In the opening chapter of A Rumor of War (1977), a compelling memoir of combat in Vietnam, Philip Caputo writes of enlisting in the U.S. Marines immediately after finishing college. By his account, he survived the Vietnam War even though rendered “a moral casualty” and, at age twenty-six, faced the future with no skills other than those associated with killing. Acts of Faith, Caputo’s epic fifth novelthis one about civil war in Sudanhighlights what he learned as a line officer and on journey by foot and camel across the deserts of Sudan in the 1970’s. His return to sub-Saharan Africa in 2000-2001 is also reflected in a novel which, while far too long, offers its attractions.
For the reader who relies on being able to follow a clear plot line or the evolution of characters, finishing Acts of Faith will not be easy. However, Caputo provides two signposts in order to point a way through his jungle: a graded list of characters at the start and a tallying of the damage in the last one hundred pages. The six hundred middle pages often offer a morass. This book’s backdrop is terra incognita for most Americans; its foreground is a complex of ethnic interconnections. Acts of Faith mounts the romantic and interpersonal gamesplay of a cast of Westerners and exotics performing in the darkening throes of Sudan’s crisis. The action unfolds amid civil war, which reached a peak in Sudan in the 1990’s when the Khartoum-backed Muslim government bombed parts of the Christian or non-Arab south, including animist tribes such as the Nubans, on whose agony Caputo focuses.
Although the Sudan has not yet become the setting for an American military adventure, this book mounts a fictional invasion by a vivid assemblage of insiders and outsiders. This very long work contains long passages about such planes as Beechcrafts, Gulfstreams, Hawkers, and Antonovs; stilted dialogue which often distracts more than it informs; and descriptions of a desolate landscape which come alive only when the narrative is airborne. As one reviewer puts it, “The psychology of young Islamic soldiers marching happily to martyrdom or raping and looting villagers is rendered as matter-of-factly as that of the fundamentalist Christians willing to murder their rivals or accommodate their religious doctrine to their private passions.”
Caputo recently acknowledged to an interviewer that, although he occasionally feels a longing to try to transform the ordinary such as one finds in the fiction of...
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