“I’ll tell you who I am.” Lew was really very excited. He said, “It came to me in a revelation, this afternoon. That sign, this train, that cliff. I’ve accepted my destiny, Frank. I’m the hero!”
Frank stared at him. “You’re the what?”
“The hero. That’s what I was born to be. And that’s why I can go up on top of those cars and take a couple chances.” The bastard had the effrontery to pat Frank on the cheek. “The hero doesn’t get killed,” he explained.
“I am not a hero,” Isaac said, the tension fading from his face. He sat back, realigned the folders, seemed to sigh through all his body. “I am not the lone man with a rifle,” he said, looking down at his dark hands on the pale folders, “who slips across the border and hunts down the tyrant. To avenge his–his family.”
“Isaac,” Balim said softly, leaning forward as though he might touch Isaac’s hand.
“I am a bureaucrat,” Isaac said, not looking up. “I am a paper shuffler.”
“Isaac, you are a man. Every man has his purpose.”
Now Isaac did look up. The eyes in his dark face were always a bit red around the pupils, but now they were more so. “Every sack of coffee that is stolen from Amin,” he said, “shortens his time. The more coffee is stolen and smuggled out of the country, the sooner he’ll run out of money to keep his Nubians drunk and himself in new medals. I hope the train carries every coffee bean from the new crop.”
“May God hear your words,” Balim said, gently smiling.
Africa specializes in comic horrors, or horrific comedy. Burlesque and tragedy go hand in claw, never more so than in the case of the comic-opera rulers of some recently independent African nations, who wave cartoon fists that draw real blood. Grotesques like Uganda’s Idi Amin, who kept the heads of murdered enemies in a freezer so he could go on yelling at them indefinitely about their disloyalty, and Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Empire (an empire about the size of a Manila envelope), who beat a group of children to death for voicing their dislike of the school uniforms he’d designed–these have been if not the representative then the most noticeable figures of the new Africa. For every statesman like Jomo Kenyatta or Julius Nyerere, forming a real nation from the steaming clay of hasty independence, there have been a dozen buffoons with fangs.
Donald E. Westlake, reviewing The Laughing Cry, An African Cock and Bull Story, by Henri Lopès, New York Times, 5/3/87.
Kahawa had many good, sometimes outright glowing notices, from critics whose opinions would have mattered to Westlake, most notably John Leonard (see Part 1 of this review for the link). But it seems like even those who said the book was a great read, in spite of its often grim subject material, still felt obliged to nitpick it to hell.
The book actually had two reviews in the Times, the first one in Leonard’s Books of the Times column in March of 1982, right after it came out–but strictly speaking, the official Times review appeared in May, written by Randy Hogan, a freelance writer and editor who, like Leonard, used the rather odd literary term ‘hugger-mugger’ to describe it, and spoke dismissively of Westlake’s past work, referring to him as “the author of such slight, amusing caper novels as ‘The Hot Rock,’ ‘The Spy in the Ointment’ and ‘Bank Shot.’ “
The very works that had made Westlake a bankable name in publishing had also made him a writer many were disinclined to take seriously, even when he was being deadly serious. He was caught in a prison of his own devising, like many a writer before and since, and you might say Kahawa, a hybrid of the heist and ‘international intrigue’ genres, was his latest breakout. The critics assigned to review him were not always appreciative of these escape attempts. They tended to apply much stricter standards than they would to a Parker or Dortmunder novel.
Leonard merely disagreed with Westlake over the proper use of ‘disinterested’, but Hogan took issue with his math, scoffing that an offhand reference to a stolen truck (a theft that occurs before the events of this novel) as containing coffee worth 85,000 British pounds would mean that the truck would have to weigh 42 tons. Leaving aside the fact that there are trucks out there that can handle that much cargo, Mr. Hogan wasn’t paying attention–he assumed a pound of coffee would only be worth one pound sterling, but he’s writing in 1982. The story is set in 1977.
It’s been explained in the book that in 1977, failures of the coffee crop in strategic places like Brazil have sent the price of coffee to historic highs. A pound of coffee cost as much as $3.34 on the international market in 1977. A British pound was worth about $1.75 that year. So coffee seems to have cost over twice what Hogan estimated, and there’s plenty of trucks that can carry 20 tons of cargo. Well, nobody cares much if you don’t research a freelance book review carefully (as opposed to a 475 page novel). In all fairness, Hogan didn’t have the internet, or probably time to hit the library (as Westlake clearly had), but he had the bloody book right in front of him.
