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Book Review: ‘The Seventh Scroll’ by Wilbur Smith

August 20, 2013

I think i am done with almost all of Wilbur Smith’s fictions to my knowledge –  the last one being ‘The Seventh Scroll’ that i recently finished with.  The period of reading varied over years so unable to recollect exact details.  I recollect weeping over his ‘Elephant song’ because i have a soft spot for elephants always.   Summary is:  Wilbur Smith’s are like period books (like period films)! Make an interesting read.  Engrossing in every turn of page.  Informative all the way.  And most of all, a great insight into Africa and its people.

Read all the family sagas or sequels spanning generations, over centuries.  May be not in order always.  My first one was ‘When the lion feeds.’ Got addicted to his writing on Africa with that.  Last one must have been ‘The River God’ i am not sure.  In fact i came to this conclusion only as i progressed with the last one ‘The Seventh scroll’ as i vaguely recall bits and pieces from here and there in ‘The River God.’  Taita and Queen Lostris and Pharoah Mamose ring a bell!  Must have been some years,, still the damming of the Nile somehow reads familiar.

Okay now i am treating this last book of fiction by Wilbur Smith like a fresh one, a disjoint one from all his previous works.  And with no reference to the past i must say the story still holds good like his other creations.  The book is a separate entity by itself.  I find that this work of his is quite a few years old as there is reference to ex-Egypt president Hosni Mubarak.  A lot has changed since then as we all know.  In fact while reading the book, i was also simultaneously tuned in to the tv news bulletin where scenes of  Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood men getting butchered in broad daylight were being played over and over again.  What an eerie coincidence.  The blood bath in Egypt has still not abated even as i round off the book after a week of on-and-off reading.  Arab nations and Democracy:  can these two ever co-exist?  (But it helps to keep in mind that Egypt is not a 100% Arab or Islamic nation.  The Eyptian blood is a mixed blood of many hues including the native Africans and Arabs.  Coptic christians and moslems live here as neighbours and the culture is a vibrant multi-culture.) This is not the same Egypt of Pharaoh Mamose or of Tanus, the Great Lion of Egypt who were Wilbur Smith’s heroes.  I have heard of coptic christians of Ethiopia but this is the first time i am coming across the fact in printed material.  (I don’t think this was ever mentioned by the author in any or his previous works.  Or may be he has and it just eludes my feeble memory).  So Egyptian coptic christians are by far the oldest followers as we can safely conclude.

I have always wanted to go and see the pyramids of Giza, the tomb of Tutankhamun, the ancient Pharaoh of Egypt.  And the Sphinx.  And the museums of Luxor.  Time is not ripe right now.  One day perhaps i will.  Do not possess the ability to imbibe and assimilate such a vast ocean of info’ as relayed by author on Africa or its people or its culture or its ancient glorious history.  But try i will and i know i will relish my every moment in Egypt.  Tanzania and Kenya tours are also in my list for the wildlife safaris but Egypt it will be first!  Hopefully!

For those of us simpletons who are not good with non-fictions to read and learn world history, men like Wilbur Smith are doing a wonderful job.   There is no better way of getting to know these things than in such an interesting and absorbing and educative fashion.

I can’t help smiling at Wilbur Smith writing about Taita wanting to plant himself somewhere in the picture, portraying himself quintessentially in his murals to mark his place in eternity.  Isn’t the author doing the same with frequent reference to himself on many occasions in the book?!  Perhaps Wilbur Smith thinks he is the modern day Taita.  His vivid imagination and detailing of things is spellbinding.  Its like i was seeing a 3D picture!  I have loved each and everyone of his books right from day one and so ‘The Seventh scroll’ also lived up to my expectation.

The author obviously has undertaken extensive research for each work of his before its due publication and so its no wonder every single book of his is meticulous in every detail  No half-baked theories so far as i can conclude (with my layman knowledge that is)! Looks like Smith graduated from the University of Rhodes.  It is from his works i gleaned atleast some little tidbits of knowledge about various African countries and about Zambia and Zaire in particular.  That must have been Rhodesia in the past.  I guess i have also read a good measure about South Africa, Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia until now even if they are all essentially from his fictional works.  There could be exaggerations being the author’s licence to creativity, still i believe there must be some solid base of truth and evidence for all that he writes about.  One needs a platform to build on from.

