When in the mid-Eighties I lived in the port of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, I lived in a city policed by gossip and run by rumour. While its citizens, flapping in white robes and black veils and wrappings, glided through the streets like formal ghosts, its guest-workers crept through their contracts, guided by intuitions as evanescent and mysterious as those of spiritualists. Perplexing questions hung in the still air. Some hung there year after year: who killed the nurse Helen Smith? Some were of immediate import: where has the main post office gone this week? Some were insoluble, questions almost too puzzling to pose: where, oh where, is Idi Amin?
The Uganda dictator, driven out by Tanzanian troops in 1979, had been offered refuge by a regime more merciful than others – or perhaps by a regime that was beyond embarrassment. But where did the Saudis hide him? How in that monochrome urban habitat would you disguise a streak of equatorial virescence, and how would you muffle behind the walls of a Red Sea villa the roaring of an imprisoned bull-elephant? The district where he lived was known; or at least, people mentioned it to each other, as if they knew it. Standing outside the Safeway supermarket, liquefying in the evening heat, waiting for prayers to end and the metal shutters to rattle up, I sometimes used to imagine I might see Idi pushing a trolley, among the counters of pallid veal and the glossy flavourless vegetables. Perhaps he had dwindled in exile, I thought. Perhaps his skin is grey and dusty now, and too big for him, perhaps he wears it in swags. Perhaps his many wives bully him and send him out to shop. But I never saw him, and I never heard anyone claim they had: we caught not a glimpse of the manic, blood-stained days of glory of ‘His Excellency President for Life Field Marshal Al Hadj Doctor Idi Amin Dada, Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular’.
To perceive Amin as something more than a fugitive wraith, or a sick joke, you must turn to Giles Foden’s first novel. Its title suggests the endless scope for macabre comedy that Amin provides. As a former soldier in the British Army, he had done part of his training in Stirling, and admired the Scottish officers he had met; he understood the part that empire-building Scots had played in Uganda’s history, and recognised their pioneering qualities even if he was forced, as an anti-imperialist, to deprecate them. These Caledonian connections were enough for Amin to proclaim himself a proponent – indeed a leader – of Scottish nationalism, and of Welsh nationalism and Irish nationalism, just by the way. But it was the Scottish tradition with which he most identified, and with which he identified his hapless country-men. One of the most bizarre moments in The Last King of Scotland occurs when the narrator, Nicholas Garrigan, is picnicking out in the hills with his Israeli girlfriend, Sara:
as if from nowhere a detachment of soldiers in full Scottish paraphernalia – kilts, sporrans, white-and-red chequered gaiters, drums and pipes – appeared over a hill ... Around their tunics of khaki drill were navy blue cummerbunds, and on each head sat a tall red fez with a black tassel ... we might well have thought they were nothing but ghosts ... Except that the music kept on for miles later ... Dumbstruck, we watched them march down the track to town, their outlandish figures getting smaller and smaller.
‘Dumbstruck’ is an adjective that suits Nicholas, one he would choose. Paralysis is his mode, and there is a corresponding numbness in the telling of his story. Foden has had to make difficult choices, and has veered away from comedy. Perhaps it is crass to make comedy out of Amin. After all, in the eight years of his reign, Uganda’s economy was crippled, the rule of law broke down, and a very large number of people were killed.
How large? Well, between 80,000 and 500,000, suggests the press release which comes with the novel. An approximation so wild tells its own version of the truth. Any account of these years will be approximate, patchy, partial, both because truth is the first casualty of war and because the desire to find patterns, to impose patterns, is more driving and insistent than the desire to assemble facts. In the face of violent death, whatever the numbers involved, we do tend to demand explanations. Garrigan is short of them. That this should be so, testifies to Foden’s seriousness of purpose. It does mean, however, that at crucial points his novel has a flatness that leaves the reader stranded.
Nicholas is a young doctor sent to Uganda to work for the Ministry of Health on a contract from the Overseas Development Agency. He arrives in Kampala on the very eve of Amin’s coup, in January 1971. From his hotel room – he is slightly drunk, and fighting off cockroaches – he hears Amin’s tanks rumbling through the night. Seconded to a clinic in the west of the country, he spends two years in the bush, wearing his ‘undertaker’s suit’ of sweat and his expatriate uniform of bland conformity. When a British diplomat asks him to keep an eye on the local situation and report back, Nicholas doesn’t see that there’s anything to keep an eye on. When he complains that ‘something in me had begun to close down,’ the reader wonders: ‘when was it open?’
What has made Nicholas as he is? There are hints at a repressed Scottish childhood, conventional enough. He is not successful with women, perhaps because he misreads signals and moves towards them at the wrong time. He is a list-maker, a bit of a bore; his company can be wearing. When he is recalled to Kampala to become the President’s personal physician, we know that he will not be adequate in any way to meet the surprises that may lie ahead. There is a vacancy in him, a hollow that we know will be filled up by the overflowing charisma of what he calls ‘the number one id’.
