Everything has been said about Idi Amin’s ruthless reign over Uganda (1971-1979). Expelling Ugandans of Asiatic descent after a dream, offering shelter to terrorists hijacking a plane or officially claiming to be the uncrowned “King of Scotland”, this trooper-turned-president pushed the limits of the absurd while in power. Against this background, Foden’s attempt to grasp Amin’s character without falling into the cliché of the usual African despot, was a daring enterprise.
Published by Faber and Faber in 1998, Giles Foden’s The Last King of Scotland brilliantly avoids the trap – something less true of the Hollywood blockbuster the book inspired in 2006. The novel approaches Idi Amin through Nicholas Garrigan, a fictional Scottish doctor who becomes the tyrant’s personal physician and favourite. Fascinated by Amin’s personality, Garrigan does not realise at first the horror he is sucked into. When it becomes impossible to ignore, he is assailed by unsettling questions. Can a monster also be a nice man? Where does the border of evil lay? And above all, how should one respond to it?
Foden unfolds his story by successive flashbacks. Stuck on a snowy Scottish island, a bitter Garrigan longs for anonymity and oblivion. Exhausted, alcoholic, irradiated by the dictator’s toxic “friendship”, he tries to make sense of the dreadful experience he went through. “I know what I have become. I know what I have seen. I know about all those people who died – and yet also I do not know about them”, he clumsily explains. “And I know, also, that most of my life is now behind me (…)” These dark thoughts contrast with the bright expectations the young doctor nurtured when arriving in Africa.
For Garrigan had a rather good life before crossing Amin’s path. First setting foot in Uganda on the day of the dictator’s successful coup, he headed straight for the bush hospital he had enrolled with out of idealism and a search for adventure. There, in the isolation of a little town, he spent two superb years immersing himself in the subtleties of tropical medicine and falling in love with Sara, an Israeli colleague. “Her skin was a deep coppery colour, almost as dark as her hair”, he remembers from their first encounter. “I could see a faint glistening of moisture standing out from the pores in it. ‘Welcome to our clinic’. Her accent came out strong on the word clinic and I toyed with its ups and downs in my head – klinik, kalinik, klienik?”
Sure, everything was not rosy in Amin’s Uganda. There had been this butchered man whose swollen corpse lay in the river, not very far from the hospital. Then the looming figure of Major Mabuse, an appalling officer linked to mysterious abductions. And the outburst of military violence, with the death of 30 people in town. But in spite of the signs, Garrigan repeatedly fails to grasp at reality. He is even caught off guard when Sara leaves the country. “I should have known, given Amin’s announcement about Zionist imperialists (…), that Sara would go too. But I wasn’t prepared for it. (…) I should have known, that is the phrase of my life, its summing up, its consummate acknowledgement.”
Then comes Amin, of course. Their encounter is dull, banal: a road accident, a broken wrist, no doctor around except for Garrigan. The young man feels at once under the tyrant’s charm. “On the other side of the road, no less impressive a spectacle, sprawled Idi Amin Dada. Even on his back, he was physically dominating. I felt as if I were encountering a being out of a Greek myth (…).” Garrigan swiftly becomes Amin’s personal physician. Fascinated beyond control by the dictator, he slips way too far into his paranoid universe and witnesses the horror at first hand – the terrorised wives, the tortured dissidents, the guerilla warfare…
The Last King of Scotland‘s tour de force lays in its construction. First a remote, almost unreal character, Idi Amin slowly takes the centre stage of the novel. Foden approaches him step by step, as a camera slowly zooming in from afar, eventually coming so close that it makes the reader sick. Garrigan slowly disappears in the process – physically present, but morally overwhelmed. At the end, he literally becomes Amin himself. “It is true, what the mirror shows (…). I am transformed into a suppurating beast, someone with a smell of evil about his person. Yes, I have become him. Oh my Christ.” Evil… Closing the book, it is indeed what one keeps smelling.