544 pages, Pan Books
Review by Pat Black
Throughout my book-addicted life, Wilbur Smith was one of those writers whom I’d pass by on the shelves without giving a second glance. Sometimes it was hard to guess what Smith’s books were actually about. They were sagas, rather than stories – perhaps there’s something in this that put me off.
Reading an article the other day about his publisher, the legendary Charles Pick, triggered a memory of the one Wilbur Smith book I have read. According to Pick’s unpublished memoirs, a treasure trove of encounters with the 20th century’s most famous authors, Smith was quite the looker in his salad days. He caused many a female member of staff at his publisher to fall over in a faint as he passed them on the stairs. Big sexy bugger!
An unexpected couple of days in the Excelsior Suite in my local NHS hospital, and a common room with few books, gave me the time and opportunity to try the South African author out. When The Lion Feeds is his first novel, an instant success, a gigantic bestseller, the kind of literary opening innings for which you might seek an evaluation on your grandmother.
First published in 1966, When The Lion Feeds is a family saga and historical adventure, looking at the travails of the Courtney clan from the 1860s-1890s in South Africa. The first thing to tell you is that it is an awesome page-turner. It gripped me from the very first, and didn’t let go. Great action, memorable characters, snappy dialogue, wonderful plotting, loads of sex… it’s got the lot. That’s the banner quote, should Smith ever need one.
Sometimes books can just whoosh past you – in one ear, and out the other. When The Lion Feeds is not one of these books. Going on for four years since I first read it, a lot of the detail in Smith’s debut is still burned into my mind. That could have been to do with the memorable context in which I read it, but I don’t think so. It’s a testament to Smith’s superb storytelling. No wonder they were tripping over themselves to sign the handsome South African up.
What also becomes quickly apparent is that there’s something badly wrong with this book. At a fundamental level.
Sean Courtney, the hero, is blond and handsome and athletic. Leonine, almost, you might say. He inherits his father’s cattle farming business in Natal in the late 1800s. But he also has a brother, Garrick. Garrick could have been all the things that Sean was, except that Garrick is disabled. This is thanks to a childhood incident involving a gun which Sean is largely responsible for. Sean doesn’t actually seem to be crushed by guilt over this act – a characteristic we will see more of. He does look out for Garrick after divesting him of a leg, although sometimes it seems as if he’s being manipulated by his craven, workshy younger brother. Indeed, there’s a suggestion that Garrick was the weaker of the two, anyway - bookish, thin and a bit of a sissy. You might be inclined to wonder if it wasn’t perfectly natural, how things worked out. As if the dominant one had established who’s boss.
So Sean inherits the business, and Garrick gimps along in his wake. Primacy is established. You can bet Garrick’s bitter about that. That’s no problem. Life is life, we take the hand we are dealt. There are winners and losers. We can’t help how we feel. It’s only natural. Someone’s got to be the boss, and it makes sense for Sean to be the head bummer in an active, outdoors, rough and ready occupation. It happens.
So before long, we’ve got a one-legged evil gnome on our hands. Garrick goes from being Sean’s lesser sibling to a rival, and then a full-on nemesis. As if these problems weren’t enough, we’re shown that Garrick is also sexually impotent, unable to satisfy his wife. Meanwhile, Sean rides away like billy-o, even more firmly establishing his status as the alpha male. We get that.
Garrick practically bites his own dead useless dick off in frustration, and plots revenge on the whole world.
And that’s not a problem, either. It is possible for disabled people to have unpleasant characteristics. It’s also possible that, owing to a lifetime of setbacks and low confidence, or simply by being physically incapable, they might suffer problems in the bedroom. It’s also possible for siblings to fall out. I concede all that.
Sean’s journey takes him from losing his father’s estate – thanks in no small part to Garrick – to Rorke’s Drift, where he kills a whole load of noble black people, then to the gold rush in Witwatersrand, with lots of shagging in between. It’s the hero’s journey all the way. Fortunes are won and lost, loyalties forged and destroyed, and women are taken and then cast aside. In odd echoes of Star Wars, part of this journey involves Sean taking on and defeating his father, a legendary hardnut, in a fistfight. “What a son I was given!” Courtney Senior muses, as he comes back to consciousness after Sean gives him a banjoing.
Again, primacy is established. The lion takes the lion’s share. It’s only natural.
Sean’s quite a virtuous guy, honest as the day is long, blah de blah, but has a bad temper on him. He loves the hunting, the drinking and the fighting. This makes him irresistible to women, notwithstanding his, some might say, Aryan good looks. And I guess that’s alright, too. Sometimes successful people can be good looking and white. And they are successful with women too. It follows suit. It’s only natural. It does happen.
Every epic story needs a villain, and When The Lion Feeds gets one in Hradsky. Hradsky craves gold. Goldfinger is Goldstub compared to this guy. Sean and his best mate, the dapper if stupidly-named Englishman Duff Charleywood, are forced into an uneasy partnership with Hradsky as they earn a fortune in gold mining.
Hradsky is Jewish, greedy and treacherous. The story reminds you constantly that he is Jewish. It does not make much of the fact that Sean and Duff are white men making lots of money in Africa, too. It prefers to linger on Hradsky’s Jewishness, tying this in with an ugly nature - and also an ugly appearance. Hey, it happens in real life – it is possible that Jewish people can be ugly as well as perfidious and parsimonious. Bound to happen at some point. Law of averages, and all that.
I understand it is something of a trademark of Smith’s to set scenes in the African bush, with daring hunting exploits and exotic wildlife. Smith really lets rip, here, with beautiful descriptions of the land, the skies, the weather, the foliage, the danger and the great beasts. The heart of Africa has long been a fertile hunting ground for authors throughout history, but I’d be surprised if anyone ever captured it as well as Wilbur Smith.
I’ve got no problem with hunting, so long as you eat what you kill. As Smith points out – many times - it can be a tough life, and only the strong survive. And I eat meat, so it’s silly to get upset over animals being shot. You’re hungry, you eat. It’s only natural. And big game hunting still goes on in Africa, of course. I don’t think you get to shoot lions any more – and what greater thrill for a big, strapping, virile, rich, successful white man than to shoot a lion? – but back in the day, you could blast away as you pleased. And there were good, loyal, decent, subservient black men to run around after you while you did it, and to be flogged if they stepped out of line. That’s all true. It did happen.
Annoyingly, I didn’t get the chance to finish this novel, being about 50 pages shy of the end when I had to check out of my NHS Excelsior Suite. I’m not quite so immoral as to steal books from hospitals. Perhaps that’s a weakness on my part.
When The Lion Feeds is a true oddity. It’s not quite a guilty pleasure, nor is it a straight up-and-down outrage. I can’t recommend it, nor can I deny the awesome talent at the author’s disposal.
This book set my imagination aflame and had such a compelling narrative that, nearly four years later, most of the details are fresh in the mind. It is also utterly repellent on just about every human level. The two states do not quite cancel each other out.
The book’s title refers to an old African proverb – “When the lion feeds, something always has to die. But there is meat for those who follow it.”
There are piles of lion shit, too.