Garrigan’s new master is six foot six inches tall and weighs 20 stone. He is in the rudest of health. There is no truth, Garrigan says, in the popular rumour – popular in the West, anyway – that Amin is syphilitic. This is the explanation that the white world contrived for his grandiloquence, his grandiosity: that these traits are manifestations of tertiary syphilis. It is a folk-belief that might have merited more attention from Amin’s doctor, more comment. For it introduced two comfortable notions: that Amin’s famous sexuality was poisoned and that he would soon be dead. But it avoided the more uncomfortable question of how far the dictator’s pomp mirrored and mocked the pomp of the British Empire. Where else did he learn the style? That Amin should sport a row of medals (including a fake Victoria Cross) is not inherently sillier than that a row of medals should be worn by, say, Prince Philip, or the Grand Old Duke of York. Medals mean what you want them to mean, and Amin is sincere in his desires. He is sincere when he lectures or comforts other rulers, when he suggests to Richard Nixon that he should come to Uganda to recuperate after Watergate, when he congratulates Mrs Thatcher on her fresh, charming and attractive appearance in her victory photographs. Her election as Tory leader exercises his mind, and the fall of Mr Heath is constantly before him: by Mrs Thatcher’s triumph, he mourns, Heath was ‘consigned to the obscure rank of bandmaster’. There is something almost loveable in his determination to understand the world in his own way; until one reads of the secret torture cells, the mutilated corpses found in the bush.
Amin is complicit, in his lordly way, with the white myth of the out-of-control black man. What makes Nicholas Garrigan so peculiarly suited to his role as Amin’s puppet? Is it the determinism of his Presbyterian background? Amin believes the will of God propels him through this world. Foden does not suggest that Nicholas does anything wicked – not on his own account. But he is Amin’s witness: what is the role of witnesses? When Amin finds he is keeping a journal he imprisons him for one night, under horrific circumstances, but shortly afterwards contracts to tell him his life story, which Garrigan will record on tape. He will be at Amin’s side until his downfall, a court jester with no jokes, a fool with no repertoire. Was he complicit? This is the question the world is going to ask him, when finally he arrives back in Britain, a sick and stateless refugee. At the least, he has been a by-stander, he did not speak out at the time, and will not speak out in the future, because the British Government has gagged him.
Nicholas Garrigan is not a good man, though not an especially bad man either. He is not admirable, and not sympathetic; by the end, we see that he is not despicable either. Foden is taking a risk in making him the narrator of his own tale. He knows that only a straightforward and rather plodding manner will suit Nicholas, and this makes for a single-paced narrative that fails to generate excitement. So what is the use of Nicholas as a narrator? He is the young Englishman abroad, white-skinned and squeamish despite his profession; the reader can squirm along with him. He is naive: while he is being told things, the reader can be told things too. Foden exploits this convenience a little too often. The newly-arrived doctor hears two people talking in a bar (in English, we presume) about the merits and drawbacks of the new guy, Amin, as against his predecessor, President Obote; for our benefit they rehearse it like two practised dialecticians.
These characters are devices. It is good to meet Angol Steve, proprietor of the ‘Uganda equator refreshment centre’ – which is to say, a cool-box: he is the book’s chief charmer. He is an interlude, and we are soon being bored back into Garrigan’s version of the world. Foden’s expatriates, though, are not formulaic. They are credible, not caricatures. His own family went to Africa when he was five years old, and he has lived in various countries, including Uganda. He knows how white expats keep their careful blinkers on, and he understands that blinkers are a useful device: they stop you jumping out of your skin at every half-seen thing.
Out of my own experience of post-colonialism overheard, I jibbed only once at Foden’s account. When Nicholas arrives in his bush-clinic, having witnessed Amin’s coup, the senior doctor asks him: ‘Were you scared?’ I do not think that in the Seventies this was a possible question for one Brit to put to another. What if the answer was ‘yes’? The proper formulation for this discussion is:
‘Were you worried at all?’
‘No, I wouldn’t say exactly worried ...’
Behind Garrigan’s whole life – even when he is up-country, absorbed with innocent parasites and worms – there is a set of entanglements darker than any to be found in the deepest recess of a suffering African belly. When Amin displaced Obote, the British welcomed him, they ushered him in. He is described to Nicholas as ‘one of our own. If not too bright.’ Foden describes sharply the diplomats who stand on their dignity, the diplomats who, when that dignity is injured, turn malign. First they entice Garrigan. He is Amin’s doctor, his personal servant. Could he not tranquillise him daily? Perhaps that would make him less interested in nationalising British companies. But then: could he not kill him?
Nicholas refuses. His motives are always ambiguous, even to himself. Fear of the consequences? Respect for the rules of his profession? A perverse love for Amin, with ‘his jaunty sophistry, his brilliant tongue’? In the end, the reader falls into a perverse fellow-feeling with a man who admits so much ill-use, who is so unequal to the demands made of him. Nicholas Garrigan is a man unequal to the times he is living through. A state apparatus is used without mercy, first to entice him, then to scare him, then to silence him. It is used twice over, first in Uganda, then in England. He is, in both cases, a colonised person, and his lack of assertion may reflect it. He ends in solitude, back in Scotland, hiding out in an island bothy: ‘I know that most of my life is behind me now, just as Amin’s is. I wonder how he will live, what shape that life will take.’ It is an unemphatic, jaundiced conclusion, and unheroic, as it must be: a conclusion that seems to prepare Nicholas Garrigan for the silence of history, and Amin for Jeddah’s sickly light.