His review inspired yet another cheap shot, where an American scholar of Swahili who’d read Hogan’s review (and clearly not the book itself) felt compelled to write a letter to the Times to take issue with a passage quoted in it, which told readers that great African lingua franca had been written mainly in the European alphabet (as opposed to the Arabic) since the sixteenth century. Which best as I can tell is factually true, and Westlake never said nobody was writing it in the Arabic alphabet. He made his weariness with both Hogan and the Swahili prof. (and really, with anybody who nitpicks a book without carefully reading it first) clear in this letter to the editor.
Seems like most of the mail he received from his longtime readers was about how appalled they were by the explicit sex scenes in the book (which in their entirety wouldn’t fill one chapter in this 475 page epic). The book is written as entertainment, no doubt, loads of violence to go with the sex, but it also had an underlying message to it, as I would say most of his novels do, albeit less cunningly camouflaged this time–people still managed to drive right past it.
What was it Upton Sinclair said, after The Jungle came out, and triggered not sympathy for the oppressed workers but revulsion over the unsanitary practices of the meat-packing industry? “I aimed at the nation’s heart, and hit its stomach.” Perusing shocked letters from longtime readers, Westlake must have felt like he’d hit its gonads instead. This wasn’t what people expected from him.
But a more serious problem might have been that the book, in spite of having multiple white protagonists, strays off repeatedly into the minds of the black and Asian characters, who have their own stories and agendas. Rather like The Black Ice Score, his first African-oriented adventure (though set in New York), probably the least loved of the Parker novels–though as I pointed out when reviewing it, it’s got all the elements of the best-loved books in that series. Except that it spends a lot of time in the heads of non-white people, as does Kahawa.
As opposed to the now much better known (though probably not better selling) novel about Amin’s Uganda, The Last King of Scotland, by Giles Foden, which spends the entire narrative in the head of a somewhat irritating young Scottish doctor, shows us Amin and Uganda entirely through his eyes. I can’t fairly critique that book, or compare it to Kahawa, because I just skimmed through it. Based on that quick scan-through, I think it’s got valid insights to convey, but I like it a lot less than Kahawa. More than this I can not say, because Foden’s style doesn’t appeal to me, and I’ve got a reading list that would stretch to the moon and back. It’s more of a critic’s book, that scored some small but prestigious literary prizes. Never was a best-seller in any edition, best as I can tell.
But look which book got the film adaptation, complete with bravura Oscar-winning performance from Forest Whitaker–because, I would argue, it stays focused on that one equivocating white western POV–the tourist approach–fly on the wall–Dante in hell–or if you prefer, Waverly in Scotland (google it). The approach has its virtues. And its limitations. Sometimes people feel uncomfortable getting too far away from their own narrow perspectives. But isn’t that precisely where fiction is supposed to take us?
And what the rest of this review will be about is looking at the myriad of perspectives that make up this story, the people who make this book come alive, make it far more than just some tropical potboiler about treasure and trains. Though I will say, in spite of the story Les Alexander brought Westlake about a supposedly real train robbery in Uganda, I strongly suspect this book could trace part of its complex lineage to Dark of the Sun. Probably more the movie than the 1965 novel they adapted it from. Check it out sometime, but in the meantime, let’s get down to business.
Who are the characters who really matter in this book? We’ve already met mercenary Lew Brady and bush pilot Ellen Gillespie, the main romantic coupling here (though they spend most of the book apart, having sex with other people), and I think I went into enough detail about them last time. They’re our point of entry to this world, the by no means naive or ‘typical’ Americans, who come to Africa more or less on a whim, to put their skills to work, have an adventure, and of course it’s all so much more complicated and dangerous than they could ever have imagined. Fascinating, this world they’ve entered, and yet impossible to ever fully take in, and the same could be said of their employer–
Please don’t misunderstand me, Mr. Balim,” Obuong said, “I am not myself anti-Asian. Some of my best friends in Nairobi are Asian.”
