He shot to fame as the chronicler of African political history through thrillers. From the 1960s to the 80s, Wilbur Smith, of British descent, wrote in a clear African voice, churning out bestsellers about the land of his birth and boyhood.
With his 33rd novel, Those in Peril, Smith returns to a modern-day setting. The plot has all the elements of a contemporary potboiler an American oil company in the Gulf (the good guys), a gun-wielding, macho hero and Somali pirates (the bad guys), the latter conflated with violent Islamist terrorism and referred to as those Arabs and jihadists throughout the book.
Ask Smith if he has taken a harsh stance against the Muslim world in the book, though, and he reacts with astonishment. Id be surprised if people interpret it like that, said Smith, 78, in a phone interview with Hindustan Times before his six-city India tour to promote Those in Peril. The book is not about religion at all, though some characters happen to be Christians and some Muslims. It is about piracy, which is a growing problem for India too, today.
Smith, who was born in Zambia and grew up in South Africa, began his career as a chartered accountant before his second novel, When the Lion Feeds, changed his fortunes. As an established author, Smith spent 20 years on an island in Seychelles where he would often see Somali pirates re-fuelling at the docks. This, along with conversations he had with counter-piracy experts and those held captive by pirates, prompted him to spin a story around piracy.
Smiths protagonists, like him, are rooted in Africa the hero is a colonial Englishman raised in east Africa, the female lead is a South African married to an American. The pirates, Muslims from Somalia, commit revenge and torture in the name of Allah.
If any religion is taken to its extremes, it can become evil, said Smith. Extreme elements in each religion are preaching war against others today, which cannot be condoned. It doesnt matter to me then if they are Muslims, Christians or Jews.
Smith is fascinated by different religions and their interpretations of the world. I have not studied any religion in detail but I have read about Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and other faiths, he said. As far as Islam goes, there is so much information available online, anyone can read about it.
Indians form a significant part of Smiths fan following, perhaps because of the shared colonial history with South Africa. Fans write to me to discuss British colonialism and its influence, said Smith. I tell them that the British left behind a better India than the one they occupied. Their contributions such as the English language and values such as democracy have helped India reach the powerful position it is in today.