A Tribute to Sidney SHELDON (1917-2007)
BESTSELLING NOVELIST Sidney Sheldon (1917-2007) has died. I remember reading his novels back in the 1970s and 1980s and thoroughly enjoying them, especially The Other Side of Midnight (1974), Rage of Angels (1980), Master of the Game (1982) and Memories of Midnight (1990). As a tribute to the prolific Sheldon, I am reproducing a review of The Sands of Time (1988) which I wrote in the late 1980s. He grips and seduces the reader through engaging characters, cleverly constructed plotlines and cliffhanging chapter endings. Sheldon had no pretentions to literary greatness; he wrote to entertain and entertain he did. And he kept you asking for more.
SIDNEY SHELDON’s potboiler dwells on a compelling subject matter: the turmoil of a land embroiled in a bloody civil war. Set against the timeless and haunting landscape of Spain, Sheldon weaves intricate strands of Spanish history and politics into a tangled tapestry of adventure and romance. By depicting the enigmatic and rugged Spanish terrain with broad but deft strokes of colours, Spain comes across as a colourful juxtaposition of the past and present, a land of eternal passion and unceasing bloodshed. He is adept at capturing a historical ambience and the nuances of affinities between people thrown together by circumstances beyond their control.
The story unfolds with much promise. The legendary Jaime Miro is the leader of the outlawed Basque nationalists, a hero to the Basque people and an anathema to the Spanish government. He is a complex man, fanatical about his cause, a realist who understands the obstacles in his path, and a romantic who is willing to perish for what he believes in. The intransigent Basques are not satisfied with just being Spaniards; they want complete autonomy. With relentless strength and an unshakeable faith in his beliefs, Miro concocts a daring plan which calls for careful, split-second timing to rescue his compatriots from the prison of Pamplona where they have been condemned to die.
The Catholic Church is accused of sheltering and abetting Basque rebels by allowing them to hold meetings and store arms in monasteries and convents. The Cistercian Convent of the Strict Observance in Avila is reported to be sheltering Miro and his freedom fighters.
The Cistercian Convent of the Strict Observance had been built for blessed solitude and silence, devoted solely to a life of prayer and penance, isolated in its cloistered world of innocence and simplicity and a complete renouncement of the secular world—its physical love, possessions and freedom of choice. In renouncing these, they had also renounced greed, rivalry, hatred and jealousy and all the temptations imposed by the world outside. No touching or speaking were allowed here except through an ancient form of sign language. There reigned an all-pervading serenity within the hearts of those who had chosen to live here.
Colonel Ramon Acoca of the Spanish Army is the head of a ruthless cadre formed specifically to pursue Basque terrorists. With the instincts of a born hunter, Colonel Acoca loves the thrill of a chase, but it is the final kill that gives him a visceral satisfaction.
The Convent is raided by a cadre of anti-terrorists led by the mephistophelean Colonel Acoca for sheltering terrorists and hence setting into motion a chain of events that shook Spain. Four nuns managed to flee the Convent into the hands of Miro. Unwittingly, they become pawns in a deadly political chess-game between the charismatic Miro and the tyrannical Colonel Acoca. The world to which the nuns had once belonged to and abandoned for the safety of the Convent seemed unreal, unchartered and hostile. It was within the Convent that was real and they longed to return to its sanctuary. They had been cloistered and isolated for so long that, now that they were outside its sacred gates, they were filled with apprehension, confusion and panic as though all their senses had been paralysed. Confronted by a cornucopia of unaccustomed sounds, sights and smells which assaulted their senses, they start to re-evaluate their reasons for seeking to devote their lives to God and religion. Each of them had their reasons for renouncing the world to seek the security of the Convent. And now, without the rigid discipline of the Convent to guide them, they find themselves unable to banish their deepest desires and inner darkness. Torn between their spirits and the guilt-ridden cravings of their flesh, they start to explore their pasts and to discover the truths about themselves.
The Sands of Time has a dramatic poignancy that demonstrates Sheldon’s measured writing style, which through sheer imagination succeeds in creating a drama of political intrigue. There was no dearth of dramatic punctuation and the narrative was not bloated with extraneous dialogue; his dialogue is irrefragably excellent for the revelation of characters and his command of the idioms of ordinary speech permits him to achieve a fine naturalness.
By dealing with the tragedy of a land torn by strife, unfolded with an insight into the characters that people the vast Spanish landscape, how a people and their ideals, beliefs and freedom are supressed, and at the same time delving into the subtle territory of forbidden love, The Sands of Time pricks and provokes our conscience. Much of the novel is a joy to read and it may linger in our minds long after other easily assimilated pulp of the same genre have passed beyond our memory. This is also Sheldon’s last well-written novel; his more recent flaccid potboilers have somehow become a reviewer’s nightmare.