By Carol Campbell
It’s quite something to have in one’s hands an advance copy of the latest Wilbur Smith blockbuster. As I sat reading in my favourite coffee shop in Florida Road in Durban I could feel eyes on me as people noticed the bright yellow cover with the familiar name of one of the world’s most loved authors emblazoned across the cover.
Desert God, the fifth in the Egypt series and the sequel to River God, was launched in the middle of last month (September) and I can tell you Smith might be 81 with 30-plus novels under the belt but he still has the touch. This is an exotic tale set in Ancient Egypt that has all the elements of a Wilbur Smith cracker. Lust, treachery, heroism all set against the backdrop of the Hyksos domination of north Africa. The major characters are intriguing, often lovable and, not always human but that’s a little twist that makes the book that much richer.
The author was in South Africa to promote the novel and I had 30 minutes with him for a telephone interview. I phoned him at his Cape Town home, which, he says, is in the shadow of Devil’s Peak. He visits regularly and watches the goings on with the interest of someone whose life is inextricably threaded into the fabric of Africa. His base though is London and, when he is writing, his routine is to put in a full day and then wind down with a walk around the Serpentine.
With many books set in the African bush the shift to Egypt seemed natural. The stories though have been brewing in Smith’s mind for decades.
“My mother was fascinated by Ancient Egypt,” he said, “She had followed the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter and told us the stories of the pharaoh as children.”
As a young man Smith’s fascination with Egypt inspired a journey along the Nile. He hired a caravan of four camels to take him from Luxor to the Red Sea. Surviving on dates and Bully Beef he had time and space – and an incredibly exotic setting – for the character of Taita (pronounced Ty-ee-ta, Smith says with a flourish) to take root.
The demi-god Taita, who has lived in the writer’s mind for so long, is a eunuch and for one of Smith’s main characters, different. He is a superb athlete, master strategist, brilliant people-person and, understandably, terribly vain. Removing the main character’s physical sexuality seemed dramatic to me.
“It enables him to do things and be in situations that a man wouldn’t normally be party to,” Smith chuckles. For one Taita is the guardian to the Pharaoh’s beautiful sisters, Tehuti and Bekatha, who have no scruples about walking around stark naked. It also enables Smith to introduce one of the cruelties of the ancient world to his readers. Taita, a freed slave, often refers to the trauma of his castration. When the character of Zaras castrates a Hyksos captive, Taita recoils.
“I was reluctant to allow those same brutalities to be visited on another human being, however evil and monstrous,” Taita says.
The character’s immortality becomes the golden thread through the story. When he has a joining of souls with the goddess Inana, the reader’s already prickled suspicion, that one is dealing with a character who is more than he seems, is confirmed.
“I needed to give him longevity,” says Smith. “Taita is a character who will transcend generations and he needs to stay the same (after all there are more books coming). It was a technique to extend his life.”
This story, in true Wilbur Smith style, transports the reader to another age and is a gripping page-turner. It was a joy to speak to Smith who clearly loves Africa deeply. His next book might jump the Mediterranean Sea, though, as he casts his eyes towards Ancient Greece.
“After every book I say it’s the last one,” he says, “But then a story has to be told and I find myself going back to write again, so yes, there will be another one.”