"Rivers of Darkness" is an elitist blue novel of violence. It has all the flesh-hacking, skull-crushing, blood-bursting action of wartime adventure. But in the end there is no victory, and all the reader can do is shudder. In another era, it would be called a man's book.
The story is set in 1973 in Mozambique as 500 years of Portuguese colonial rule come to an end. The intrigue and brutality, the heat and madness of the land are vividly described. The theme is simple: revenge and punishment. Since one man's punishment is another's revenge, no one escapes, not even the black fly, the harbinger of blindness that breeds in the river - hence the title, "Rivers of Darkness." That quiet carrier of disease is both a mirror of a doomed time and a shadow across the country's future.
The story begins, as they usually do, in deepest darkest Africa, at the medical mission on a hilltop. Dr. Lynd from the World Health Organization is aging and relentless, since his compassion for victims has been superceded by his hatred of the fly. His companion, a gentle nun he sleeps with about every 11 years, wants a baby. There is a second doctor, a sullen man, whose family was chopped up by guerrillas. He keeps the white confirmation dresses of his daughters in a trunk until, until . . .
Then there's Luke, the gorgeous, rich, Portuguese plantation owner with a British passport who is a distant fictional cousin of Humphrey Bogart and who in the search for justice loses his kingdom for a breast. Enter, Dr. Sidonie Marchienny, the beautiful French eye surgeon, and a disfigured mulatto girl who doesn't say much, which is a pity, not only for the reader, but the whole cast of characters.
For all their flair, however, the characters are wooden and they move through the novel like carefully sculpted chessmen on a board where the game already has been blocked out. At times, the boy-girl conversations make television's daytime soaps sound like Shakespeare. Even the plot is thin and there's an unreality to the whole drama.
What saves the book is the descriptive writing. There is a sense of dread on every page. The endless repetition of vioience is fueled by the hypnotic power of terror. Each team of flesh-hackers has its own style. Silk shirts and shades are the mark of the secret police - the front men, that is. Guerrillas have their grenades. Government foot patrols carry Sgt. Chico's scarf, a piece of cloth as lethal as the black fly.
Then there are the Mongoose Men, the Portuguese pacification team lead by a giant of a man who wears a live mongoose around his neck like a mink stole. They sign their message of terror by mounting heads on poles and parading through the villages.
Each scene of violence starts out slowly as a sort of innocent calm before the slaughter. A young boy, for example, is on his way to a soccer match in town and takes the wrong path in the scrub. "He walked forward and saw that there were 20 or 30 bodies and that each . . . was headless. The storks were raking with their beaks where the heads had been. . . . He was on the verge of terror. There were no bees or wasps, only he alone in the silence . . . The light was changing and the evening wind was in the smoldering (lavender) wands and fanning them to redness . . . In that moment he heard the sound. A small animal had come from the lavender and was watching him. It was a mongoose and it lay in the grass and its long tufted tail switched slowly from side to side . . ." And so, this time with the Mongoose Men, another link in the chain of revenge is forged.
With so much exotic blood and gore, "Rivers of Darkness" could probably be made into a good movie. But for me, the books fails. There's no love in it-no human tenderness, no humor. Even the sex scenes are a major disappointment. In no way do they match the imagination, care and technical details of the Violent scenes. At best, they are quick.
Ironically, the most moving scene in human terms is in the blind village when old men with opaque eyes put arm on shoulder and weave their way in a row down to the river. "The river gives life as well as blindness," they explain.
To make a good story, violence needs the competition of tenderness.