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Zimbabwe Digital News
Obituary by Mike Ripley
At the age of eight, Wilbur Smith was given his grandfather’s Remington rifle, which had 122 notches on the butt. He shot his first lion when he was 14. Such a boy seemed destined to become a hunter, but it was on paper that Smith realised his dreams of adventure – and millions shared them through his 49 novels over half a century.
In recent years Smith, who has died aged 88, would say proudly: “I don’t write literature, I write stories,” and added that he always saw himself as the hero in his books and always fell in love with his female characters. His African settings and blood-and-thunder approach to plotting proved a winning formula.
Each of his thrillers, translated into 30 languages, sold in their millions, with his total sales more than 140m.
From the instant international success of his first published novel, When the Lion Feeds, in 1964, it was clear that Smith had tapped into the golden seam of masculine adventure writing that flowed through John Buchan back to H Rider Haggard.
Initially, the reviews were ecstatic – “the world’s leading adventure writer”, “a natural storyteller” – but while his output and sales figures continued unabated, the critics’ enthusiasm waned and his latter work became dismissed as “dads’ books”.
Some lukewarm film adaptations did not help. Hollywood versions of The Dark of the Sun (1965), filmed as The Mercenaries, starring Rod Taylor, Gold Mine (1970), filmed as Gold, with Roger Moore, and Shout at the Devil (1968) failed to set the screen on fire and prompted Smith to write a novel that “couldn’t be filmed”.
This turned out to be The Sunbird (1972), which combined present-day African adventure with chunks of ancient history and some dodgy archaeology. It became one of his best-loved titles and, 20 years later, inspired him to write a series of mystical novels set in Ancient Egypt.
Smith’s many historical settings – from 17th-century Madagascar to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 – earned him the accolade of “best historical novelist” from Stephen King. Whatever the period, there was one constant factor in all his books. “I only write about Africa,” Smith was fond of saying, and when asked by an Australian fan if he would ever set a book in Australia, he replied that he might, but only after living there for 50 years.
Wilbur was born to Elfreda (nee Lawrence) and Herbert Smith on their 25,000-acre cattle ranch in Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia (now Kabwe, Zambia). While his mother encouraged young Wilbur to embrace books, his father most definitely did not.
“Most of my early reading was done in the outhouse,” he said. He was, though, influenced by the stories told by his grandfather, Courtney James Smith, who had commanded a machine-gun team in the Zulu war, and used Courtney as the family name in his most successful series of African historical sagas.
Smith was sent to the Cordwalles prep school and then Michaelhouse “academy for young gentlemen”, both in Natal (KwaZulu-Natal), South Africa, where he excelled only in English.
Writing for the school newspaper gave him a taste for journalism but his father told him: “Don’t be a bloody fool, you’ll starve to death,” and insisted he got “a proper job”.
As a result, Wilbur studied commerce at Rhodes University in Grahamstown (Makhanda), from which he graduated in 1954 and then qualified as a chartered accountant. His stable career choice was not matched in his private life: he had married, fathered two children and been divorced by the age of 24.
In 1960 he sold a short story to the magazine Argosy for £70, twice his monthly salary. His first attempt at a novel, entitled The Gods First Make Mad, was rejected, and Smith later said he had destroyed the only manuscript so that it could not be published after his death. He dispensed with “philosophy and politics” for his next effort, When the Lion Feeds, and immediately struck gold.
When the book was published, he later told an interviewer, “I worked for the income tax department and as it stands now I’m still working for the damned thing”.
The novels began to appear at regular intervals, but while sales soared, Smith’s private life was stormy. He married and divorced a second time, then in 1971 he married Danielle Thomas, from his home town of Broken Hill, later to become a novelist in her own right. Smith dedicated all his books to her until her death from brain cancer in 1999.
In 2000 he met a Tajik law student, Mokhiniso Rakhimova, in a London bookshop.
After a whirlwind romance they married and Smith began dedicating his books to her as “the Queen of my heart”.
In recent years media interest in Smith focused on his relationship with Rakhimova, known as Niso, and his life as a property-owning tax exile with homes in London, South Africa, Switzerland and Malta, more than his books, which from 2015 were made in collaboration with a team of co-writers.
In 2018 he published a memoir, On Leopard Rock, “a rollicking yarn of slaughtered wildlife” in which he lamented today’s lack of “real men” such as his grandfather.
Smith himself said he was proud to have fathered three children without ever changing a nappy, possibly a misplaced pride considering his eventual estrangement from them.
Smith had a son and daughter, Shaun and Christian, with his first wife, Anne Rennie, and a son, Lawrence, with his second wife, Jewell Slabbart. He also adopted Danielle’s son, Dieter.
Wilbur Addison Smith, author, born 9 January 1933; died 13 November 2021