“War makes monsters of us all.”
This is the dominant theme of Wilbur Smith’s “The Angels Weep”.
The third Ballantyne novel picks up shortly after Cecil Rhodes moved into the lands of the Matabele, his troops destroying the impis at the Shangani river and bringing about the end of Lobengula.
Ralph Ballantyne is more successful than ever, expanding his transport business, while also managing the construction of the railway and claiming lands rich in gold and coal. Cecil Rhodes is expanding and strenghtening his British South African Company and his influence.
At the same time, the vanquished Matabele are struggling under the rule of One Bright Eye (none other than our old friend Mungo St. John, now married to Robyn, who both despises and lusts after him). The impis are no more, the stone falcons have “flown”, the assegais have been broken. Bazo is forever changed, set on a sacred course to vengeance.
The book is, as can be expected, full of twists and turns and rich in atmosphere and adventure. We meet the Umlimo again, follow Ralph on a buffalo hunt and Bazo on a secret path to a secret forge, there is rinderpest, locust plague, a wedding… – never a dull moment with Wilbur Smith. However, I have to admit that this book was considerably slower than the previous two and took its time to build up a conflict that was more or less set up from the beginning.
The main events actually start to unfold well past the middle of the book – old friendships are forgotten and vengeance takes the lead. We see this reflected once again in the second section, set almost a hundred years later. As we learn what happened in the aftermath of the Matabele uprising, we see Bazo and Ralph’s sons, both in their way a disappointment to their fathers – one a teacher at Khami Mission, trying to bridge the gap between the Matabele and the whites, and the other – paranoid in his ranch, while reminiscing about his wives and privileged life. It is their descendants that take up the old path and once again friendships are set aside and war rages on.
What I really like about this book, is that it is very clever in building the readers’ sympathies, so you constantly find yourself on a different side. It is heartbreaking to see time and time again how people and their lives, stories and relationships are made invisible and irrelevant in the face of a century-old war, how easily the brothers of yesterday see no other choice but to spill the blood of each other’s families. What is left in the aftermath are broken people and painful memories. Still it goes on and on.
What I did not like, was that some monumental events were left somehow in the air. They had their consequences but in a very neutral and sterile way. I expected at least a recognition by the characters that Jordan had died in the fire; and at least a scene, in which Bazo takes in the consequences of Ralph’s attack on the Matopos.
The second storyline I almost abandoned, wondering why we needed it at all. It was dull and I did not care for the characters, beside maybe the old albino Umlimo, who had a nice cameo. However, as the story came to its resolution, I understood and am actually looking forward to reading the next installment.