Balim nodded, accepting these bona fides.
“But I don’t think it’s unfair to say, “Obuong went on, “that it is well known that patriotism is not an emotion known to Asians. Their interests–perfectly legitimate interests–lie elsewhere. Money, merchandising. Art. Learning. At times, religion. And they are very good family people.
“Patriotism,” Balim gently pointed out, “is the love of one’s country. Unrequited love of one’s country is a passion difficult to maintain.”
Balim is in many ways the calm center of this story, the eye in the storm–the train heist is being organized by him and his employees, though he himself won’t participate directly, organizing from behind the scenes. Exiled from Uganda after the rise of Amin, he has struggled to rebuild his family fortunes in Kenya, and thus agrees (with some reservations) to make a deal with the nefarious Baron Chase. But money is not all he cares about. His primary interest is people. He would agree strongly with Alexander Pope (and Donald Westlake) that the proper study of mankind is man.
He quietly observes those around him, noting their strengths and weaknesses, deciding how each might serve him, but not in a cold dispassionate manner at all–he cares. He wants them to be happy, to do well, to find their purpose. He not only knows who he is, he knows his place in the scheme of things, and accepts it, but he has moments of doubt and great fear, as when his charming scapegrace of a son, who does not yet know his place, and doubts he can ever find one in Africa, insists on going along with the others on the coffee heist. In his son’s absence, a fearful Balim tells himself he’ll accede to his son’s wish to go to London, if only he returns alive.
He doubts that his own place in Africa will endure–as the Jews were banished from post-reconquista Spain, the Asians are being expelled from post-colonial Africa, envied and distrusted by the black majority. But as he waits to learn the fate of his criminal enterprise (and his only child), he is surprised to learn that he may have friends in high places, or at the very least, well-wishers. Because the wiser heads among any post-colonial population must recognize that the key to long-term national success in our modern world is not purity, but diversity. Every man has his purpose.
Balim said, “Mr Obuong, can it be that you are friendly in spirit toward me?”
Obuong’s smile almost became a laugh, but then was replaced by earnestness. “Your former land,” he said, “is a very unhappy one. If the same sort of thing were to happen here, I personally would live in fear all the minutes of my life. I would be exposed because of my governmental position, and my success, and my education. A contented middle-class Kenya is necessary to my peace of mind.”
Admiringly, Balim said, “Very few people, of any rank or color, have thought it through quite that clearly.”
“Whatever my personal opinions may be,” Oblong said, “and I will admit to you privately that I have my ambivalences, nevertheless I know that a Kenyan middle class must be heterogeneous. We need the Asian shopkeepers; we need the white farmers; we even need the Arabs from the coast.”
Smiling, Balim said, “Even?”
So as Balim’s part of the story concludes, we may hope that his love for his country may not remain unrequited forever, and that he can contribute to the long-term prosperity and stability of Kenya, an enterprise that is, oddly enough, served rather well by the theft of coffee from Idi Amin. Something about the balance of trade. Men like Balim may dabble in crime, but somehow it always turns into something respectable along the way. And none among his confederates is more worthy of respect than–
At the very first bureaucratic foot-drag, Isaac forgot to be scared. He almost forgot who he really was, and what this charade was all about, because what came flooding into the forefront of his mind was his normal technique for dealing with minor-league officiousness, clerical obstructionism, and the arrogance of petty authority. When the motor-pool sergeant, a sloppy man in a sloppy uniform, said indignantly, “We can’t break into our schedule to service a truck for you now, you should have phoned yesterday,” Isaac’s immediate answer was to point to the phone on the sergeant’s desk and say, “Put me through to the commanding officer.”
Isaac Otera is Balim’s most valued employee, his secret weapon you might say; a master bureaucrat, who knows how to navigate the treacherous byways of African obstructionism. He is also a devout Christian, who came to Kenya from Uganda, after his entire family was butchered by Amin’s soldiers, who were looking for him. He can never fully forgive himself for this, nor can he forget that his fellow Ugandans of all faiths are still trapped in there with that grinning monster.
