Dark side of man?

The Dark of the Sun

By Wilbur Smith

You don’t need to read a dispassionate history book to experience how many white people viewed Africa before the late twentieth century. Instead, you can read any number of novels or travelogues written by appalling colonialists and misogynists. In The Dark of the Sun, if not in his other books, Wilbur Smith reveals himself to be one of these writers. Many people will spring to the defence of Smith and this short adventure novel, set during the civil war in the Congo. After all, isn’t the white mercenary on the side of the general population? Doesn’t he entrust his life with his Congolese lieutenant? Well, yes, Bruce Curry, the novel’s hero, does do those. And he’s also honourable and just.

But there is a dirty undercurrent. Smith never once notes that the Congolese civil war would not have existed without white colonial rule in the first place. The white mercenaries never question their presence in the Congo. And the book has such narrow roles for men and women that I found myself laughing. Towards the end of a transaction between Curry and a Belgian diamond dealer, Curry remembers that a young woman is in the room, is pleased that he had forgotten her presence due to her silence and notes, “I like a woman who knows when to keep her mouth shut.” She is allowed to talk about sex and food, though – and is permitted to serve Curry his breakfast, remarking that it’s something she loves doing. If this book isn’t one man’s delusional vision of his ‘perfect woman’, I don’t know what it is.

Of course, Smith is happy to subjugate not only women, but the black characters too. In fact, not only the black characters in this novel but, seemingly, all “Africans”. Smith’s apparently omniscient narrator remarks that Curry had learnt “not to let his men act singly” (problems here: ‘let’, ‘his men’ and ‘act singly’ – the Africans are denied agency and independence). Curry drives home the point by noting that “nothing drains an African of courage more than to be alone”. The African is so helpless, so useless and so terrified of life that what he needs, it seems, is a competent white mercenary who will protect him and make his decisions for him. Thank goodness we have men like Curry in Africa, Smith says. Yuck.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Smith’s book is that you can so easily identify his audience. He’s writing for white people who need their racism and their misogyny affirmed (and is therefore even narrowing their choices too). The author even speaks directly to his audience – because he’s so cocky that no black person will read this novel. He notes that “newborn black babies are more handsome than ours”. At least the black people have something going for them – they’ve got pretty babies. But it’s not that that stings: it’s Smith’s cockiness as to who he’s writing for. It’s as blatant as an editorialising Daily Mail journalist.

As an avid reader who loves a good story, I might have been softer (only slightly!) on Smith if his tale had been any good. But it’s weak. His characters are preposterous and unrealistic, and they are not even human: there is little sensory detail for my feelings to catch on to. And their feelings are extracted straight out of a catalogue. Completely unrealistic. I wouldn’t have finished had this book been any longer. It was a waste of time, except for showing me how awful some people can be towards others.

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