Friday, July 07, 2006

Philip Caputo (and a little Graham Greene)

The most obvious shadow lurking over Philip Caputo’s Acts of Faith (2005), a sweeping novel set in Sudan during its civil war, is that of Graham Greene. Like The Quiet American, Acts of Faith highlights the damage done by the blind faith of some distinctly unquiet Americans.

But in a sense, Tolstoy and Dickens are as much Caputo’s guides as Greene, for Caputo is not content with merely updating The Quiet American. His ambition is much greater, on a par in scope with the nineteenth-century greats: while he makes no pretense to be telling Sudan’s story from the inside, he wants to show every facet of the war and the ways that altruism, capitalism, democracy, greed, religion, arms, and international indifference conspire to make a bad situation worse. His cast of characters consists mostly of outside do-gooders, from a pair of self-involved, self-deluding Americans to a mixed-race Kenyan, but it also features a Sudanese Arab leader of a band of murahaleen warriors, a lieutenant colonel in the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, a variety of Sudanese from various walks of life.

While Greene rootedThe Quiet American deeply in the cynical, weary worldview of Fowler, Caputo instead is true to his nineteenth-century forebears, allowing his omniscient narrator to roam freely among five main characters. And, flying in the face of the writing school dictate to show, not tell, Caputo allows that narrator to make broad ethical, emotional, and ideological pronouncements about the characters. Such straightforward commentary doesn’t always work—on occasion Caputo stretches a point, or tells us something that didn’t need spelling out—but when it does, he is able to deepen our understanding of his characters in just a few words, as in the following passage about a Christian relief worker from Iowa:
The soldiers might as well have thrown spears, and Quinette reflected bitterly on the futility of her effort. She reflected also on the futility of what Michael had done, downing the oil company plane. Had she held on to these thoughts and carried them through, she might have reached some interesting conclusions about actions that arise from deep convictions; but they exited her mind within seconds.
Caputo’s prose is similarly clear and careful throughout, unobtrusive yet effective whether describing an aerial bombardment or the business practices of a relief airline.

My only real criticism of the book is that the plot’s a little too tightly organized. There’s little of the messy contingency of real life—but that, too, fits with my idea of this as an old-fashioned novel, and my criticism says as much, I think, about my suspicion of neatness as it does about the novel itself. The five main characters attempt to make a living, bring relief to the suffering in southern Sudan, and build a life in a strange country. Several of them, much like the sickening number of Americans who’ve written or spoken about the Iraq war as a necessary demonstration of American resolve, seem to view Sudan and the war as existing primarily through the lens of their own need to prove themselves, their mettle or good intentions. And they cling to those good intentions—and to an image of their own incorruptibiilty—even as the destructive evidence of the shortcomings of both mounts.

Despite the neatly arranged plot, Caputo doesn’t deny the complexity of the situation in Sudan or, by extension, of any war or disaster. He has no patience for the cant or self-congratulation that obscure problems while rewarding often misguided action, and he shares with Graham Greene a deep ambivalence about the power of human action and a certainty of the dangers of unforeseen consequences. At the same time, like Greene, he doesn’t see inaction in the face of suffering as acceptable. Something must be done, but Caputo isn't going to pretend that he knows what that is.

He saves his strongest language of condemnation—in a novel that for all its uncertainty is suffused with the language of ethics—for those whose devoted allegiance to an idea blinds them to the substance of their own actions:
He had broken faith with the best that was in him and with the humanity he professed to serve. A malevolent voice had whispered a summons; he’d answered. Anyone who does not acknowledge the darkness in his nature will succumb to it. He will not take precautions against its prompting, nor recognize it when it calls.
It’s language of near-Biblical moral seriousness, and by the end of this powerful novel, I was convinced that Caputo had the right—as well as the knowledge, understanding, and perception—to wield it.

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