Review: Kahawa

“You’re being hijacked,” the officer said.

The engineeer didn’t at all understand.  “What’s this?”

A voice behind him said, in English, “We’re taking over the train.”

The engineer and fireman were both fairly proficient in English, and they understood that sentence well enough.  They spun around and stared in absolute amazement at two white men who had climbed up into the cab on the other side–while the Army officer had distracted them–and who were now standing there with guns in their hands.

You–” The engineer couldn’t figure out how to put his astonishment and disbelief into words in any language.  “You– You can’t–This is a train!”

The bigger older one said, “We know it’s a fucking train, fella, and we’re taking it over.”

If there’s one Westlake heist book that more than any other sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb, this would probably be it.  It’s set almost entirely in Africa.  It’s mainly about politics (of various kinds).  It’s full of very explicit sex scenes (a lot of the politics is sexual, you see).   It’s got a supervillain in it (who really existed), plus a subsidiary villain (who didn’t).  Westlake can’t kill the supervillain off, because he was still alive and free and quite wealthy at the time of writing, though no longer a threat to anyone.

And it’s got a hero–who actually calls himself that.  Without irony, if not without a sense of humor.  In fact, it’s got many heroes, and I’d argue the best and truest of them aren’t that guy–and most of them aren’t white men, either.   One is a woman, one is black, one is Afro-Indian.  And one is a mercenary, a sexist pig and a boor and opposed to the whole concept of heroes on general principle (he’s a white guy, and in my mind, played by Rod Taylor in his 40’s).  And maybe one more, who is a liar and a rascal, but he’s the one that gets to vanquish the subsidiary villain.

It has many serious flaws, sold like shit when it came out, and it’s not what Westlake was best at, or what he’ll be remembered for–but it got him some of his best reviews ever–including one from John Leonard, in the New York Times.   Who didn’t think it was a great novel either, but he sure loved reading it.

And since we’re finally into the 1980’s, I can just post a link to the full review, and you can read it.  Leonard has many perceptive and admiring things to say.  He totally got what this book is about, and I’m sure Westlake fully approved of Leonard nitpicking his use of the word ‘disinterested.’  People should care about the correct use of words.  Language mavens can agree to disagree, English usage being the darkest of dark arts.  But for the record, I’ve looked at the disputed passage (thank you Google Books), and looked up the two meanings of ‘disinterested’, and Leonard was wrong.  Other critics made some mistakes as well, but we’ll get to that.

In spite of its failings, and perhaps because of them, this is a book worth praising–and remembering.  It was a book worth writing as well, and it’s a book Westlake very much wanted to write, spent an unusual amount of time (for him) researching and finishing, alone and with his wife Abby.  It’s a book that got him to Africa for the first and I believe only time in his life, and that alone made it worthwhile.  And as is often the case with books of his that deal with social issues he’d normally stay away from, it’s a book that was pitched to him.   By a Hollywood producer, name of Les Alexander.

When I returned Les’s call, he was boyishly excited.  He had a true story, he said, that would make the basis for a great novel.  I told him, as I tell everyone in such circumstances, “I’ll listen, but I won’t give you an answer today.  I’ll call you tomorrow.  I don’t want to make a mistake and be locked into something I don’t really want to do, or locked out of something it turns out I did want to do.”

“Fair enough,” he said.  “A group of white mercenaries, in Uganda, while it was under Idi Amin, stole a railroad train a mile long, full of coffee, and made it disappear.”

“Forget the twenty-four hours,” I said.  “I’ll do it.”

Westlake mentions that Alexander was always pitching this or that project to him, and reading between the lines of his account, he always found some way to put him off (regrettably, he could no longer do so after his death, hence the disaster that was ‘Parker’), but he heard this story, which no source I can find confirms actually did happen in reality, and the game was afoot.  Because, of course, it was a way to link his long-held interest in Africa (and Africans) to his professional wheelhouse of the heist story.   He could try something new, while still sticking to the kind of story he knew how to tell better than anyone.  That was the theory.

He ended up selling it to Viking, his latest publisher, and that turned out to be about the least successful relationship he had with any publishing  house ever.  Only two books resulted from it (the other was a Dortmunder).   They did not know what to do with Kahawa, and didn’t do much of anything as a result.   His first editor was fired, and replaced, as he puts it, by an ‘oil painting of an editor’–one suspects this experience played a significant role in the genesis of a subsequent 80’s novel of his.

Originally, it was going to be more of a straight-up heist book, with Africa as the background, perhaps somewhat in the vein of a Dortmunder novel, but the deeper Westlake got into it, the more he realized just how horrible Uganda under Amin had been, and as he put it, “I can’t dance on all those graves.” (Screwing on them is another matter entirely.) There’s plenty of humor in it, but it’s a serious book under the jokes.