And so this most honest of men wishes with all his heart to be part of this great coffee heist, to ‘put one in Idi Amin’s eye’, because it’s the only real contribution he can make to shortening Amin’s reign–without the hard currency he gets from coffee sales, Amin would have already fallen from power. He’ll be risking his life, as well as his immortal soul, and he’s hardly a man of action, but he’s ready to take the risk, play the part. He doesn’t kid himself about who he is, but he gambles that he can be more.
In the above scene, he’s posing as a Ugandan officer, laying the groundwork to requisition Amin’s own military trucks to shuttle the coffee from the hijacked train to waiting rafts at the shore of Lake Victoria, utilizing official paperwork he himself has flawlessly forged.
He meets an old friend at the depot, who recognizes him, knows of his exile, and he somehow manages to bluff his way through, and the friend says nothing to anyone about it–perhaps out of loyalty, but the thing about a totalitarian country is, people tend to learn it’s a bad idea to attract too much attention to yourself–if Isaac’s friend reported him, who’s to say he wouldn’t end up in the cell next to him?
Isaac is thrilled to realize that he’s more of a man of action than he’d ever thought possible, and the heist could not possibly have succeeded without him, but he has his limits. He’s carrying a revolver in the Sam Browne belt that came with his uniform. The gun has no cartridges in it. He’ll steal in a good cause, but he won’t kill. The same can hardly be said of–
Chase cradled the phone and sat a moment longer in bed, brooding at the mirrored bathroom door, in which he could see reflected the room’s main window. It wasn’t Sir Denis’s keenness, the likelihood of his discovering their plot, that was agitating Emil Grossbarger so much; no, not at all. Chase saw through that. The fact was, Emil Grossbarger liked Sir Denis Lambsmith, he considered himself Sir Denis Lambsmith’s friend, he was trying to protect his friend, ease his friend out of the area of danger.
Who would do that for me?
In Chase’s world the evidences of friendship were so few that he almost never had to remember the existence of such a thing. To have it flaunted in his face here and now, under these circumstances, involving two such creatures as Grossbarger and Lambsmith, was galling, insupportable. Who would concern himself for Baron Chase in that way?
They use me, that’s all. Even Amin doesn’t really like me.
If Amin is the over-looming evil presence in this story, rarely playing an active role, but always somehow felt in the distance, Baron Chase is the active villain, the conniver, the double-dealer, Saruman to Amin’s Sauron. Amin is destined to live a regrettably long life, even after his impending downfall, dying in Saudi Arabia at 78 (Westlake only made it to 75). There is no justice in this world, unless we make it ourselves, and that in a sense is the point of Baron Chase in this story. Westlake can’t properly punish Amin, who falls outside the storyteller’s jurisdiction, but he can test his own creation, see if he merits survival–but what part of Westlake is administering this test? And by what standards?
I’ve already mentioned that I think this is in certain key respects the second novel by Timothy J. Culver, but there’s also quite a lot of Richard Stark in it. Which seems strange to say, when it’s so much about heroism of all kinds, people doing things that make no sense from a purely pragmatic POV. Stark tends to look askance on heroism of any kind. In his stories, heroes just get people killed.
But think about it–it’s a heist story, and it’s not a comedy. Who else would take charge of those parts of the novel dealing with a beautifully planned brilliantly executed armed robbery? Who but Stark? And who else would have come up with a character like Baron Chase? Or go out of his way to mention a military truck called the Leyland Terrier?
Not the first international man of mendacity going by that name that Stark had given us. This Baron is Canadian, and Baron is his given name, not a title derived from an aristocratic background. But he is, self-evidently, a reworking of Baron from The Handle. There’s even a brief acknowledgement of this in the book–Chase is thinking of finding himself a quiet sunny little island in the Caribbean after his scheme is completed (maybe Anguilla?), but he’s also interested in trying New Orleans sometime–a town the Baron from The Handle knew well.
He’s been a gun for hire for some time now, and the work pays well, but not well enough to retire comfortably on. He can only rise so far in Amin’s Uganda, because Amin will never fully trust a white man (or any man, really, and only a fool would ever trust a man like Chase). So he comes up with this coffee caper, pitches it to Balim at one end, Grossbarger at the other, tying all the players together, but never for one moment intending to play it straight with any of them. If this were the story of the Scorpion and the Frog, you know damned well which role he’d play.
