An African Tragedy

Article excerpt

ADVENTURE, realism, and suspense are the stuff of Wilbur Smith's books. His portrayals of dwindling wilderness and endangered species - whether species of animals or isolated indigenous peoples - are as compelling as any National Geographic special.

In "Elephant Song," his newest book, all ingredients of a Smith novel are present.

* Adventure: The action ranges from the dense rain forests of central Africa, out onto the great expanse of game preserves, to the paneled board rooms of power in London, into little- known enclaves of opulence on Taiwan.

* Realism: the achingly told account of culling an entire herd of elephants in a game park; the seamy greed of sadistic Asian and black African ivory poachers; a pathetic backdrop of tribalism, overpopulation, ignorance, and corruption in decolonialized Africa.

* Suspense: a story line that develops a series of rich subplots each with its own hairbreadth ending. Certainly, there is an element of the formulaic in "Elephant Song." The characters for the most part are two-dimensional, more defined by what they do, or fail to do, than by any inner exploration of motive or human psychology.

And yet, there is a tremendous moral force in "Elephant Song." The story transcends any formula by making its case, passionately, for the human hunger for justice. Protagonist Daniel Armstrong becomes the avenging conscience of civilized behavior in the face of mindless savagery.

Born in white Rhodesia, (as a young man he fought to keep it so), the wildlife documentary-maker loves black Zimbabwe. He weeps bitterly at the brutal murder of his best friend, a black game warden, and the rape and murder of the friend's wife and two daughters by elephant poachers in a cross-border raid.

Armstrong's sensibilities are clearly stand-ins for the author's, who was also born in central Africa. In the face of human inhumanity both to humans and nature, Smith employs Old Testament retribution - felons literally pay with an "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. …