John Stockwell caused a small stir several years ago with "In Search of Enemies," an insider's critical account of CIA operations in the Angolan civil war that ended in victory for the Soviet-supported side. Stockwell spent 12 years working for the CIA in Washington, Vietnam and Africa. His book was angry and disillusioned, a repudiation of American intelligence policies by one of its own operatives.
Part of the difficulty in denouncing one's past is the necessity of fashioning a new career. And being a spy is, after all, a fairly limited calling. So it is that Stockwell has settled on fiction writing as his new occupation, with "Red Sunset" his first effort.
There are two distinctive features about this melodrama. The hero is a Russian diplomat, a suave and clever fellow who has none of the anti-heroic qualities of that other recent Russian protagonist, Arkady Renko, the detective of "Gorky Park." In fact, Stockwell's Alexis Kabin is so sympathetic a figure that he may well be the most lovable Russian official ever to appear in American literature -- aside, perhaps, from some intrepid Soviet officers in World War II pulp novels.
The second unusual feature of "Red Sunset" is that the climax is a chess game, featuring the young American heroine, Natalie Wilson, wife of a besotted oil man, playing against the book's main villain, a South African banker named Van Genoop. Stockwell must be an avid chess player to have picked this device; since I'm not, I have no idea whether the preparation and game are technically authentic. If they are, the book should appeal to other chess enthusiasts.
The setting for all these folks is Bujumbura, Burundi, a poor land in the same part of the continent as such better-known countries as Zaire and Tanzania. "Red Sunset" is principally a description of how foreigners live in a remote Third World outpost. Surprisingly, given Stockwell's background, political intrigue and moralizing seem beside the book's main point -- that the lives are empty and largely spiritless in the Bujumburas of this planet.
The love affair of Natalie and her Russian is apolitical, although his affiliation adds a touch of sweet and eventually sour poignancy. As for the rest of the foreign colony, they seem as petty and vapid a group as can be, shuffling from one cocktail party to another, nattering about the inconsequential details of their existences as businessmen or diplomats, or their spouses.
Natalie Wilson is blond and a little sassy. Her marriage to the hapless Doug is going under, and this romance is her personal liberation. Beyond that I can see no broader moral, except maybe that Russians can be cuddly.
When Natalie challenges Van Genoop, the bullying patriarch of the white community, to a chess game, the rest of the locals are galvanized. All of this would seem absurd were it not for the fact that life in such places, to the best of my knowledge, really can get as insipid as Stockwell's depressing portrayal suggests it can.
The Africans in "Red Sunset" are an equally unattractive lot. Savage or servile, they are cut from cardboard. Aside from providing some gory rituals as narrative diversion, the Africans offer no enlightenment about the situation they are meant to be depicting. In fact, Stockwell seems as contemptuous of Burundians and Zairians as he is of almost everyone else in his book.
Sizing up the merits of "Red Sunset" depends a good deal on what John Stockwell set out to do. You can't call this a good book, since neither the plot and writing nor the characters add up to very much. But if his intention was to capture an atmosphere -- the shallowness and pointlessness of a certain way of life, the futility and irrelevance of the political posturing that dominates American attitudes towards the Third World -- then he does succeed. Because the Bunjumbura, Burundi, of "Red Sunset" is small people, black and white, playing for small stakes.