To be honest, I think it’s neither a Westlake comic caper, nor a Starkian exercise in noir romanticism.  It’s the second novel by Timothy J. Culver, author of the political thriller Ex Officio–supposedly shot dead by Richard Stark in a mock-interview Westlake wrote in the 70’s, but Westlake needed him for this one, resurrected him to ghost-write.

There were foreign editions, with some interesting covers (this time I could not fall back on the Official Westlake Blog for those, so I raided the French and German Amazon sites).  Because his title was a word in Swahili meaning coffee, none of the foreign publishers seem to have felt any need to change the title to something else, or to translate it to their own language.

(Jean-Patrick Manchette, a highly regarded author of French crime novels, seems to have translated a fair bit of Westlake.  He also did the translation for Ordo.  I wonder how many others?)

There was an American reprint edition in hardcover, from Mysterious Press, over a decade later. (Westlake says there were very slight changes made, and since I’ve only read the later edition I have no idea what they were.  It would be time-consuming to find out.  If anyone knows, please tell).  When Westlake ran into that oil painting of an editor he’d worked with at Viking and told him Kahawa was getting reprinted, he reports the man looked astounded, and said “Why?”  Tactful!

So that’s the history.   What’s the story?   After a prologue that shows  us a group of Ugandan coffee smugglers being butchered by Idi Amin’s soldiers in 1977 (an incident documented by the London Times), the book opens in Valdez Alaska, of all places, where a soldier of fortune name of Lew Brady is teaching a bunch of truckers how to defend themselves from strong arm men hired by a union (no need to mention which one) to make these guys join up.

We’ve come a long way from Killy, but then again, maybe not so far.  Westlake’s attitude is unchanged, really–no boss should be able to tell you not to join a union, no union should be able to force you to join (not without the workers voting on it first).   The goal is independence, either way.  The unions had to become like gangs to survive the wrath of rapacious capitalists, then in some cases ended up being run by actual gangsters.

Someday, these truckers might want a union; right now all they see is some powerful organization trying to take their hard-earned money in a boom economy where they can get all the work they want without a union.  And these days, this part of the book seems really dated.  Come back, all-powerful unions and your hulking thuggish lackeys!   We didn’t mean it!

We’ll never see how this minor subplot plays out, because Lew gets a better offer, from an old mercenary friend of his, Frank Lanigan, who is working for a merchant in Kenya, Mayar Balim.  We’ve already met Balim by the time Lew gets the call, in a little scene where he is approached by Baron Chase (his name, not his title), a Canadian mercenary, highly placed in Amin’s security forces.

Chase has a scheme (always).   Together, they will hijack a huge train of Ugandan coffee intended for Brazil, to cover a shortfall created by a frost there (frost seems pretty anachronistic itself lately).  Due to fluctuations in the commodities market, demand greatly outstripping supply (because caffeine is really really addictive), coffee prices are at an all-time high, and the cargo is worth many millions.  A consortium of buyers, headed by a German now living in Switzerland (a former Nazi officer, but not a bad guy otherwise) will take it, as long as the theft can’t be traced to them.

Balim is one of those Africans whose descent is from the Indian subcontinent (referred to as Asians here, though they are all from a very specific part of Asia), who have taken on an economic role in this part of Africa not at all dissimilar to that which the Jews historically occupied elsewhere–and with the same potential consequences, now that Africa’s original occupants are feeling more, shall we say, assertive, in the wake of decolonization.

He, like many other Afro-Asians (all of them, actually), was expelled from Uganda after Amin took power, forced to flee for his life, leaving all his assets behind, and he’s been laboriously rebuilding his fortunes in Kenya, from where he fully expects to be expelled someday as well.   He’s philosophical about it.   “God’s diarrhea falls with equal justice everywhere,” he remarks to Chase, after hearing about the Brazilian blight.

Anyway, he’s willing to give the coffee heist a try, but Frank tells him he’s going to need another good man on the payroll, because Chase is a backstabbing son of a bitch–Balim knows this already (there’s not much of anything he doesn’t know), and tells Frank to go ahead and hire one on.

Frank goes through his mental rolodex of guns for hire, and keeps finding out they’re dead, retired, working honest jobs, married even.  It’s disgusting.  So he finally gets to Lew, who he knows is top-drawer, but has this little character flaw, that he himself is personally unaware of, which is that he’s a genuinely good guy, who cares about doing the right thing, even though that’s never what he’s getting paid to do.   Well, nobody’s perfect.

