Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Ugly American Goes to Sudan

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Ugly American Goes to Sudan

Article excerpt

The Ugly American Goes to Sudan ACTS OF FAITH By PHILIP CAPUTO Knopf, 688pages, $26.95

PHILIP CAPUTO'S Acts of Faith is a big, serious, ambitious work. It has been admirably researched and is quite decently written, to boot. So why does it fall short of provoking any real enthusiasm? Quite possibly because-on reaching the end of this intricately plotted novel-you realize that it is no coincidence two of the key players are American. Their nationality is essential for the author to make a very specific, and very tired, political point.

This realization becomes utterly clear in the last quarter of the novel, where the action really picks up. Caputo setded on the nationality of his characters, the aviator and entrepreneur Douglas Braithwaite and the evangelical Christian Quinette Hardin, because he thinks they represent damning flaws in the American national character today.

Initially, such American flaws appear almost as positive virtues: energy, determination, a desire to do good. Only gradually-in fact, so gradually as to slow the impact of the novel-do these failings stand revealed as an explanation in Caputo s mind as to why the United States plays such a damaging role on the world stage.

Now that I think about it, Caputo clues the reader in at the onset with his three epigraphs. The first, from Ecclesiastes, declares, "All things have I seen in the days of my vanity,... for God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil." The second is from Joseph Conrad's novel Nostroma: "It seemed to him that every conviction, as soon as it became effective, turned into that form of dementia the gods send upon those they wish to destroy." And the third, from Biaise Pascal: "Whoever tries to turn angel turns beast." (Not perhaps the most felicitous translation of that well-known seventeenth-century dictum.)

Caputo locates his story in Africa-an Africa he defines in his very first sentence: "there is no difference between God and the Devil in Africa. Whoever understands that in his blood and bones and guts, where true understanding resides, will swim in its treacherous currents, whoever doesn't will drown." The action is situated principally in Kenya and the Sudan, a territory Caputo got to know thirty years ago having crossed the deserts of Sudan and Eritrea on foot and camelback on the trip that inspired his first novel, Horn of Africa. This most recent work however is centered around the civil war raging in Sudan where Muslim warriors swoop down on villages of people, either Christian or followers of ancient rites, to murder and capture slaves. Famine, drought, and abject misery are rampant. To his credit Caputo makes this alien world come very much alive.

The plot involves a Christian aid organization that pays dollars to liberate the black slaves taken in these raids by the northern Sudanese Arabs led by a warlord named Ibraham Idris, who is acting in conceit with the government in Khartoum. …

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