Hereʼs the rest of my quickly drafted little essay on Wilbur Smithʼs The Sunbird, continuing from yesterday.
The black revolutionary is the core of the bookʼs meaning and focus of the racial theme(s), but then, at least from Smithʼs regular perspective, so is Xhai, perhaps for the conscious Smith even more so.
Smith regularly creates vivid and important characters of color, a couple with memorable personalities. I am confident he would say he is not racist because of these important black, brown and yellow figures. Unfortunately, his inherent racism shows clear in such charactersʼ attitudes, roles and behavior (and from book to book, predictable similarity). First, colored characters always fall into two groups — good guys and bad guys (of course, so do the white characters). The bad black guys, like most bad guys, are out for themselves alone and violent about it (these are action stories, after all); they are frequently creatures of passion who act in groups (masses or mobs). The “good” blacks dutifully and happily work for/serve the white protagonists and their friends, sometimes even singing as they go about their chores.
All the nonwhite African characters are somehow spiritually close to nature, as in the modern American myth of magically-attuned-with-nature Native Americans. (I especially enjoy, with irony foremost, the supernatural nature/tracking skills of the ancient Xhai, raised in the Opet slave pens, in civilized circumstances which would make it pretty difficult to acquire such skills, which must therfore be racially inherent, at least in Smithworld.) Likewise, the approved darkskinned people are all somehow childlike (characteristic of Xhai, either version) when not actual children (as is one of the key blacks in the current Assegai where the bad blacks are wild mobs and the good ones work as supernaturally talented trackers for the bwana hunter hero, who when he early helps his black sergeant-fated-to-become-head-tracker to safety can endure far more than the self-sacrificing black). See the stereotype? Bad blacks are uppity, while good ones know their servile place, and all coloreds are unsophisticated (animal-like) natural beings. At least in the imaginary worlds of Wilbur Smith.
Xhai is a typical good nonwhite (as are bushmen in all of the Smith stories, a people for which our author evidently holds some warm feelings but whom he sees as firmly in their natural place as the most primitive hunter-gatherers on earth). Xhai is loyal and faithful (“doglike” in one passage), childlike, and at one with nature. The modern Xhai, although elderly and chief of his clan, worships Dr. Kazin, who has troubled himself to learn the bushman ways and language. The ancient Xhai is even more devoted to Lannon Hycanus, and the wise Opetians, the king and his friend, send the little African away on a futile mission for his own safety when the end is near (like wise adults protecting a child with gentle deceit).
Timothy/Manatassi is the “bad” black. In modern times, he is a communist, agitating (wrongheadedly the narrative directly states) for his peopleʼs rights, unwitting tool of the fiendishly wily Red Chinese, recklessly violent and ultimately futile (although unresolved in the plot; perhaps actual history after the book was written tells his real role). Clealy we are meant to observe that he would have been better to remain the loyal, if mysterious, employee of his mentor, Dr. Kazin. His kingly historical antecedent, captured and abused horribly by Opet, finally uses his power and white-given knowledge (if we actually can define these former Phoenicians as “white,” as the book decidedly does) to create a continent-spanning massive army of uncountable blackness to overwhelm and destroy the civilization that he has come to hate (of course, his dark success requires him to utilize the wisdom of Opet against the civilization itself; thus native African power and ingenuity is reduced in the narrative to emulation of civilized foes and mere passionate hatred, resulting in destruction, not creation).
