Obituary: Wilbur Smith, best-selling novelist whose adventure stories reflect his love for Africa

Death: November 13, 2021.

WILBUR Smith, who died at the age of 88, was a multi-million-selling author who wrote adventure novels set primarily in Africa, where he grew up. His books weren’t literature, he said, they were stories, and although some critics dismissed the books as sexist or old-fashioned, they were still popular for half a century. Indeed, his name became a trademark, Smith having co-authored books until his death.

Most of the books and the characters they contain date back to Smith’s childhood and youth in Northern Rhodesia, now in Zambia. Young Wilbur was extremely comfortable and happy there in the countryside of his parents’ 25,000 acre ranch. Indeed, he dreaded being sent on long train journeys to a boarding school in South Africa.

His childhood at the ranch meant that from an early age he took for granted the harsh and often brutal nature of life in the African wilderness. His grandfather, who had commanded a machine gun team during the Zulu War, told him stories about his time in combat; he also remembers seeing his grandfather slaughter pigs with a knife which he then gave to young Wilbur. For the rest of his life Smith collected knives with relish and when a friend gave him one as a gift he wrote his thanks on the back of a £ 10 bill.

When he was away from the ranch at school, his only sign of promise was in English, and his initial ambition was to be a journalist. However, his father told him he would starve and instead studied business at Rhodes University in South Africa. He graduated in 1954 and then graduated as a chartered accountant.

His desire to write had not, however, disappeared. After selling a short story to a magazine for £ 70 – double his monthly accountant salary – he decided to embark on a novel, but it was rejected by all the publishers he sent it to. Years later, he said he occasionally took the manuscript out of the drawer and looked at it when he needed a lesson in humility, although he later destroyed the only copy so that it could not be. published after his death.

Smith’s first published novel was When The Lion Feeds, in 1964, and he established the formula right away. Centered around the sons of a ranch owner, it is full of stories of gold mining, big game hunting, and beautiful women. The book, and most of those that followed, were all about Africa and its education. “Africa is the land of dreams,” said Smith, “and the inspiration behind much of my writing.”

Smith was also a big game hunter himself and first shot lions to defend his father’s herd of cattle when he was 13. He always thought, however, that he had to eat what he had cut down and therefore had tasted just about everything over the years. Lion, he said, tasted like old tomcat urine. Elephant was like eating barbed wire even though the cheeks were delicious. As for the crocodile, it was very good, especially the tail.

By the late 1960s, Smith had embarked on a hugely successful writing career based on themes his readers loved: treasure on tropical islands, piracy on the high seas, gold mines in South Africa, hunters. big game, diamond merchants and ruthless slaves. , and the war in Arabia and Khartoum. He also wrote a series of novels set in ancient Egypt, which were his own favorites.

In total, there were 49 novels, more than half of which were set in Africa and most of which contained stories directly inspired by his own experiences. He said he had been accidentally shot three times, charged with elephants and crocodiles and attacked by sharks, and escaped death from illness on several occasions – once in as a newborn when he contracted cerebral malaria, and later polio when he was a teenager.

All of these experiences, and adventure, went into the books, and Smith vehemently defended the novels against criticism, especially when fashions and attitudes changed.

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, he dismissed the idea that his books were too sordid, colonialist, or stereotypical. “I have been accused of violence and cruelty to animals and people. I have been accused of racism, of sacrilege. The opinions I present are not my own. They are my characters. He also said that writing was like hunting with a dog game: “I let the characters run, I follow and record.”

A market that seemed more resistant to Smith’s formula than most was America, where his books sold well but not as much as elsewhere, and so in 2013 he signed a $ 24 million contract for six books with HarperCollins in an effort to build a bigger following in the United States.

Several film versions of his novels have been made, but they never really captured the buzz and allure of the originals. There was The Dark of the Sun, in 1968, with Rod Taylor; Or (1974) with Roger Moore; and Shout at the Devil (1968), also with Moore. Smith also wrote a memoir in 2018, On Leopard Rock.

Speaking after his death, his editors Bonnier Books described him as a passionate advocate of adventure fiction. His longtime agent Kevin Conroy Scott also described him as an icon beloved by his fans.

“His knowledge of Africa and his imagination knew no bounds,” Scott said. “His work ethic and powerful and elegant writing style have made him known to millions of people. I cherish the role of working alongside his wife Niso and the Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation to keep the flame of his fictional universe alive for many years to come.

Smith has married four times and is survived by his fourth wife Mokhiniso Rakhimova, whom he met while browsing a branch of WH Smith in London. He is also survived by his children: Shaun and Christian, with his first wife, Anne Rennie, and his son Lawrence, with his second, Jewell Slabbert. His third wife, Danielle Thomas, died of brain cancer in 1999.


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