The danger of looking away

The Last King of Scotland
by Giles Foden

While I liked the film that was made of this novel, I wasn’t sure what more I would get out of the novel. I am glad that I was encouraged to read it because there is so much more here than I expected.

Dr Nicholas Garrigan is not the most likeable narrator, but somehow he keeps you reading. Young and lacking focus, he turns up in Uganda with no clear idea of the country’s politics or why he has chosen to practice medicine there. On his first day in the country, Idi Amin seizes power, his thugs roaming the streets, making the new situation clear. The British Embassy is quick to send Nicholas out of the capital to a remote village where a hospital is run by doctors from all over the world, their wages and equipment sourced from various aid agencies.

At this point Nicholas is just trying to be a doctor, though he can be na├»ve, or even thoughtless, and is hopeless with women. As the political situation worsens, and his co-workers worry about Amin’s policies, Nicholas determinedly stays out of it. Except that he insists on going to hear Amin speak and is caught up by the big man’s beguiling rhetoric. So when he gets the invitation to become Amin’s personal doctor he gladly accepts, much to the consternation of everyone at the village hospital.

Nicholas is drawn in by Amin’s magnetism and seems willing to overlook the frankly bonkers content of all his conversation. He is slightly afraid of Amin, but also fascinated, and continues to turn a blind eye to the increasing evidence for beatings, torture, death and disappearances at the hands of Amin’s men.

The blurb describes the book as a thriller and to some extent it does become that toward the end, but right from the start we know that Nicholas is narrating this from a few years later, in Scotland, from his own journals, so there is no tension as to whether he survives. But he does insinuate that it got pretty bad and berate himself for his stupidity and blindness.

It’s an interesting book and I felt that I learned a lot. I don’t know where Foden got the idea but the acknowledgements indicate that he did a lot of interviews and research before writing. Which is in an odd sort of way my only quibble with the book. As with all historical fiction I wanted to know which bits were fiction and which real and I would have liked an author’s note or something along those lines.

First published in 1998 by Faber and Faber.