He’s another of Westlake’s beast men–we’re told his smile is like that of a wolf, and roaming the streets of London, looking for a bit of rough trade (boys or girls, what’s the difference?), he may kill for no reason other than minor irritation. But he’s no Parker. He’s all too human under that lupine exterior. He’s eaten up inside with malice, will take revenge at the least slight, and makes murder the answer to everything. He’s not a wolf in the form of a man, but rather a man whose soul has been twisted into a grotesque parody of a wolf’s.
As seen above, he experiences a moment of pure rage and jealousy, when he realizes that even a rogue like Grossbarger, a former Nazi officer, might seek to shield a friend from danger–but never him. Nobody in this world gives a damn about him, and it never occurs to him to ask why that might be. Parker just wouldn’t give a damn, either way. And yet, Parker would never try to cheat a partner out of his share, as Chase fully intends to do with Balim & Co. Parker inspires loyalty without ever seeking it. Those who most desire the solace and safety of friendship are often those least deserving of it.
Westlake must have often wondered how Parker would have fared in a totalitarian society, whether his formidable instincts for self-preservation would be adequate in a world where absolutely no one can be trusted, absolutely no one is safe. Chase is no Parker, as I’ve said, but he is a chillingly efficient operator, all the same. As the heist begins, but before Chase can make his exit, Amin, sensing he’s up to something, without knowing quite what, orders him detained for ‘The VIP Treatment’–meaning that he’ll be tortured to death, and if he chooses to talk, fine–if not, also fine.
Chase, always prepared for treachery (since treachery is all he knows), improvises his way through, killing his captors, making his way out of Uganda by fits and starts, experiencing one setback after another, but he proves again and again that it’s deadly to underestimate him. He kills Amin’s men when they try to stop him, and he kills a good Samaritan who picks him up on the road just as coldly, so he can take the man’s vehicle. He very nearly kills Balim’s son when he gets to the sight of the train robbery, leaving him for dead by the tracks. It’s all the same to him. Life is a game for one, and you play to win. He can’t see any other way.
But he’s not as young as he used to be, and he was never quite as smart as he wanted to think. Each little misstep costs him a bit more, pushes him closer to his limits. He’s taken one hell of a beating by the time he makes it to Kenya. And as he lies there under a tree, catching his breath, congratulating himself on his cunning and enterprise, the fox triumphant at last–he lets his guard down, just once. You don’t get to do that when Richard Stark has anything to do with the story. And who sees to Baron’s just deserts?
There are spirits in the air, and in the ground, and inside trees, who make it their business to call human beings to their deaths. This is why, when a male child is born in many African tribes, he is not initially given his true name, but is lent a temporary false appellation to confuse the spirits of death. Should the child survive his first few years–and most do not, despite this subterfuge–he is given his permanent name.
But even this is not his real name. That he selects for himself at puberty, and will probably never tell anyone. Thus the African travels under an alias at all times, secure in the knowledge that nobody knows who he really is.
A passage very much in the Westlake tradition, but I strongly suspect he let his own obsession with identity skew his research into the tribes of this region. I can find no evidence that Charlie’s tribe, the Kikuyu, had any such practice (though it may well have existed)–male children are typically named after older male relatives, to maintain family continuity. He probably came across a mention of it somewhere, and was so charmed by the concept, he couldn’t resist using it here. Neither could Toni Morrison, apparently. Be surprising if Westlake hadn’t read Song of Solomon by that time.
(It should go without saying that none of the nitpicking western critics who reviewed this book when it came out ever thought to question this assertion about the Kikuyu, but I’ll say it anyway).
Nonetheless, reading over various sources, I definitely got the sense that he’d done considerable research into the Kikuyu, and liked them very much. He expresses great admiration, in the novel and elsewhere, for Jomo Kenyatta, who was a Kikuyu, and who, when he became President of Kenya, chose nation over tribe (notwithstanding, tribalism remains to this day a powerful force in Kenya and most of the rest of Africa). Charlie is hardly a character your average Kikuyu would aspire to be; a lowly employee of an Asian merchant, but he casts quite a long shadow over this book. He’s a trickster and a scoundrel, but Westlake’s affection for that kind of character is well-established by this time.
