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An African Tragedy

ADVENTURE, realism, and suspense are the stuff of Wilbur Smith's books. His portrayals of dwindling wilderness and endangered species - whether species of animals or isolated indigenous peoples - are as compelling as any National Geographic special.

In "Elephant Song," his newest book, all ingredients of a Smith novel are present.

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* Adventure: The action ranges from the dense rain forests of central Africa, out onto the great expanse of game preserves, to the paneled board rooms of power in London, into little- known enclaves of opulence on Taiwan.

* Realism: the achingly told account of culling an entire herd of elephants in a game park; the seamy greed of sadistic Asian and black African ivory poachers; a pathetic backdrop of tribalism, overpopulation, ignorance, and corruption in decolonialized Africa.

* Suspense: a story line that develops a series of rich subplots each with its own hairbreadth ending. Certainly, there is an element of the formulaic in "Elephant Song." The characters for the most part are two-dimensional, more defined by what they do, or fail to do, than by any inner exploration of motive or human psychology.

And yet, there is a tremendous moral force in "Elephant Song." The story transcends any formula by making its case, passionately, for the human hunger for justice. Protagonist Daniel Armstrong becomes the avenging conscience of civilized behavior in the face of mindless savagery.

Born in white Rhodesia, (as a young man he fought to keep it so), the wildlife documentary-maker loves black Zimbabwe. He weeps bitterly at the brutal murder of his best friend, a black game warden, and the rape and murder of the friend's wife and two daughters by elephant poachers in a cross-border raid.

Armstrong's sensibilities are clearly stand-ins for the author's, who was also born in central Africa. In the face of human inhumanity both to humans and nature, Smith employs Old Testament retribution - felons literally pay with an "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."

For 2,000 years people hunted the elephant for food and ivory - the white gold of Africa - in natural balance. Little more than a decade ago, more than 2 million elephants remained in Africa. Since then, more than a million elephants have been slaughtered for their ivory. It is barely conceivable how this could have happened. Moral outrage and repulsion at the possibility of their extinction only increase with Smith's depiction of sophisticated smuggling rings.

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Smith is at his best in his lyrical descriptions of the Pygmys' tragedy. Greed for Western consumer goods threatens a fall from innocence for these indigenous, isolated people. They face annihilation at the hands of forces beyond the comprehension of their animistic world. This theme elevates the story into a primer on cross-cultural tolerance. Such tolerance is a recurring theme in the majority of Smith's 21 novels.

A lone Pygmy hunter violates the tribe's hunting taboo by singing the elephant song deep in the rain forest as he plans to slay an elephant for its ivory. The tribe banishes him for his deed and symbolically kills any memory of him. It is a devastating account of alienation.

Armstrong strongly identifies with the Pygmys. "It had to be a thing of the spirit, Daniel decided as he followed Sepoo through the forest. They were children of Africa, its pulse beat in both of them, its soul was their soul. They understood and loved this land's beauty and savagery and treasured its bounty."

He realizes the way of life they are certain to lose could as likely be his own. This realization parallels the plight of the elephant herds and neatly encapsulates the overarching moral lesson of "Elephant Song." Men who are ruthless with animals will be ruthless with their fellow humans. "Civilized" nations that ignore this ruthlessness may in fact find themselves preyed upon by these same men.

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