Lew is delighted.   He hates his current gig.  It’s boring.   He loves Africa.  It’s The Place.   Frank can’t tell him over the phone what the job is, and he doesn’t ask.   It’s a job.  In Africa.   He wants in.  But he’s got a girl.  One hell of a woman, actually.  Ellen Gillespie, a professional pilot by trade, qualified to fly just about anywhere.   Lean, laconic, lovely, with short-cut blonde hair, and an independent streak a mile wide.

She’s not a feminist–she’s what feminism is aiming to make all women into, in some fabulous feminist future we somehow never get to, but maybe someday.  Actually, if all men could be like her that would be swell too, but come on.   Lew is not going to risk losing a girl like this over a job.  He’s not that dumb.  Yet.  So he says he and Ellen are a package deal, Frank reluctantly agrees (he just fires the drunkard of a bush pilot they already have), and Ellen figures if she can handle Alaska, she can handle Africa.   The question of whether anyone can really handle Africa remains an open question in this book.

They get to Kenya.  Frank immediately starts throwing passes at Ellen.  Lew pisses her off by being all protective of her, which she hates.   She’s not that crazy about Africa at first, but sees instantly the effect it has on him–he’s grinning, delighted, instantly at home, in a way he never was in Alaska.  “He loves this awful place, she thought, and her heart sank.”   I couldn’t say what Abby Westlake’s first reaction to Africa was, but I’d bet good money Lew’s reaction and Westlake’s were similar, even though Westlake had never been there before.   Some people just fall in love with a place at first sight.

But they are very much in love, and in lust, and having been introduced to the charming Mr. Balim and his son (both of whom Ellen takes an instant liking to), they are driven to a small house they’ll be staying in, and they proceed to fuck like bonobos on viagra.  I could say ‘make love’, but Westlake shocked quite a few of his longtime readers by being extremely explicit with his sex scenes in this book.   Far more so than he ever was in all the paperback ‘porn’ he wrote under false names to support his family years before.

Well, the book market has changed, along with sexual mores.  What used to get your books confiscated makes them more saleable now (Peter Benchley was basically forced to write an extra-marital affair, complete with steamy bed scene, into Jaws).  And something about Africa, and perhaps his traveling companion there, is making Westlake want to spell things out.  Maybe because there’s so much death in this book, real death, that he needs to remind us about life.

Through the contortions she held on to his cock.   She loved it, she filled her mouth with it and then her cunt with it.  They were so wet that, as they fucked, their stomachs made suction noises, poppings and fartings that eventually made Lew mutter, “Shit.  Enough of this.”   He grabbed her leg and turned her over without losing contact.  Knees and shoulders and cheek on the bed, holding her breasts with both hands, she opened her mouth and gasped into the pillow as he pounded her from behind.  Another orgasm.  “Who’s counting,” she mumbled into the pillow, and ground her ass backward into his belly.

“What?”

“Shut up and fuck!”

“Oh you smart cunt,”  He slapped her ass, which did nothing for her but make her mad.

“Just fuck!” she yelled and reached back to slap his thigh just as hard.

And this does, in its own ribald way, tell us something about their relationship–that they have a deep connection, emotionally and physically, but don’t communicate very well, and this is mainly Lew’s fault, and he’s only marginally aware of the problem.

For a book about African politics and genocide, this is very much a story about relationships.  Not just the sexual kind, but there are multiple other erotic subplots.  And two other beautiful fascinating women, one Asian and one black, both of whom will be having sex with Lew before the story ends.   Gritty realism this ain’t.   Westlake was usually a lot more careful about overindulging male wish-fulfillment, but he’s in virgin territory here (so to speak), and the Culver in him is urging him on.   It’s one of the flaws I mentioned.  But the relationships are thoughtfully rendered, all of them.   It’s not a sex book, even though it’s full of sex.

Anyway, there’s a heist to be planned.   Uganda is right next to Kenya, across the inland sea that is Lake Victoria, and there is reputedly an abandoned railroad spur and turntable along the track the coffee train will be traveling on.  It could be used to conceal the train long enough to get the coffee down to waiting rafts, and back over to Kenya.  But somebody has to go scout it out.  Lew’s elected, because nobody knows he’s working for Balim.  Only some of his past employers in Africa (like the Libyans) have ties with Amin, and he ends up fingered as a CIA spy, taken into custody and tortured by Amin’s men.

While in their obscene pit of a jail, he meets large numbers of Ugandans for the first time, mainly Christians, a horribly persecuted majority in Uganda at that time, because Amin (a never terribly diligent Muslim) wanted military aid from Muammar Gaddafi.  Lew is moved by their courage and resolve to be true to their faith, even while he himself is being threatened with summary emasculation and death.  (Sadly, some Ugandan Christians today are moved to persecute Ugandans who are gay, egged on by American evangelicals, but since when have we humans ever learned the right lessons from persecution?  Do unto others as has been done unto you, saith the Lord.)

