God and the Devil in Africa: Caputo's 'Acts of Faith'

Trees in the African desert from cover of 'Acts of Faith'

A detail from the cover of Caputo's book shows an African landscape. Alfred A. Knopf hide caption

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Author Philip Caputo's latest novel, 'Acts of Faith', depicts the effects of the Sudanese civil war on relief workers and missionaries. He notes that sometimes characters with altruistic intentions end up causing great harm.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Philip Caputo's highly acclaimed new novel is mostly set in modern-day Sudan, but that's a location. The story really lives in a shadowy ensemble cast of characters: bush pilots, aid workers, rebels, old imperialists, raiders, slave traders, doctors, warlords and international bureaucrats who dole out survival. In this territory, humanitarianism is not always the answer to humanitarian problems, and people doing the most selfless work can be the most self-righteous. Mr. Caputo's new novel is "Acts of Faith." Philip Caputo won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting at the Chicago Tribune in the 1970s and has since written half a dozen novels. His memoir "A Rumor of War" is highly acclaimed. He joins us now from the studios of WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. PHILIP CAPUTO (Author, "Acts of Faith"): Well, thanks for having me here.

SIMON: Let me get you to read a section of the book, if possible, and it's about Quinette Hardin, this girl from Iowa who comes to Africa to not only do a good thing, I think we can say objectively, which is to liberate people who've been impressed into slavery, but do it in a very practical way.

Mr. CAPUTO: Well, this takes place after she has been to Sudan once and then returned to the United States, and then now has come back as, so to speak, a full-time employee of this human rights organization that's called the WorldWide Christian Union that liberates the slaves.

SIMON: If I could get you to read a paragraph that sets her up a bit.

Mr. CAPUTO: `Almost everything in Africa excited her. She was the WorldWide Christian Union's field representative in Loki. She had a real place here and real work to do, and it was hers to do for as long as she wanted and for as long as she could put up with the privations, and she was sure she could. Because she didn't regard living in a tent with two other women and outdoor privies and taking showers under a canvas bucket as privation--nor the heat, dust, mud and bugs, the isolation and the hazards of flying into Sudan in small planes. These were minor trials, the small price she had to pay for fulling what she'd always known would be her destiny: to live an extraordinary life. She was doing something difficult, unusual and dangerous. Best of all, it was righteous work.'

SIMON: She's an admirable person, but as you have several characters observe in this book, sometimes humanitarian workers are regarded as a new form of imperialism.

Mr. CAPUTO: Yeah, the imperialism of good intentions. Like all the characters--I tried to make all the characters contradictory people. Quinette--the reader will watch Quinette's evolution from a somewhat naive innocent abroad into what I kind of call a minor-league or bush-league Lady Macbeth.

SIMON: There seems to be a sense, at least, in a couple of characters in your book, that part of the problem Africa has to confront in the world is the number of people who come out there determined to make their lives extraordinary--the aid workers. I'm talking about the people coming in from the outside.

Mr. CAPUTO: Oh. Oh, well, yeah, it is. The aid workers, I would suppose, are not unlike, say, soldiers in a war--yeah, if you talk to a soldier and you say, `Why did you volunteer? Why are you fighting over here?' And he'll say is--`I'm serving my country.' But when you scratch the surface--and you don't have to go very deep--you'll find probably some seven or eight other motives involved in there, and the same thing would be with most aid workers. There is--one person told me, `They're coming over here to save the Africans, but they're really saving themselves.' And some of these people break down emotionally. They burn out. They become embittered, militant, self-righteous and even murderers.

SIMON: Could I ask you to read the first line in your book?

Mr. CAPUTO: `On a hot night in Lokichokio, as a generator thumps in the distance and the katydids cling like thin, winged leaves to the lightbulb overhead, he tells his visitor that there is no difference between God and the devil in Africa.'

SIMON: What has that grown to mean to you--`there's no difference between God and the devil in Africa'? Because you've been--"Horn of Africa" and other books--you've been going to Africa for 30 years.

Mr. CAPUTO: Well, it came from a conversation I was having when I was in Kenya with--I'll call him an entrepreneur of aid--he was talking about Isak Dinesen, the author of the books on Africa and then that the films were made out of. He had said something to the effect that he--reading in her book--that something about the synonymousness of the--of God and the devil in Africa, and that he thought that was true how evil can be intertwined, or very much like a Janus-faced God--two sides, two faces of the same phenomenon, which--we don't think that way very much here in the West. But the African tends to see this ambiguity or this ambivalence more clearly than we do.

SIMON: Does a novelist have to understand both God and the devil?

Mr. CAPUTO: I think that the literary impulse and the religious impulse come from the same part of the mind, the brain, the soul--in the sense of believing that man is only matter--and which gives them something in common, I think, with people of a theological or religious bent. I'm really fascinated by the fact that good and evil are somehow intertwined.

SIMON: Mr. Caputo, thanks very much.

Mr. CAPUTO: Thank you.

SIMON: Philip Caputo. His new novel is "Acts of Faith."

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