Charlie holds his employer Mr. Balim in something approaching spiritual reverence–and having learned that Balim is on the verge of despair, believing Baron Chase to have killed his only son, he broods quietly, and then advances on the resting Baron, concealing a deadly toy–a knife with a long almost paper-thin flexible blade, that can kill quietly, leaving no easily discernible trace. Chase, like most people who see Charlie, does not understand the depths of his character, and too late realizes that there are things you can’t buy or cheat your way out of.
(It’s also Charlie who realizes that a poor man they meet along the tracks in Uganda may be more than he seems, but his insights are always rendered less useful by his overweening self-interest–he’s not really a team-player. He thinks the team is playing for him).
Balim has a way of inspiring great loyalty in those who work for him, but Charlie is an extreme case, viewing him with an almost religious reverence, perhaps the only Non-Kikuyu he could be said to love. But he does not extend this feeling to Balim’s other employees, such as Lew and Frank.
Lew he seriously considers killing, because Lew makes an example of him during a self-defense class (Charlie is ad-libbing humorous asides when translating Lew’s instructions). His pride is badly hurt. But he wouldn’t come at Lew directly–he’d hire a good witch doctor to do the job. His belief in witch doctors is perhaps no more superstitious than Lew’s bizarre conviction that since he’s the hero, he can’t be killed (this doesn’t even make sense in mythic terms).
His relationship with Frank is more familiar, but no more friendly. Frank routinely has to threaten to break Charlie’s neck just to get him to stop playing pranks on him (like hiding his anti-malaria drugs). Charlie, in return, has granted Frank (who, like all non-Kikuyus, he considers less than fully human) a special distinction.
Among the animals, the only one so far honored with a name by Charlie was Frank. Charlie had named him Mguu, and it gave him secret pleasure every time he saw the man to know that he alone knew this was Mguu. The name was from the Swahili–Mguu was not worth a name from Charlie’s native Kikuyu dialect–and it means “foot.” It seemed to Charlie that foot expressed Mguu very well; his stamping around like an elephant, his roaring, his rushing into situations without thought or preparation. Also, Charlie had seen in the cinema cartons about a blind white man named Mr. Magoo, and this seemed to add a proper dimension; Mguu, the blind foot.
And this might be a good point to consider the strengths, the weaknesses, the oddities (and indeed, the blindnesses) of–
Slogging forward, workmanlike, Frank said, “How many times can you pop me with that little thing? I’ll still take your fucking head off.” Behind him, Lew had also started forward, moving to Frank’s right. Isaac watched, open-mouthed. He wanted to yell, to make them stop, but he couldn’t think what the words should be. And Chase seemed just as astonished. “Frank!” he shouted. “Don’t make me do it!” But Frank just walked forward, at the end reaching out for Chase’s head.
Which was when Chase reversed the gun and tried to use the butt as a club. But Frank held his forearm, twisted the gun out of his hand, and tossed it dismissively to Lew. Then he started hitting.
It’s not really made clear what nationality Frank was, originally. Clearly the English-speaking world–America, Canada, Australia, perhaps the UK, or Ireland (the name is clearly Irish). Wherever he hails from, it stopped mattering to him a long time ago. He’s just a white mercenary who lives and works in Africa (or anywhere else the money’s good), and has to keep reminding everyone around him that he’s not someone you want to get on the wrong side of. And he hasn’t much of a right side to get on, if you know what I mean.
He’s as ruthless as Chase, but he has what Chase lacks–loyalty. He gives you his word, he keeps it. Subterfuge is not in his skill set. Everything’s on the surface. He meets Lew and Ellen at the airport, and he starts right in making passes at her, which she’s originally unaffected by, but she warms to him over time (particularly as she becomes conscious of Lew’s infidelity).
He has one interest you might deem intellectual–he’s fascinated by history, just like his creator. Having temporarily accepted Ellen’s lack of interest in his lewd propositions, he takes her on a trip to a remote village along the lake, where Balim is constructing a hotel, and tells her all about how this was going to be a major town, but due to a quirk of fate, was relegated to a minor smuggling enclave. She still thinks he’s an immature lout (because he is), but is forced to acknowledge he has unsuspected depths.
Then the rainy season hits, Lew and Ellen’s romance temporarily founders, and he finds his opening at last. So to speak.