Back in Kenya, Balim tries to calm an increasingly angry and frantic Ellen, while reaching out to Baron Chase, who can arrange for Lew’s release.  But before Chase can do this quietly, Lew breaks out, kills a few guards, and very nearly kills Chase (and that might have been just as well).  He gets back to Ellen, and then the rain starts.  African rain.

Before there had been the occasional lone fat drop on the windshield, but all at once it seemed there was no windshield at all, just a massive waterfall, and they were behind it.

Or inside it.  With the abruptness of a bucket’s being upended, the world was suddenly nothing but falling water, splashing, ricocheting, thundering, drenching everything in sight.  “Good Lord,” Ellen cried, her voice lost in the barrage.  The long rains had arrived.

But Frank could be heard, storm or no storm.  “Shit!” he yelled, flinging the wheel back and forth, as though trying to shake the rain off the car.  “Goddam son of a bitch!”he shouted, as the Land-Rover slued and slid forward into the unknown; not a thing could be seen through that streaming windshield.  “You could have waited an hour, you filthy bastard!” he brayed at the sky, shaking his fist, and stuck his head out into the storm so he could see something of where they were going.  And, “You’re here!” he yelled at them a few seconds later, as the Land-Rover side-swiped a parked Datsun and came to a stop in front of the house.  Frank’s head, out in the rain for half a minute, looked like something found four hundred years later in a sunken Spanish galleon.

This will go on for months.  There’s nothing more to be done until the rain stops, except plan the heist, and go quietly mad from cabin fever.   But they do have to get to Nairobi to work out a deal with a family of Asian coffee growers Balim knows, who can hide the stolen coffee amid their own crop.   Like Balim, they are also much reduced in wealth, but in possession of an exquisitely beautiful daughter named Amarda, 20 years of age, who is angry and dismissive with Lew, seeing him as an agent of the corrupt Balim, proof of how far down her family has come in the world.

Lew, still madly in love with Ellen, who is waiting at the airport for him and Balim, finds himself falling for Amarda as well (what man can ever resist a beautiful woman who is rude to him?).   There’s more than a touch of Alan Grofield in Lew, one must note in passing.  But this isn’t a Stark novel, as I’ve already mentioned (Grofield might play the hero, but he’d never think of himself as one).  And Ellen Gillespie is no Mary Deegan, waiting patiently for her man to come home from his mercenary/amatory adventures.

Doomed to an arranged marriage with a suitor chosen from the very limited pool of men she can marry in her segregated society, Amarda actively seeks an affair with this exciting stranger, and Lew finds himself unable to resist.   And Ellen isn’t stupid.   She figures it out.  But since communication is still not their strong suit, neither of them brings it up.  The rain has put everything on hold, so she just pretends nothing is happening.  For now.

Much is happening elsewhere.   Baron Chase is wheeling and dealing, with the German buyer, with Amin, with an English agent of a trade bureau who is supposed to make sure the Ugandan sale of coffee to Brazil stays nice and legal. The book changes perspective from chapter to chapter, moving us effortlessly between Europe and Africa, reminding us that even at a time when Uganda was a pariah nation, cut off from the rest of the world, engaged in the process of murdering half a million of its own citizens, the west was still doing business there.   Blood money is money nonetheless.

And we are repeatedly made to understand that Frank’s instincts about Chase are correct–anyone who would dare to steal from Idi Amin Dada is not going to be above double-crossing his own partners.   We are introduced to him as “a man so steeped in his own villainy that the evidences of his own evil now only amused him.”  He’s the POV character in many chapters.  This book has heroes, but it has no central protagonist–unless it’s Amin, who we see rarely, but he’s always lurking in the background, looming over the scene like a grotesque jolly giant, only not green, obviously.

Westlake was fascinated by dictators–he’d already created a number of them for earlier books.   As someone who has a bad reaction to any form of authority, the idea of The Ultimate Authority–a man who is above even the law–is equally repugnant and intriguing to him.    The truly remarkable thing to me (and it must have seemed more than merely remarkable to Westlake) is that just before Amin seized power, before most people outside Uganda even knew his name, Westlake had anticipated him in uncanny detail, in that not entirely successful experiment in political satire that is I Gave At The Office.

Amin’s coup (backed by the British and the Israelis, who both came to regret it) was in January of 1971.   I Gave At The Office had its New York Times review in May of that year.  Self-evidently, he’d written the book months before the coup, and well before anybody got an accurate notion of who and what Amin really was.