My opinion on the English took a beating on reading book after book of Wilbur Smith.  (Not that i held high opinion ever of our occupiers of over three centuries).  The greed of the Englishmen for other people’s wealth and their cunning in acquiring the same at any cost is something that i have always resented in his books.  My heart has bled for the loot and plunder of Africa for centuries by these invaders and occupiers.  On the other hand, i can also see how daring and heroic and brave and enterprising the English were at the same time, surpassing their own feat, boldly treading on new territories. pushing the boundaries, setting new goals.  Not all of them are  (portrayed as) racists.  There seems to have been many among them who valued and respected the native Africans and their culture.  From Smith’s earliest books it can be observed that the foreigners and the natives did share such a warm bonhomie for first one or two generations atleast.  Values naturally eroded with passage of time and racist feelings started reigning supreme.  Greed of the ruling class coupled with the corruption and envy of the natives led to trouble at a later stage (classic example being present day Zimbabwe).

From gold and diamonds to ivory to mummies of Egypt to the treasures of the dead pharaohs, the Englishman has not spared looting a single thing belonging to Africa originally.  Its impossible not to get enraged by this desecration of the holy sites and violation of the territorial integrity of the vulnerable poor African nations.  (For a fact Queen Elizabeth is still sitting on the peacock throne taken from another colony my India, sporting the famed, stolen Kohinoor diamond on her crown also from India.)  If the coffers of the British treasury are to payback everything to their colonies that were plundered cunningly from the natives, i guess entire Great Britain will have to file for bankruptcy in matter of hours!

(Note :  The British exploits also included number of estates in African countries employing the locals for meagre wages as farm hands etc.  Such estates sprawled over hectares and hectares of prime and fertile lands.  And how easily the gold and diamond mining must have been done with the poorest able-bodied Africans who must not even have know how they were losing out to foreigners, that they were helping them rob their own native lands.  So cruel.)

If such a hostile terrain like Africa redundant with violence and disease could still be tamed by the British, just imagine what a field day these guys must have had with a passive India that was the richest country in the world in the 19th and 20th centuries.

None from the British commonwealth can ever come to love Great Britain with all their heart.  Our treasures are still stashed in their homes and palaces and galleries.

In class VIII i recall my history teacher bellowing to us girls “and why do they say the sun never sets in the British empire?’

To which we the twelve year olds hardly held any answer.  It was only when Ms. Kalyani explained to us how the British conquered anything and everything in their vicinity from east to west that we understood what a marvelous kingdom indeed was theirs.  The adventurous spirit of the Englishmen/Europeans led to discovery of many landfalls like the continents of Australia and Antarctica and for scaling the Mount Everest and the like.   One also has to credit them with invention of life saving vaccines and innovations in science and technology and for inscribing world standards in almost anything that touches our life in the modern day world be it automobiles or fountain pen or television set or cell phone or cinema or highways or skyscrapers or even the simple pair of jeans and tee-shirt that the global citizens have adapted so lovingly.  I have no qualms in admitting that they are blessed with superior genes!   Dwelling in the past can be only upto a certain point and we got to move on, keep going!  Without the contribution of the British/Europeans to civilize the world in last two centuries, Planet Earth would still be shrouded in darkness and mystery today.

Married to a civil engineer, i learn how the British who ruled India for nearly 300 years had surveyed and  mapped every square inch of this entire subcontinent.  The tough surveying work done in the western ghats in the south needs a special mention.  (and i have not been to the north until now including the capital New Delhi!) I am an admirer or Pennycuick, the architect/engineer of many dams that still stand good in South India.  John Pennycuick sold even his personal belongings to fund his pet projects in his adopted country India that he had come to serve where he breathed his last.  The Nilgiris toy train is another British marvel as it chugs over stone piers and bridges done over a century ago by the British.  May be laymen could not be seeing so much behind these symbols of the days of the British Raj that stand until today, but with an engineering background we are able to appreciate how much effort must have gone in to achieve this almost impossible feat some 100-200 years before when the forest cover could have been most intimidating in the Nilgiris brimming with its wildlife population including elephants and tigers and when tropical diseases like Malaria could strike without notice and were fatal.  The survey work for the Munnar hills/tea estates is astonishing because this is one  part of the western ghats that is tough to tame until today because this is an elephant corridor basically.  Even the Tata Tea factory runs a documentary with a special mention for the British contribution in the tea industry right from clearing the dense forests to planting the tea varieties under foreboding circumstances when electricity was not there as well as decent plumbing or other creature comforts including proper transport or health and recreational facilities.  The Tata Tea have merely taken over from their original English masters.  I am giving here this simple illustration to show how much has also been done to India at the same time by the British rulers.  The surveying records in India from that period are a masterpiece i believe.  My hometown Chennai is also home to some fine heritage buildings from the colonnial era and that includes the present day High Court premises and the University blocks.  I have nothing but admiration for British Engineers who excelled in every field including in ship-making and textiles industry in those ages  when our own ancestors led not a remarkable life.  This is just a case in point, so one can picture the scene in entire India in the British Raj days.  Such an organization of things and meticulous research and planning and execution of work is something we all have to imbibe from our erstwhile rulers.  Dedication to purpose and sense of commitment are most important qualities i see in them through not only Wilbur Smith’s eyes but through the standing examples of engineering and architecture in British India days.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Pennycuick_(British_engineer)

I used to get this impression with Wilbur Smith’s previous works:   I could sense his empathy for the natives of Africa but still there was a doubt lurking beneath whether the author was trying to put the white man one-up always against the coloured people (even if that could be true hahaha).  Because inspite of the spate of good work done by the Europeans to improve the quality of human life in last few centuries, i strongly believe at the same time that  this does not give them any excuse to exploit the innocence of the natives and strip them of their inherited natural wealth.

