Oil and arms and revolution could have been the ingredients for a successful thriller, especially in
the hands of John Ralston Saul, author of the best-selling Birds of Prey. But his second novel, Baraka (meaning “divine luck” in Arabic), does not deliver what it promises. The novel is a thriller that does not thrill, offering only a critique of corporate morality, along with a few insights into male psychology as compensation.
The male under examination is Martin Laing, an ambitious MBA graduate in an oil company which is “not multinational, but antinational.” Believing that he can remain morally detached from corporate action, Laing agrees to sell U.S. arms which have been left in Vietnam in exchange for access to new oilfields. To assist him, he engages his old friend from McGill University, Anthony Smith. Then the trouble begins, for both Laing and the novel. Leaving the oil industry (where Saul has some experience from his three years at Petro-Canada), it enters the world of
arms merchants, revolutionaries and blackmailers.
Saul evokes and quickly discards settings from Bangkok to Fez. One country’s struggles merge into another’s, and the book turns into a business trip southeast Asia and the Arab world instead of a real visit. Even a corporate climber has to come from somewhere; Baraka has no sense of place, no soul. Blackguards and blackmailers lead Laing and Smith on a merry chase to Morocco, where friend finally abandons friend. One dies, and the other goes into hiding. It is difficult to care in either case.
The intrigues and betrayals of Baraka are much less interesting than the ambivalence of Laing’s character. His immorality goes against the thriller necessity that there be good to confront evil. In place of a moral position, Saul poses love and regeneration as the solution. Laing’s vulnerability—his passion for his absent wife suggests that too much love may ruin a man for real battles—and his passive acceptance that he must “succeed” are both real and unusual. Still, the action jumps around too much, and the stakes—corporate promotion and profit—are not significant enough to make Laing’s fate moving. With twice the hero and half the action, Baraka would have been much luckier.
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