And yet the dictator of the fictional Ilha Pombo island, Colonel Mungu, who got there by overthrowing the previous dictator, comes across as a picture perfect parody of Amin, and would have been seen as such by everyone, had the book come out a few years later.  Fat, jovial, unflappable, oddly charming, and an utter sociopath, whose methods of staying in power are basically identical to those of Amin (and to be sure, many other power-hungry megalomaniacs before and since–the personality pattern doesn’t have that many variations, when you get right down to it).   If I had written that book, and then someone virtually identical to its central antagonist seemingly appeared out of thin air, I’d be forced to at least entertain the fancy that I’d somehow conjured him into being, as much as any of the purely fictional people in the book.

Westlake, therefore, feels a weird connection to this very real monster, a sense that there is some inexplicable link between them, something that comes out when the narrator reminds us that not long after the events of this book, Amin was in turn overthrown by forces that came from the Tanzanian border region of West Lake.  No, I am not making that up, and neither was Westlake.  But he must have quietly marveled at the coincidence.  If that’s what it was.  Remember what he said once–a realist is somebody who thinks the world is simple enough to be understood–and it isn’t.  Not even close.  More things in heaven and earth, Horatio.

And more plot elements in this book than I can possibly synopsize.  I knew this would be a two-parter going in, but I also knew I’d have to find some way to get around its length and complexity, which is going to mean taking a somewhat similar approach to some of my other reviews, like the one for Dancing Aztecs.

I could go on a few thousand more words before the break, but it’s late, I have laundry to do, and I think I’ll just let this serve as the preface, and Part 2 will be devoted to analyzing the characters–and real or imagined, there are great characters in this book, and they aren’t all lusty white mercenaries with wandering eyes.

In many ways, this is a novel that, like so many western tales of adventure in Africa, focuses a lot on the daring deeds and lusty affairs of white people.  That is, one could say, an inherent failing of the entertainment-oriented format Westlake is writing in, but he’s not content to leave it there–we start by identifying with the white heroes, sure–then he pulls us into the minds of the blacks, the Asians, and even the villains (of all colors), makes us see things from their point of view, and he reminds us how deeply everything and everyone in this world of ours is connected–a truth we need to become more deeply aware of, before it’s too late.

Some of these characters he shows us  are members of the Luo Tribe of Kenya–which produced one Barack Hussein Obama, who came to Hawaii as a student, and I think you know the rest.  And Westlake died on the very last day of 2008, about eight weeks after we’d elected a new President.   More things in heaven and earth, Horatio.  I said that already, didn’t I?

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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19 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Kahawa, Uncategorized

19 responses to “Review: Kahawa

  1. Adi Kiescher

    Thanks a lot, I can’t wait for part 2. I have been reading the complete Parker series again and again, same with Dortmunder, but I’ve never ever read a book that often as Kahawa. A true gem.

    • Sorry you had to wait so long for Part 1–this has been a hard one to cover, and I did want to do it justice. It’ll never be one of my favorites, but I found myself enjoying it more the second time through, and understanding better what Westlake was trying for.

      But if I tried to synopsize the whole thing, it’d probably end up being a three-parter (at least), and I refuse to give it equal time with Butcher’s Moon. Never doing that again. Not for just one book, anyway.

      I am going to try and get Part 2 done this week. Always possible that other matters will distract me. Westlake’s epics are always a challenge. Just a few more after this–Drowned Hopes, Smoke, and perhaps the final Starkian Triptych, but that’s three books, even if it is one very long story.

  2. Anthony

    This is also one of my favorite Westlakes, flaws included. I have reread it many many times. My list of flaws might be as long or longer than yours, but I love it just the same.

    There are plenty of Westlakian delights. The description of Frank plop-squirking through the mud and the summation of Amin as a cross between Kissinger at his most ponderous and Mohammed Ali at his most butterfly and bee are two that pop immediately to mind.

    There is also the very real horror of the State Research Bureau. I can’t think of any other writer who would develop a story with such integrity out of such realities. Much more than just not dancing on the graves. Integrity.

    Hard to say about the sex. I don’t think it stunned me when the book first came out. There is a passage in Adios Scheherazade where the protagonist complains something along the lines that “real” writers of literature could use words like fuck and cunt but pulp writers had to use euphemisms. Maybe Mr Westlake was feeling the freedom of the times…

    In the introduction to the rerelease of Kahawa he notes that all the complaining mail was about the sex rather than the violence. He wasn’t indignant. Bemused is more like it. He was certainly not the first to point out this quirk in the media consuming public, nor the last. Commenting via his novels on this sort of human foible was his bread and butter after all.

    Looking forward to reading part 2.

    • Well, it’s hardly at the level of 1984 or (even better) Darkness At Noon, but yes, he does seem intent on showing us just how bad a totalitarian state can get, while still dreaming of ways to overcome and defeat the Organization Men, because that’s what he does. But he’s drawing, you might say, on his own past experience with police interrogation, trivial as he knew it was by comparison–like a method actor, he’s got to revisit that in his mind in order to feel what these people are feeling, convey it to us.

