Africa, in the Shadow of Sept. 11
Tuesday, January 6, 2009; Page C02
Henry Holt. 369 pp. $26
Richard North Patterson's latest novel is inspired by events in Nigeria 15 years ago, which culminated in the hanging of a human rights activist by a brutal dictator. But the book also conjures up more recent headlines: Darfur, Zimbabwe, the boom and bust in oil prices, the long U.S. war on terror. "9/11 trumps everything," says one character, and the twin towers cast even longer shadows here than does the eclipse of the title.
Patterson sets his thriller in a fictional African country called Luandia that is rich in oil reserves. Novelist-turned-activist Bobby Okari leads his people, the Asari, in nonviolent protests against both the U.S.-based PetroGlobal Luandia (PGL) and the dictatorship of Gen. Savior Karama. Okari demands "our rightful share of oil monies for schools, roads, clinics, clean water to drink" and an end to government-sanctioned rape, murder and destruction, but his words are labeled seditious. When three PGL workers are found hanged, he's accused. When he rallies other demonstrators during an eclipse -- challenging a ban on "nighttime" gatherings -- Luandian soldiers swoop in on PGL helicopters to arrest him and "sanitize Asariland." Only two people survive the resulting massacre: Okari himself, who is imprisoned and tortured in advance of the trial that will decide his fate, and his wife, Marissa, who, under house arrest, is haunted by the terrors she has witnessed and dreading what's still to come.
Back in the United States, former war crimes prosecutor Damon Pierce gets word of Okari's plight from Marissa, whom he'd met (and fallen in love with) during a creative writing workshop more than a decade earlier. Soon, he heads to Africa to aid in Okari's defense and protect Marissa, but Pierce is hardly prepared for what he finds. The United States has befriended Luandia's dictator, welcoming his help against the rise of Islamic terrorists in the north and the threat it poses to the region's stability. PGL has cited "corporate patriotism" in marketing itself as good folks working to protect U.S. interests in the global economy and feeding the American thirst for oil. Diplomatic, corporate and even personal interests soon cross paths, and not in pretty ways: As oil prices fluctuate in the wake of unrest and violence, a major fundraiser for the incumbent U.S. president has been making millions in oil futures -- almost as if he knew about the massacres and raids in advance.
As for Luandia itself, violence, bribery and extortion have become a way of life, not only for the government but also for gangs and ethnic militias competing for a slice of the pie. One native describes the country as being "surrounded by enemies and enemies posing as friends: thieves, kidnappers, a government contemptuous of its people, 'protectors' who oscillate between being predators and murderers and whose secret alliances may change from day to day." Who are the heroes? Who are the villains? Nothing seems easily classified as right or wrong, and as quickly as anyone from the United States points a finger at Luandia's human rights record, the word "Guantanamo" crops up: 9/11 casting its long shadow again.
As Pierce tries to gain his bearings in all this, coping with legal maneuvers on two continents, he also struggles to avoid the dangers closing in on him personally, ranging from overt threats by the dictator's chief henchman to the risks of frequent, random street violence against wealthy Americans. Before it's over, Pierce even grows suspicious of Okari himself. Is he truly an innocent man unfairly charged? Or did he go too far, resorting to violence against PGL despite his vaunted commitment to peaceful protest? "Revolutionaries are not easy people," cautions one of his followers. "The fierce purpose that drives men to take on causes that frighten others does not admit of flexibility. Perhaps Bobby became too fixated on his dream."
"Eclipse" aspires to be any number of books: a novel of political intrigue, an international conspiracy thriller, a courtroom drama, a romance, even a straightforward murder mystery: Who hanged those three workers? Answering that central question might ultimately explain whether to lay the guilt at the doorstep of one Luandian man or on the balance sheets of a corporation blinded by greed or somewhere further up, in the highest echelons of the U.S. government itself. To Patterson's credit, the novel succeeds on all counts. While Pierce struggles to dodge the next danger barreling his way, Patterson never loses sight of the big picture: the region's history, the nuances of international law, the subtleties of oil futures trading. He brings his knowledge to the book with a sense of urgency far beyond the plot at hand, depicting complex legal issues and the larger geopolitical situation with authority and clarity.
It may be significant that while each major character has been a writer -- indeed, Okari has published international bestsellers -- none of them writes now. When asked why he doesn't use his talent for fiction to enlighten his countrymen, Okari replies, "It's not the same as action. . . . My prose cannot rally a semi-literate populace." Patterson, fortunately, hasn't given up on the novel's power, and his work in this grim, passionate book proves not just exciting but eye-opening, page by page.