Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569
It is rare for historians to write novels, rarer for them to write good novels, and rarer still for them to bring historical materials and the historian's view of the world to the composition of their fiction. David Caute has done all three. "The Decline of the West" is perhaps better as fictional history than as a work of art, but it is still an important and imposing novel.
Mr. Caute … knows Africa, France and the United States, and he has used his knowledge to build a dramatic story of the struggle for power in a newly independent African republic—a former French colony whose vicissitudes resemble those of the ex-Belgian Congo….
This is, in one sense, an old-fashioned book of adventure, about diplomacy, ambition, greed and lust in faraway places. It is also an intensely intellectual, even academic, study of the interaction of history and psychology; a close analysis of African nationalists baffled by foreigners' treachery and their own naiveté, of the sadism and effete stupidity of British and French colonialism, and the inanity, chaos and cupidity of American society and policy.
It is a book full of anger, disdain and hatred. Among the best things in it are the tracing of the progressive descent into race hatred of Africans torn between adoration and abhorrence for France—and the matching story of a young American Negro (a Harvard sophomore, emasculated by his attempt to avoid race hatred and to meet White America on its own terms) who is eventually destroyed by his confrontation with Black Africa.
It is decidedly a book for literate people. Readers who do not know Spengler and Freud, or who have never heard of the ralliement of Torquemada, will miss much of Mr. Caute's meaning. Even more decidedly it is a book for people with strong stomachs. The scenes of torture, madness and mutilation are important to the intricate theme, although they are so numerous and prolonged that some readers may find the author's enthusiasm in writing them to be in excess of his thematic requirements. Still, they are powerfully done, and give great weight to his arguments….
Somebody should have tidied up Mr. Caute's prose. Much of the time he writes well enough, but there are recurrent feverish attacks of rich, poetic English. Sunrises break like tidal waves over the jungle. A man wakes up "cleanly, severing the threads of sleep as meticulously as he tore perforated toilet paper." His ear for dialogue is no more reliable than his grip on metaphor. His Harvard sophomore talks, in moments of amatory stress, like a parody of "Paradise Lost."…
More seriously, the attempt to illustrate the connections between historical processes and abnormal psychology sometimes makes the characters more theoretical than human. From the elderly French bishop to the young Harlem fighter for Black Power, the enormous cast comes only sporadically to life. Their problems and attitudes, treated variously with irony and hatred, seem to be regarded more often with a philosopher's patronage of fools than a novelist's understanding of fellow humans….
Still, the author's task, an enormous one, has been impressively completed. He has wrestled, with intellectual subtlety and emotional vitality, with crucial and intractable matters. He has advanced an important thesis, conceived an important tragedy and composed a fascinating story.
Laurence LaFore, "Movers and Shakers," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 9, 1966, p. 57.
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