      It was in Ex Officio that he wrote about how people get confused and angry when somebody in the public eye behaves or expresses himself in a way they don’t expect. I think he got mail about the sex because so many people who read him as Westlake were used to him not going into the wet and wonderful details of coitus. But he’d never refrained from that kind of intimate descriptive writing out of prudery, or a fear of causing offense. It was because it would be a distraction from the story, and because he felt like there were only so many things you could say about it before you started repeating yourself. He’s not the only writer who felt this way. Others feel differently (Lawrence Block and Max Allan Collins will write in sex scenes just because they like them, and assume, quite correctly, that many of their readers do as well).

      In the end, writers trying to share their perceptions with us have to make choices about what to leave in, or take out. Or else write a James Joyce novel.

      Here, he must have felt like he needed to talk about precisely how these people were screwing in order to tell us who they are. But again, it may also have been that Africa brought out this feeling in him (and that trip was, you might say, a belated honeymoon)–or that, as you most correctly state, he felt like he was now writing a more mainstream book, and mainstream books all had explicit sex scenes by this point. It’s expected. But the way he did it–not so expected. I think he threw some people for a loop, as he did with the politics in The Spy in the Ointment.

      This is the burden he’s struggling under–he’s still the comic caper guy, the Fugitive Pigeon and Dortmunder guy, at least when writing under his own name. Imagine if P.G. Wodehouse had written a book full of explicit sex scenes. I’m not sure he would have known how, but imagine how people would have reacted. Actually, how would that have gone?

      “I say, Jeeves, when Honoria Glossop and Florence Cray come over, shall we have a foursome? How about a muff and dick buffet? That would be jolly!”

      “No sir, that arrangement is not appropriate for the fall season. I would recommend Naked Twister.”

      “Oh right ho, right ho!”

      “Indeed, sir.”

      I had to google those positions. 😦

      • Anthony

        Bravo It’s so hard to read Wodehouse because I invariably laugh out loud and when my wife asks what’s so funny my response is almost always along the lines of “Oh, Jeeves just said ‘Indeed, sir.'”

        As to your first point regarding 1984 (I don’t know Darkness at Noon), Kahawa led me to do some of my own research about Uganda under Amin. Westlake did not exaggerate or made up any of it. There was a State Research Bureau (if anything, even worse than Westlake’s depiction), Amin did keep heads of his “enemies,” the VIP treatment was as Westlake describes. As he says, all the stage sets were real. So while Orwell’s 1984 represents a pinnacle, it is the work of a novelist taking a premise to an extreme. Westlake neither embellished nor sugar coated – he treated at least this part of the story as factually as he, or anybody, could. An interesting way to make a point.

        Somebody like Tarantino (I can’t think of a novelist equivalent off the top of my head) might take the same baseline and exaggerate it into a black humor extravaganza. Westlake kept his tongue out of his cheek, for which in this book I have a hell of a lot of respect,

        • Darkness At Noon, by Arthur Koestler, is the best account of totalitarianism I know of, and a powerful influence on Orwell when he was writing 1984. It’s about how a man held by the secret police of an unnamed nation (but clearly Stalin’s Russia) is made not merely to confess to crimes he never committed, but to surrender his very sense of self to the state. Koestler wasn’t making anything up either. Orwell, as you say, merely took what was really happening to its anti-logical extreme.

          Amin was not so intellectual, I think. His was a System of One, and after him could come the great flood, for all he cared. He didn’t mind what anybody believed in their hearts, as long as those hearts were trembling in fear at the very thought of him.

          Westlake wants us to know that this is a justified crime. As Stark, of course, he wouldn’t care–there are no heroes in Stark. There are only very reluctant heroes in most of his work under his own name, such as the Dortmunders, and in Coe, and really almost everything. Heroes who see themselves as heroes tend to screw things up, more often than not.

          But here, he’s going to break his own self-imposed rule, and write about people who want to do good–by doing bad. As, you might say, Oskar Schindler did. The rogues and determined non-conformists of the world. I sometimes like to think of them as God’s reserve troops, to be called on in times of emergency. The ones who refuse to be broken, who simply will not march in step. I suspect Westlake had a similar notion.

  3. To be honest, I don’t see any Timothy J. Culver in thys book. Ex Officio was solemn, even glum, Almost all the characters in it were just miserable (including the main couple, until they fell in love.). The relative who was a TV newsman was shown as being a terribly henpecked husband for no real reason I could see except that he needed a reason to be unhappy too. And the plot just plodded along.

