Legendary novelist Wilbur Smith dies aged 88
Larger than life
Published: Nov 14, 2021 05:43 PM
Wilbur Smith Photo: AFP

Wilbur Smith Photo: AFP

Internationally acclaimed author Wilbur Smith died at his home in South Africa on Saturday after a decades-long career in writing, his office said. He was 88.

With 49 titles under his belt, Smith became a household name, his swashbuckling adventure stories taking readers from tropical islands to the jungles of Africa and even Ancient Egypt and World War II.

"Global bestselling author Wilbur Smith died unexpectedly this afternoon at his Cape Town home after a morning of reading and writing with his wife Niso by his side," said a statement released on the Wilbur Smith Books website as well as by his publishers Bonnier Books UK.

"The undisputed and inimitable master of adventure writing, Wilbur Smith's novels have gripped readers for over half a century, selling over 140 million copies worldwide in more than 30 languages."

The statements did not reveal the cause of death.

His 1964 debut novel When the Lion Feeds, the tale of a young man growing up on a South African cattle ranch, became an instant bestseller and led to 15 sequels, tracing an ambitious family's fortunes for more than 200 years.

"I wove into the story chunks of early African history. I wrote about black people and white. I wrote about hunting and gold mining and carousing and women," he said in a biography on his official website.

Big game hunter

Born on January 9, 1933 to a British family in what was then Northern Rhodesia, Smith encountered from an early age the forest, hills and savannah of Africa on his parents' large ranch. 

As a conservationist, he managed his own game reserve and owned a tropical island in the Seychelles.

He credited his mother with teaching him to love nature and reading, while his father - a strict disciplinarian - gave him a rifle at the age of 8, the start of what he acknowledged was a lifelong love affair with firearms and hunting.

"There are more big-game hunters in Smith's oeuvre than spies in the works of John le Carre, and yet it is possible that he has slaughtered even more animals in real life than on the page," Britain's Daily Telegraph wrote in 2014.

He contracted cerebral malaria when he was just a year and a half - an ailment so serious that there were fears that he would be brain damaged if he survived.

"It probably helped me because I think you have to be slightly crazy to try to earn a living from writing," he later reflected.

Also a scuba diver and mountain climber in his time, Smith was not afraid to throw himself into his research, saying that for his 1970 novel Gold Mine he took a job in a South African gold mine for a few weeks.

"I was a sort of privileged member of the team, I could ask questions and not be told to shut up," he told the Daily Telegraph of his experience.

His bestselling Courtney Series was the longest running in publishing history, spanning generations and three centuries, "through critical periods from the dawn of colonial Africa to the American Civil War, and to the apartheid era in South Africa," said his publisher.

But it was with Taita, the hero of his Egyptian Series, that Wilbur "most strongly identified, and River God remains one of his best-loved novels to this day," it added.

'Gave pleasure to millions' 

He also used his vast experiences outside of Africa in places like Switzerland and rural Russia to help create his fictional worlds.

In his 2018 memoir On Leopard Rock, Smith recounts having had "tough times, bad marriages... burnt the midnight oil getting nowhere, but it has, all in the end, added up to a phenomenally fulfilled and wonderful life.

"I want to be remembered as somebody who gave pleasure to millions," he wrote.

His office thanked "millions of fans across the world who cherished his incredible writing and joined us all on his amazing adventures."

His books have been translated into around 30 languages and several made into films, including Shout at the Devil with Lee Marvin and Roger Moore in 1976.

Answering a question on his site about the secret of his success, he says it is about "embroidering" a bit on real life. 

"I write about men who are more manly and beautiful women who are really more beautiful than any women you'd meet," he says, confirming he sometimes worked with co-writers.

Smith "leaves behind him a treasure-trove of novels," including unpublished co-authored books, according to Kate Parkin, a managing director at Bonnier Books.

Kevin Conroy Scott, his literary agent for the past decade, described him as "an icon, larger than life" and said his "knowledge of Africa, and his imagination knew no limitations."

He was married four times, with his last wife, Mokhiniso Rakhimova from Tajikistan, his junior by 39 years.

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