A quest to unblock the Nile

2008-02-01 00:00

SOMETIMES one has to read a really bad book just to remind oneself how good good books are. The Quest by Wilbur Smith - all 504 endless pages of it - has, if nothing else, more than refreshed my appreciation of what fun it is to read something by an author who actually knows how to use the English language.

This is one of Smith's Egyptian novels. The Nile has been blocked by an evil witch. Our hero, the sage Taita, has to put things right.

Well, he does. At tedious length. Narrated in prose so leaden it could sink a ship.

Smith undeniably has an imagination - but it it is an imagination of such high kitsch that reading him is like reading a Tretchikoff painting. Several times I was laughing hysterically, but for all the wrong reasons. More often, I was cringing with embarrassment for poor Wilbur. He naïvely exposes all his old man's fantasies as ancient Taita gets back his youthful looks and virility and seduces a barely pubescent lovely.

Through all the bad writing and all the bad taste, I could occasionally get a faint glimpse of what Smith thinks he is doing in this book - his higher purpose, if you will. He wanted to reproduce the life and belief systems of the ancients as they themselves saw them, without the benefit of the hindsight of our modern scientific knowledge. It is an interesting idea.

More's the pity that the idea is stillborn.

Life is short. Books are many. I certainly won't ever waste another month on Wilbur Smith.

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