    Kahawa has Westlake characters, all very active and alive, like the British guy who decides he’s found love with the sexy younger thing, and is so sincerely crazy about here that she, who only slept with him on orders, and has clearly done that many times before, starts to feel it too. He does come to a horrible, gruesome end which is not necessarily what we’d expect from Westlake, but not from Culver either, where the end for the ex-President is for of a living death. And the plot is full of incident, twists, turns, violence and wild humor.

    If I had to apportion it among auctorial voices, I’d say Westlake in charge with Stark brought in to gore it up.

    • I don’t really mean to say there’s no ‘Westlake’ in it–Culver didn’t do the heist parts of the book, for sure. But it’s a political thriller, albeit quite different from the mainly domestic intrigue of Ex Officio. It switches perspectives and locales a lot, and has a really interesting and wholly admirable female lead, who is a protagonist in her own right (we rarely get this in a Westlake, and never in a Stark). Culver believes in heroes, in a way Westlake can’t. It’s also less focused, and the humor isn’t as sharp as in a Westlake. It’s got more of a history lecture feel about it, which isn’t a bad thing at all from my perspective, but a pure Westlake would be more wary of boring his audience (and predictably, lots of people were bored by all the history).

      Culver has a tendency to put in a lot of extra subplots, multiple romances–the Tolstoy influence–and I’m not sure I think the whole story with Sir Denis and Patricia was worth the time he spent on it, except maybe to remind us that nobody is safe in a country like that. Except nobody’s really safe anywhere, ever.

      In a true Westlake, the politics is in the background–here it’s in the foreground. I agree that Ex Officio is more somber, but I do see a lot of Culver in this one, particularly the way he writes about sex. You know, we only have one Culver book to compare with, and we can take this MPD approach a bit too far. It’s always Westlake, down deep. He’s just writing a different book, for what he hopes will be a somewhat different audience. He needs the part of him that’s Culver, but since Ex Officio wasn’t a huge success either, he’s mixing it up more, giving the people lots of what they expect from him, which he likes writing anyway.

      The books are of equivalent length and complexity, and if Ex Officio is more somber, it’s equally a warning of how easily things can fall apart–the fear of a ‘fuhrer’ of the left or right overthrowing Democracy–in Uganda, the fuhrer is so powerful, he’s overthrown politics itself. It’s not droll and joyful the way Dancing Aztecs is–it’s not a dance of any kind. And we know why it’s not. All those graves.

      More than a touch of Stark in the way the cruelty of Amin’s Uganda is portrayed, in the planning and execution of the heist, and most definitely in the character of Baron Chase (that’s a very direct reference to The Handle, Stark’s only real venture into political intrigue), but Stark doesn’t have a social conscience, I think you’d agree. Stark has contempt for heroes. Stark gave up on all of us a long time ago. Westlake and Culver still have some hope left. That’s why they can still be afraid.

      • I’m not sure I think the whole story with Sir Denis and Patricia was worth the time he spent on it, except maybe to remind us that nobody is safe in a country like that.

        Sir Denis knows who he is. He even knows who Patricia is, but he believes she can become someone better and also persuades her of that. (Is he right? Unfortunately, he doesn’t get the chance to find out.) So in a Parker book, he’d probably be all right, but Kahawa is set in a much more chaotic universe where, as you say, no one is safe.

        • Sir Denis thinks he’s the hero, saving the maiden fair (well, that’s how he sees her). But he’s not remotely equipped for that role, as Lew is.

          He knew who he was, but not where he was. On some level, he felt invulnerable, because of his position, because of his class, because of his nationality, because of his color. None of which meant a damned thing to those officers. Human life itself means nothing to men like that. Only their own lives.

          Patricia doesn’t need to be better. She’s fine the way she is. She kows who she is, and where she is, and what she has to do to stay alive. That’s why she does (well that, and because Westlake likes her too much to kill her off).

          Starkian morality–he’s not gone. He’s just working undercover. His fingerprints are all over this book, but he’s letting Westlake drive the train. Perhaps with a bit of a sneer on his face. Waiting his time.

        • Adi Kiescher

          I beg to differ. Sir Denis is just another crook who happened to fall in love with a beautiful fascinating young lady. As happened before in history and in presence many many many times with all sort of 50+ guys around the world who think about a new inspiration and a new meaning of life. Still he is very much involved in that network of evil down there. Parker would have shot him right away, if Sir Denis were in his way. On the other hand, Parker would have shot anybody in Kahawa who were in his way;-) Except for Frank, maybe. BTW, Frank is my favorite character in Kahawa. What an unpretentious crook. Love him. What a guy.

          • That’s an interesting perspective, but I think it’s made pretty clear that Sir Denis isn’t a crook, which is why he’s kept in the dark most of the time. He’s an honest man dealing with thieves, because that’s his job–not a wolf in the fold, but a sheep in the pack. He’s not stupid, either–just blinkered.

