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The Seventh Scroll

There is something about Wilbur Smith… and the subjects he chooses to write about. Add to that the magic of Africa and you have a perfect work of fiction… one that makes you hang on to every word until the last.

The Seventh Scroll was the first WS novel I ever read and that was some 16 years back. Then, I had no idea it was part of a series… but realized it only when I got to the end of the book. I was in a mood to revive some of those memories… of archaeological excavations, of guerrilla warfare and strong characters that either make you love or hate them. So, I dug through my little library and unearthed the book… and curled up with it.

It is rare that a book would hold my attention a second time. Of course, I had forgotten the character sketches but I did remember the story and while reading my mind once again conjured up the same scenes I had imagined over a decade and a half ago… and there were events in it I anticipated and looked forward to. The rerun in my head did nothing to dampen the excitement of reading the book again.

The Africa I have experienced in the words of Wilbur Smith has always been a delight; war-torn, teeming with wildlife, culturally diverse… Wilbur Smith’s Africa is a showcase of the tussle between the rich and extremely poor factions of society, of regimes and dictatorships, of adventures and thrills, of battles and hunts, the violence of both man and nature, of ages old and new and those stuck in a time-warp and a romance that is strong, earthy and satisfying.

The Seventh Scroll is part of the Egypt Series. It is the second book of the series but is the only one which is not set in Ancient Egypt. Set in the 90s, it is an adventure that digs up the story of Taita, the ancient Egyptian scribe and genius. The story is set in Ethiopia, in the rugged wilderness of the valleys and gorges of the sister rivers of the Blue Nile.

I have always loved the male characters in WS’s books… they are probably every woman’s dream… at least, they are quite close to what I would appreciate in a man. His male protagonists are rugged, arrogant, imposing, adventurous, quite unscrupulous, strong… yet with a touch of tenderness. I love the rogues the most.

His women are strong characters too… but at times they show this innate need to be accepted or validated by a man… something I tend to blame on the male ego of the writer, which makes him give even the toughest of his women a ‘damsel in distress’ moment or two. But, his heroines are never naive which is wonderful considering the period settings of some of his books.

Royan Al Simma, the lead female character of this book too comes across as an intelligent woman, principled… yet at times wavering to strike the right balance between what is right and what is practical. She does come across as pedantic at times and sometimes has a childlike innocence about her… a playfulness that can be endearing (to the indulgent male characters) and at times annoying to the reader. She is perceptive and sharp and also compassionate. Descending from two very diverse cultures (Egyptian – Coptic Christian and English), she tries to balance the open Englishness in her with the subdued Arab in her. Her love for her motherland Egypt influences her thoughts and deeds a lot… for better or for worse.

Sir Nicholas Quenton-Harper. He is like someone I know quite closely… in real life! The same things that attracted me to the Nawaab Saheb hold true for Sir Nicky… a suave arrogance laced with wry humour and a taste for the good life. He is good at what he does… but, unlike in real life, men in books are too considerate and too much in love!

The character of Mek-Nimmur is what I’d have imagined Che Guevara to be if he were a freedom fighting, guerrilla-bandit with a romantic streak.

Tessay (Lady Sun) is a sturdy ethnic woman, silently strong and beautiful with a hint of mystery, a noblewoman by birth and a character I would have exchanged Royan for. I liked Royan, but I liked Tessay better… her stoicism appealed more than Royan’s bubbly enthusiasm. Though, the silent sufferer in her made me uncomfortable and some incidents in the novel made me want her to be a lot more assertive than she was.

The villain of the book, Gotthold von Schiller is far less than impressive. I found him weak 16 years back and the re-read did not improve my opinion of him. He seems to be a caricature of Hitler, down to the short-stature and German ancestry but with none of Hitler’s fire. A brittle villain and one of those rare slips in characterization by WS.

Some of the ‘viciousness’ and violence in the book comes across as quite staid in today’s age when we consider what we see, read and hear about us daily.

Overall, the book still managed to make me yearn to pack a backpack and set across on an adventure safari to Africa… but, then all WS novels do that to me.

© Surya Murali

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