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Conrad meets Boyd in a Kampala Showdown
on December 16, 2002
Idi Amin's bizarre and brutal eight years of dictatorship in Uganda are the setting for this assured debut. The narrator is Nicholas Garrigan, a young Scottish doctor who arrives in Uganda for a contract job at the same time as Amin's 1971 coup. The book is his recollection of his two years in a small town clinic and six years as Amin's personal doctor in Kampala. His story continues the Conradian tradition of the European man who comes to Africa and becomes transformed through his contact with evil. Amin is Garrigan's Kurtz, and while the doctor and other expats generally turn a blind eye to the truckloads of political prisoners being taken to the countryside to be executed, eventually Garrigan is dragged face to face with Amin's horror.
Of course this isn't pure Conrad, rather it's cut with a bit of William Boyd, another Englishman writer who's written compelling fiction about modern Africa and the legacy of colonial rule. For the horror here isn't that Garrigan begins to understand Amin (after all who could really hope to understand a man of Amin's awesome eccentricity), but begins to like him in an odd way. And it's not that the doctor is a weak character, he's actually remarkably average, and thus very much like ourselves. The reader is unable to to find solace in making easy smug judgments about Garrigan's gradual moral slide as he sucked more and more into Amin's confidence and makes small compromises with himself. Amin is a great character in his own right, lurching from buffoonery to gluttony to sly cunning to sheer incomprehensibility at the drop of a hat. Of course Fodden had a lot to work with, as many of Amin's deeds and speeches are classic examples of truth really being stranger than fiction.
Speaking oh which, Fodden went to great lengths in researching this novel, interviewing a wide range of people who witnessed Amin's reign. Alas, the Saudi government wouldn't grant him permission to interview Amin, who is still alive and living on a Saudi pension in Jeddah. Garrigan is loosely modeled on Bob Astles, a British WW2 veteran who somehow became Amin's closest advisor. Altogether a very good read, regrettably Fodden's next two books apparently don't live up to this one.