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A Cafe on the Nile

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Bartle Bull

Where are the newCasablancascoming from? Here's one possible source. Bartle Bull, a lawyer, publisher, explorer, and writer, centers his latest thriller at the Cataract Cafe, a floating version of Rick's in 1935 Cairo. The owner, Olivio, is a dwarf from … see full wiki

Tags: Books, Cafe Libri
Author: Bartle Bull
Publisher: Da Capo Press
1 review about A Cafe on the Nile

A Rip-roaring Old-fashioned Read!

  • Mar 25, 2000
They don't write 'em like this anymore. Or at least they don't write and publish enough of them. Here is a tale of high adventure set in the wilds of Africa (from the rough and tumble city of Cairo, Egypt to the highlands of Ethiopia) on the eve of World War II. Bull writes vividly about a fascinating cast of characters caught up in events which are both world shaking and personally significant to each of them. World War I is only just behind these people and World War II is already looming on the horizon. Fascist Italy has pretensions to empire in Africa and poison gas is to be the key to it. All the while, the Goan dwarf, Olivio Fonseca Alavedo, is poised to grow rich with his schemes to corner the cotton market while his friends are struggling with the Depression-induced poverty of the thirties.

Into this shaken time come twin sisters from America, paying for a safari to be conducted by Olivio's old friend, the hunter Anton Rider out of Kenya, while Anton's lovely wife Gwenn, who has left him to do something more significant with her life, and for her two sons, lives nearby, the mistress of a clever Italian air force officer whose attentions enable her to pursue her medical studies at the University of Cairo. An elder, down-at-the-heels English gentleman rounds out Olivio's little circle of close friends while the rough-edged German adventurer, Ernst von Decker, shows up to draw Rider into his own schemes.

Although the players are mostly of the stock sort, they are engagingly drawn. I loved how Bull portrays the "white hunter", Rider, as a veritable fish out of water in the mean streets of Cairo, stumbling awkwardly about and giving his prospective clients second thoughts about him, yet a man who is masterfully competent in his own milieu in the bush. And the Goan dwarf, Olivio, is an especially intriguing (and oddly touching) personality in his machinations to outlast and defeat his scheming enemies in the Cairene bureaucracy while grappling with personal disabilities which would defeat lesser souls.

And yet, there was something pro-forma about it all. One of the inside blurbs called this book "a cup of CASABLANCA, a dollop of Isak Dinesen, a pinch of INDIANA JONES and a touch of TENDER IS THE NIGHT." I think that's about right and that it makes for a very heady brew if you like this sort of thing. As it happens, I do. There were, however, a few problems since the tale did seem somewhat drawn out and not nearly as compelling in the middle as at the end. And I was made a bit uncomfortable by the constant shifts between locales and story lines as the action was continuously deferred in one place to look in on alternating players elsewhere as the tale progressed.

My own preference is for a story which pretty much carries you right through the main line of action. But the varying streams were each interesting in their own way and, while slowing up the read, did not finally halt it. I found myself more and more anxious to see how the characters would work themselves out of their various predicaments (though I never doubted for a moment that they would). Although they were not the deepest of personalities and were plainly stereotypes, they were nicely drawn for the most part (though I had some problem with the lack of presence of Olivio's Kikuyu wife, Kina).

There is a bit of graphic sexuality and violence here but nothing that seemed out of the way for this sort of book and the events it portrayed. However, I thought Mr. Bull's credibility and authorial authority somewhat compromised in the end when he consistently referred to crocodiles as amphibians rather than the reptiles they are. At first I thought it an editorial slip but he did it more than once which I found jarring (though not debilitating to the tale which did seem to reflect a real feel for the terrain). I guess Mr. Bull is just not strong in the sciences . . . or had a momentary lapse. Yet, with all these caveats I have to pound the table for this book because most of the time I wanted to keep going back despite all and, in the end, I couldn't stop until I'd finished it. And when I had, it felt as though I'd been there.

author of The King of Vinland's Saga

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