Wilbur Smith’s ‘Shout at the Devil’: A Book Where Comedy Turns to Tragedy

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I have been getting cold feet (very appropriate given the recent icy weather) about my short novel based round the 1819 Peterloo Massacre .  Of course, mine will be only one obscure publication out  of many books, articles, plays or whatever that will surely be released to mark the bicentenary  – I know there’s a film coming out. Still, that’s not the point; I feel I owe it to those who were slaughtered and the hundreds who were maimed or injured on that terrible day in Manchester’s history to make that novel as good as I possibly can.

If you’re just writing for fun, then it’s different. If the general response is: ‘Must Try Harder’ – Well, that smarts, but you haven’t let anyone’ s memory down.

Oddly enough, I found out how I should best write this piece by a piece of serendipity or synchronicity (now I’ve used up my quota of long words for the day). So, this post isn’t really about my latest project, but a novel I read a long time ago, Wilbur Smith’s novel ‘Shout at the Devil’.

I woke up the other day, with a strong memory of one of the first adult books I had read in my mind.

That was a story of two freebooting adventurers in German East Africa just before World War I, an outrageously unscrupulous older Irish American and his none-too-bright diffident English upper class young partner – and the love affair between the callow young man and the first character’s daughter.

I was twelve at the time, and my family were doing up those rambling old country houses in which I spent most of my childhood. I remember coming on this book in the room we used to call ‘the little sitting room’ – in those days when  great old houses were cheap and  unfashionable, that room was approximately the size of a ten million pound flat in central London these days. My father had taken the book out of the library –and seeing it on the side tablet by his favourite armchair, and bored with sampling the historical romances my mother took out, I sat down and  began to read this male adventure story.

I was drawn into the fast moving action. I laughed at the ridiculous letter which the rascally larger-than-life freebooter had written as a supposed reference from Kaiser Wilhelm II,  ‘Kaiser Bill’ himself.  He solemnly shows this to his prospective partner in order to persuade him to become, as a British citizen –  for this was, of course, in the days when the sun never set on the British Empire – the leader of the expedition.

Even then I knew that the slaughter of elephants for ivory was wrong. I didn’t like that aspect at all, and thought it to some extent contained racial stereotypes.  Also, the murder of the young couple’s baby was a very horrible part of the plot.  However, I  found myself oddly touched by the love story which forms part of the plot in this adventure story.

My recollection is that it only briefly sketched in, but after those romantic novels, I found that ‘less is more’.  I wanted at least twice as much, just as you do with jam in a trifle if someone’s skimped on it, whereas with too much of it, you find it clogs the appetite (well, I do, anyway).

I remembered that the callow partner goes down with malaria, and that the two renegades turn up at the senior freebooter’s house, where the daughter nurses him. That is, of course, the archetypical circumstance in which a man falls in love with a woman – but I remember it as working brilliantly here. I remembered the mention of the young man’s eyes being ‘Misty grey, and as unfocused as those of a newborn puppy’ and  looking into them, the heroine ‘felt something squirm in her stomach.’

My recollection is, that after that, the details of their courtship weren’t given much, though I also recall that the daughter is depicted as very determined, and the upper class youth turned bandit as shy, and that she made most of the running.

I also remembered that while the first part of the story is full of comedy verging on slapstick, soon launching into high adventure, it later becomes extremely violent and tragic. I was really upset by the ending.

Anyway, on the strength of these details, and the fact that I remembered that I knew it had been turned into a film decades since with Roger Moore in it,  despite having managed to forget the title and the author, I was able to track it down.  I was quite proud of that.

It is odd how the unconscious works. I realised that the structure of this novel is the one I must use, in writing my own: ‘What begins as a comic escapade gives way to chilling horror’. I wonder if my unconscious knew that, when it prompted me to think of it?

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I am also, of course, and despite this deluge of research I must do, going to re-read this novel. I have often wondered if, when we re-read a story that touched us when we were young, it retains some of its magic for us, because it revives for us the feelings that we had when we were part of our family of origin, with all the world before us, and our feelings still new and untried. I suspect that is often so. Yet, when I re-read this, I think I will find that murder of the baby even more awful now.

 

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