkward, hiding secrets, and intellectual). Xhai has an earlier incarnation, too, but in his primeval version not slaughtered by black rebel king Manatassi, the moving force of the eventual destruction and onetime eager pupil to Huy — Timothyʼs alter-ego.
The black revolutionary is the core of the bookʼs meaning and focus of the racial theme(s), although the conscious Smith might have preferred me to emphasize Xhai (both of him).
Over 1300 words already, so that will more than do it for today. Iʼll finish soon, presumably tomorrow.