Smithʼs intended moral seems clear. Them poor natives needed the wise whites to guide them toward civilization, but their inherent black natures pulled them and Opet back down into primeval darkness. On the other hand, at least for Opet, the kingʼs decisions and the civilizationʼs enslaving characteristics caused Manatassiʼs unreasoning hatred. The native, black king was first captured and his people slaughtered when Lannon wished to impose a violent lesson by raiding powerfully the unruly black tribes to the north. The kingʼs action was cruel and set in motion the events that would destroy Opet. Gentle Huy unwisely tries to educate Manatassi, renamed Timon as a civilized slave, who is only too eager to reap what nuggets of knowledge will aid him in his lifelong quest for retribution. Later, Timonʼs unruly misbehavior earns him the punishment of mine labor, a killingly hideous, vile life vividly created in the story (and nicely parallel to the career of Spartacus, although Manatassi leads his slave rebellion without becoming a gladiator). Manatassi, captured, horribly witnesses his woman being dragged to slow, brutal death behind the kingʼs elephant, reinforcing the Africanʼs iron will to revenge. Freed but maimed as punishment by the kindly Huy, Manatassi replaces his hacked-off hand with an iron paw/claw and insanely builds his massive and terrifying army of mindlessly obedient myrmidons (really, the narrative compares them to ants as they unhesitatingly sacrifice themselves for the kingʼs purposes). Between Opetʼs practice of slavery, Lannonʼs thoughtless cruelty and Huyʼs excessive kindness, the fate of the lost civilization is sealed through the career of Manatassi.
More lessons, then? Should we learn from Huyʼs actions not to be too softhearted? After all, he had repeated opportunities to simply kill the man who would end Opet, but the gentle poet-warrior refrained each time from the fatal stroke. In the modern plot, a commander observes that Timothy and his rebels should be ended quickly with a stroke of absolute power and coldness, such is the fate of communists. But I like Huy as we are meant to like Kazin, our narrator, and after all, we know from the beginning that the civilization of Opet was wiped out utterly and completely, literally drowned, we eventually learn, in the fatal pool of Astarte that seems so alluringly lovely when first rediscovered by Ben and Sally. The civilizationʼs tragic fate is preordained, foreshadowed by Lannonʼs ritual killing of the last gyr-lion (an evolutionary dead-end going extinct in the novel at the same time Opet nears its doom), symbol of the kings of Opet (and the beast for which Xhai is safely sent away to find near the end, but there is no gyr-lion as there will be no next king of Opet). On the other hand, tragedy must result from a flaw, and that flaw could be Huy Ben-Amonʼs softness with Manatassi. Even so, without the kingʼs cruelty (which appears in many forms through the second part, hurting Huy himself at several points) Manatassi would have no grounds for his savage hatred. Perhaps the tragic flaw is Lannonʼs own selfish disregard for the enemy natives, whom he and his people perceive as nothing but (potential) slaves. If so, the book becomes more interesting (for me), although I believe we are supposed to feel the ironic consequences of Huyʼs generosity of spirit. But the meaning goes further and descends not from niceness but from Opetʼs inherent cruelty, shown even in its human-sacrificing religion which Huy heads just as he is his societyʼs greatest warrior.
A deeper lesson hangs from one further parallel between the ancient past and the present. Those invading Phoenicians of Opet mirror the once-dominating white South Africans of modern times. It is not just the characters that align but the ancient and modern civilizations. Although not everything from the past equates with the present (antique Tanith dies while Ben and Sally marry successfully in the closing), Opetʼs doom drums a message for the nation of apartheid — white cruelty breeds black resentments (and in Smithworld, violence, which fortunately actual history has so far dodged). If the past and 1972-present correspond, then the book foresees a dark and dire fate for the “white civilization” in modern Africa, as long as apartheid-practitioners behave with cruelty like that of Lannon and his subservients in Opet. A society based on slavery cannot, should not stand.
I donʼt know if Mr. Smith intended the ultimate parallel, as he several times in his fiction overtly rationalizes racial distinctions in Africa. And I cannot defend nor accept his white-manʼs-burden vision of African cultures. However, his narrative does clearly and simply match Smithʼs invented past with the authorʼs then-reality of life in South Africa. Whether his conscious mind and emotions could accept the obvious lesson suggested, his imagination vividly understood the nature and consequences of enslavement and racial discrimination.