Wilbur Smith finally seems to come to my point with his work ‘The Seventh Scroll’ where through the Egyptian archaeologist and hieroglyphist Dr. Royan Al Simma, the fictional character, he seems to acknowledge how wrong it is to deceive and usurp from someone their belonging and cultural heritage for one’s personal pleasure or for the reason of accumulating treasures.  Its highly immoral. principally wrong that can never be righted ever.  I am happy with the book that way.  Because until now even though i have enjoyed every single book by this author, i have also been quietly and strangely hating him for a reason. The aging author seems to have relented finally, clearing any air of doubts and suspicions on his motives with this one ‘The seventh scroll’ which goes down well with me.

I also acknowledge that even while Egypt and India were once the world’s oldest civilizations far ahead of their peers around the period, they failed to keep up the momentum in the intervening centuries.  They say ‘all is fair in war and love’ and by this rule of the bygone era, i forgive the British of all their ‘misdoings’ not only in India but also in Africa.  At the same time i am also not blind to what Zimbabwe has come to be under Robert Mugabe.  More of the so-called liberated African nations could be going the Zimbabwean way pretty soon if its not happening already.  Not only tropical diseases but also rampant corruption and mindless violence seem to reek off of Africa and the present times are not any better.

The best of the book the way i see it:

Page: 514

In the excavated tomb gallery, the Egyptian hieroglyphist Royan who is a coptic christian comes across the mother Goddess Isis with her infant (god) Horus suckling her breast.  Royan sees Mother Mary with her infant Jesus in the ancient Egyptian goddess and her son and acknowledges her roots and heritage and culture with or without some misgivings coming to embrace the truth that the Madonna and her child were cleverly fused with the icons of the original ruling gods of her nation and people (refer to para starting:  ‘In ancient Byzantium’). Tears flow down her eyes as she weeps seeing the Madonna in Isis.  In every inch of the book, the coptic christian Royan seems to acknowledge her true forefathers and swells with pride that she is one of their direct descendants.

Only a person very true to his or her heart can be brave enough to allow such an admission to sink in.   The author has touched a nerve here.  I wish the same could be true of all Indian christians and muslims and also the muslims of south Asian nations like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh and wish they are honest enough to admit their origianl Hindu or Buddhist heritage.   In my opinion, all these nations are built on the foundations of ‘intellectual dishonestly’ where lying to themselves is what keeps them going.  I salute Wilbur Smith for such a candid view on the beliefs and culture of native people.  It takes a lot to say that in print especially but Smith’s African background could be the solid reason behind this compassion.  I am a Hindu, a proud Hindu at that.  We also have trinity of male and female goddesses and to this day our Hindu culture is flourishing despite onslaughts by christian and islamic invasions.  Proudly a pedigree Hindu – and if you are a Hindu in the 21st century, it means you have been Hindu for no less than  2000 to 4000 years!  Not a religious nut, but i am enormously proud of my ancient heritage and well-preserved culture.  We need more people like Royan among Indian muslims and christians to tell themselves who they are.

Normally Wilbur Smith’s fictions end with a catch which is surprisingly not so with this one.  The climax and ending are smooth where all the good guys live happily forever and the baddies are punished and sent to hell.  Signs of the author getting old?!

Thanks Mr. Author for the way you have summed up the story with the return of the precious antique artifacts to the Luxor museum by the hero Sir Nicholas Quenton-Harper.  Such a change of heart to me means a change of heart somehow in the author himself.  This is what i wanted to see in every single work of his.  This  is what i hated him for – for denying me the ultimate admission.  But with this one i sense Wilbur Smith is reformed in a way, and perhaps Taita has something to do with this transformation?  I can’t love Smith enough for that!  Theoritically speaking he has given his best to Africa and even to India in some remotely possible manner with his seventh scroll.

Taita reminds me of our own Chanakya in ancient Hindu/Indian history.  I couldn’t dispel the comparison through the reading time.

Excellent read especially for a housewife like me.  Quality time!  The author’s genius in crafting such an exquisite piece of fiction (even if the adjective might not be appropriate here) is impressive.

Looking forward to next in the sequel Wilbur Smith but don’t get predictable.  You are doing just that old man!

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