Dark of the Sun (AKA The Mercenaries) by Wilbur Smith (Fawcett, 1965)
Dark of the Sun by Wilbur Smith is about a particular historical event. In 1960, Belgium pulled out of the Congo region in Africa, claiming that their “civilizing” mission was over. In reality, a strong home rule and nationalist movement had been brooding in the region to get the foreign colonists out. Upon independence, the country was plunged into civil war as different factions fought for control of the region’s mineral resources and wealth. The most serious incident was the Katanga succession of 1961 where Mose Tshombe attempted to succeed from the greater region and start his own country. Supporting him was Belgian mine owners and what was left of the colonial rulers. To argument his own forces, Tshombe relied heavily on foreign mercenaries to lead his the local troops. The mercenaries where a strange lot, some traveling to Africa for glory, others career criminals looking to make a fast buck in the bloodshed.
The Crisis of the Congo serves as the backdrop to Wilbur Smith’s 1965 novel Dark of the Sun. Bruce Curry, an English mercenary, is given command of a group of soldiers. His mission: rescue the civilian population of a mining town deep in disputed territory and bring back the diamonds held by the mining officer. His second in command, Wally Hendry, is an Irishman who has seen many campaigns, but who is also a full-blown psychopath. Traveling with them is a doctor, Andre, who has a deep dark secret as to why he’s in the Congo and not back in Europe. Rounding the command out is “Ruffy”, a black African who speaks the local languages and commands the native troops. It’s a mission the current Katanga government is willing to pay big bucks for, but comes close to being suicidal.
Much of the first 100 pages of the novel concerns Curry and his men’s preparation for the mission. There are troops to be outfitted and guns to be purchased. Once they get on the road, an attack can come at any time. If you’ve seen the movie version which was made several years later, there’s an attack on the train the gendarmes are taking to reach the civilian mining town which is the key scene in the entire film. In the novel, its minor: an Indian jet flying under the banner of the UN buzzes the train and heads away.
Curry comes off as an introspective commander in the novel. He’s disgusted early on with Hendry and vows to turn him in to the civilian authorities at the first chance. He constantly wonders about the two children and ex-wife he left behind. There’s no glory in what he’s doing. Curry is a paid mercenary and is carrying out his mission strictly for the money. But her realizes what the job is doing to him:
“Fear is a woman, he thought, with all the myriad faces and voices of a woman. Because she is a woman and I am a man I must keep going back to her. Only this time the appointment is one I cannot avoid, this time I am not deliberately seeking her out.
But just as certainly I know I will go back to her again, hating her, dreading her, but also needing her.”
Those of you who first encountered Dark of the Sun as a movie will be surprised to see the crazy ex-Nazi Heimet as the Irish mercenary Hendry. Hendry is the undisputed villan of the book, an absolute unfeeling killer who watches a civilian die passively from a poisoned arrow and has no problems shooting children if he thinks they are carrying damaging information. In and out of reform school and trouble since a teenager, Hendry is a full-blown racist who despises his African troops. He’s also the sort of person who would thrive in the middle of a bloodthirsty war.
The character of Ruffy, commander of the black African troops is vague, not as powerful as the Jim Brown character in the movie version. Ruffy doesn’t have much to do or say in the book, other than calling Curry “Boss” over and over. He’s a shadowy person, who would’ve worked better if developed. Which is odd when you consider the author grew up in Africa. It’s another point where the movie improved on the book.
Eventually, Curry and company reach the besieged mining town, slightly before the rebel commander Moses and his militia show-up. From there, they have to fight their way back through a jungle filled with hostiles to friendly territory. It’s the sort of journey from which legends are made. But their train is badly damaged and the one bridge they need to cross has been burned. It’s to the author’s credit he makes the final portion of the novel believable.
Dark of the Sun is a very 60’s novel, but worth reading if you have the opportunity. There’s no pulp heroes in it: everyone has their faults and reasons for what they do. Even the militia commander Moses sees the opportunity to torture as pay-back for all the insults he endured in his own country. Still, it’s a good action novel.