I presented the following essay in two (separately written) sections in the wake of the Breitbarting of Shirley Sherrod. I also happened to have elected to reread The Sunbird by Wilbur Smith, and the jangling consanguinity of the forged and false video with the racism in Smithʼs novel, coincidentally serendipitous (for me), fired up this critical volley.
With the deliberate distortion and manipulative release, during the summer of 2010, 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 in the Obama administration, got to show the stuff heʼs (not) made of. The Tighty Righty liar behind the artificial, deliberate deception was “conservative” blogger Andrew Breitbart, a willful 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) because, at least from Smithʼs regular perspective, Xhai is racially significant, morally and symbolically the heart of Africa — for the conscious Smith more so than Timothy/Manatassi. Fortunately, however, Smithʼs storytelling eludes his racist moralizing.
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.