            Is he a bit of a hypocrite? Sure, but who isn’t? Parker, of course–but he’s not in this book. This book mixes the approaches of Westlake, Stark, and Culver with regards to character, which makes it a bit hard to figure at points. Sir Denis gets pulled out of his element, drawn by the lure of a beautiful exciting woman, and one could argue he has a far better death than he’d have had just doddering away at some old country manse in England. He played it safe all his life, and then he decided to try the wild side. Honestly, I think he’d do it all again, given the chance.

            I will give Frank all due homage next time. I also prefer him to Lew. I think maybe Westlake did as well, but didn’t want to admit it. I rather wish some of the time devoted to Sir Denis and Patricia had been allocated to Frank and Ellen instead, but take it up with the author, if you can find him. 😉

            • Adi Kiescher

              Well, as soon as your job is dealing with thieves, you’re a thief yourself. Ask Parker, ask Dortmunder, ask Arnie Albright and Spoon. Even if you’re British and a Sir.

              • Anthony

                I see both points, but would probably err on the side of Sir Denis not being a thief. Westlake describes his job as recognizing that all players will be involved in underhandedness and he is to do what he can to ensure as level a playing field as possible. The referee of a sporting match in which there is some dirty play is not a dirty player. He’s or she’s a referee.

              • He gets paid exactly the same, no matter how honest or dishonest the transaction may be, and if he had any proof of false dealings, he’d report them. If he were on the take, that would be different. If he were on the take, he’d probably have lived. Grossbarger could have told him the whole truth.

                No, he dies only because he gets lured outside the safe zone by Patricia. Though Chase might have had him killed simply out of spite, if he wasn’t occupied with more urgent matters.

  4. It’s a damned shame it sold so badly. The rewards for painstaking research and truly caring about telling the truth should not be failure and the realization that the universe is telling you never to make that mistake again.

    • Some books take time to be accepted–for what it’s worth, this review is getting a whole lot of hits, more than most of the books that don’t have Parker or Dortmunder in them. And Kahawa is still in print, if only electronically. Some of his very best books can’t say as much.

      I think the reward, for him, was to see Africa–really see it. I think he loved it very deeply. Perhaps because it’s probably the most alive place on earth (I say this as someone who has never been there). The source of all human life, for which we can bless or curse it, but nobody ever blessed or cursed at all before Africa gave rise to humanity. People think of it as this awful hellhole, full of diseases and genocide and famine and civil war and fierce beasts and people making nature documentaries. It’s so much more than that. I keep hearing from people who have been there, and they keep wanting to go back.

      At the office, I recently had to go over a number of interviews conducted by one of our resident Jesuits of his brother Jesuits, and when they talked about Africa (many had spent long years there), there was this sense of awe at the people–how resilient and powerful they are, how they celebrate life, even in the middle of death, and of course it’s a much more religious place (which can be a mixed blessing, but it’s not like most of them are involved in holy wars). Westlake was obviously very impressed with the caliber of Uganda’s Christians–probably met some in Kenya, since Uganda was still not safe enough for him and Abby to visit when they were there.

      What seems to have worried him most about Africa was that it was rejecting diversity–decolonization was leading to non-black populations being expelled, and this is still a problem. A Mandela can see the need for variety, but the present-day ANC is headed by a man who thinks black people shouldn’t keep dogs because that’s a white thing, a western thing. Seriously, he said that. While wearing a business suit, complete with necktie.

      People are crazy everywhere. But I think there’s a lot of good crazy there, and I hope I get to see it someday. Plus I hear the birding is really good. 😉

  5. Adi Kiescher

    I absolutely agree. I’ve been to Kenya for 20 years in a row – in and out -, most of the times working in Nairobi, sometimes holidays in Mombasa. 4 – 6 months per year working, 4 weeks per year holidays. This is a fascinating country and a fascinating nation with fascinating people of all kinds. It cannot be described in words, one has to be there and feel it. Westlake was very very close to describe it in words, he did love that area indeed. But still, you must have been there. I’m a western European guy with all western European virtues – which contradict to a lot of African virtues – but, guys, this is a marvellous area in this world. Sorry for bad English, I’m not a native speaker.

    • I’m afraid I tend to do most of my traveling via books and films. I’ve been to Germany only because I have a good friend who moved there with his German wife and his now very German sons. I’ve been to Ireland because I have family there. My job does not require any travel of any kind, except to the Bronx, which many would consider more dangerous and exotic than Africa. 😉

      I want very much to see both Africa and South America before I’m too old to properly enjoy them. It’s just a matter of time and money. But geez, I’ve never even been to Paris.

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