She pressed her fingernail into his flesh between the third and fourth ribs, just under the nipple. “If Lew ever hears about this,” she said, bearing down, meaning every word of it, “If Lew so much as ever suspects, I’ll put the knife in right there. I will, Frank.
Frank chuckled, trying to pretend the fingernail didn’t hurt. “Lew would do it first, honey,” he said. “Don’t you worry, old Frank has no death wish.”
She relaxed the pressure but didn’t yet move her hand. “Just so you understand.”
“I read you, loud and clear.”
She started then to climb off him, but he put his hands on her waist, pulling her down to sit on his stomach. She could feel him rising again against her buttocks. He said, “Don’t go, I like you there.”
So did she, goddammit. She was angry, she was bad-tempered, she was rain-obsessed, she was driven mad by inactivity, but at the same time she did like those hammy hands on her waist, she liked the nudge of that hard cock against her cheek.
He was something different from Lew, he was blunter and more stupid and less sensitive, but there were moments when crudity had its own charm. Almost against her will, she could feel herself softening to complement his hardness, she could feel the juices begin to flow.
Oh Mguu. You’ve done it again.
And I like their relationship much more than the one she’s got with Lew. Just as I like Lew’s with Amarda. I found myself wishing, yet again, that Westlake hadn’t gone the obvious route, and reunited the two lovers at the end (after Lew has screwed still another beautiful woman, in about the most unlikely circumstances imaginable).
I think one of the strengths of this book is also one of its failings–it has too many fascinating protagonists, a wide variety of heroes (only one of whom thinks of himself as such), and it often loses its way navigating back and forth between them. There’s a whole tragic subplot involving Sir Denis Lambsmith of the Coffee Board, and a lovely African courtesan in Amin’s employ, and I rather wish Westlake had taken the time devoted to that and given us more of the elder and younger Balims, of Charlie and Isaac, of Frank and Ellen. It’s one of his longest novels, and it seems painfully short, given all the material it has to cover.
The heist itself is fascinating–Westlake had no idea how (or even if) the heist that he’d been told about, that sparked his interest in doing this book, had been executed. He just checked out the terrain, did the reading, and figured out a rather brilliant plan, that could obviously go wrong in a million ways, and we see a fair few of them. But the point, to Westlake, is to belatedly give Amin one in the eye. One chapter concludes with a frustrated Amin, faced with the impossible, throwing an epic temper tantrum over his lost train of coffee. Westlake only hoped it had happened in real life.
He spends a lot of time with Amin, reminding us that this seemingly affable fellow, who inspired so much interest at the time from the rest of the world, was a cool calculating killer, a man who survived one assassination attempt after another, as if he truly had a charmed life. Champion athlete, brave soldier–somebody who had the potential for greatness, and who chose instead to be a monster, because he could not see past his own relentless appetites. Buffoons with fangs, Westlake calls these men. We’d best hope we here in America, protected by our laws and traditions, never get to see the fangs of our own buffoons. You know exactly who I mean.
I feel dissatisfied with this review, and I had a feeling that I would going in. It’s a gripping, complex, wide-ranging story, that is not as well-balanced as it might be–maybe it got away from Westlake a bit, as the review has gotten away from me. But I’m closing in on six thousand words, and I better wrap it up. We can cover all the stuff I missed in the comments section. Well, maybe not all of it. That would be very time-consuming.
Is this a serious work or a humorous one? One must often ask this when reading Westlake, but the answer is rarely clear. Kahawa has elements of both tragedy and comedy, farce and political commentary, deep compassion for the downtrodden of the earth mingled with cynicism about the wealthy and powerful, and more interesting poignant funny characters than you can shake a stick at. And a bit unusually for him, heroism counterpointed with villainy, but the real hero isn’t necessarily the one you’d expect to fill that role at any given moment.
What other writer does this? I can think of one that Westlake found numerous occasions to show his admiration for, and I believe his influence is particularly strong here, even though the setting is not one that author would ever have employed. And the best thing ever written about that vastly more famous novelist just happens to describe Donald E. Westlake, and Kahawa, nearly as well, and that’s how I’ll conclude this–with the final paragraph of George Orwell’s finest literary essay.
When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens’s photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.
And all these years later, they still are.
Anyone care for a song?