Zanzibar is the third novel of English born (but African raised) novelist Giles Foden, most famous for his first novel The Last King of Scotland, a marvellous study of the seductive power of evil (and indeed of power itself) explored through the relationship of a young Scottish doctor and the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
Foden followed The Last King of Scotland with a second historical novel, Ladysmith, set during the Anglo-Boer war of 1899 and based in part on letters written by Foden’s own great-grandfather. Both novels involved considerable use of actual historical personalities, in the case of Ladysmith often before they were well known (Churchill and Ghandi as young men, among others).
Ladysmith, for the curious, is much more a novel about the effects of war on those living through it, than it is a novel about the practice of war itself. It is not, in other words, a military novel.
Zanzibar is also set in Africa, here drawing on Foden’s experiences as a journalist in Tanzania covering the 1998 US Embassy bombings. As such, unlike the previous two works it is not a historical novel, being written in the main between 1999 and 2001, published in 2002 and set in 1998. It also addresses much more contemporary issues than Foden’s other works, addressing in particular the problem of global terrorism.
Zanzibar is a remarkably prophetic novel, featuring both Al-Quaeda and more specifically Bin Ladin (aka Bin Laden) as an active and serious threat to the US. It is necessary, when reading this novel, to recall that the bulk of it was written prior to 9/11 (though published afterwards). It is not a reaction to those events, but rather the product of genuine scholarship which took seriously a threat which the general public had at the time of writing little awareness of.
Unfortunately, it’s also for me by far the least successful of Giles Foden’s novels, straddling rather uncomfortably the line between literary fiction and thriller without therefore quite doing justice to either. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its merits, but I would say that if you have read no Foden then this wouldn’t be where I would suggest starting.
Zanzibar essentially is the story of the bombing of the US Embassy in Dar-es-Salaam in 1998. It tells this story through multiple narrative perspectives. Jack Queller, a retired and embittered former CIA black ops veteran. Nick Karolides, a young Greek-American marine biologist sent to Zanzibar as part of a US government conservation program. Khaled Al-Khidr, a young man from Zanzibar who has been recruited and trained by Al-Quaeda and is struggling to reconcile his commitment to that cause with his understanding of the teachings of Islam and its message of peace and social justice. Foden is aware of the resonances of the name Al-Khidr, being also a figure from Islamic myth of a Promethean spirit which brings understanding to mankind. Last is Miranda Powers, a recent graduate of the US Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
Through these characters, the usual omnipotent authorial voice and a cast of various lesser characters (often not terribly interestingly drawn) we explore the conflict between the US and Al-Quaeda, the complex history of their relationship including early US support as part of anti-Soviet policy, the impact of foreign exploitation on Africa, the problems of Africa both home-grown and externally sourced, the myth of paradise (both literally as in the paradise promised to the Al-Quaeda “martyrs” and metaphorically with Zanzibar itself imagined as a possible paradise on Earth, which it quite conspicuously fails to be).
There’s a lot of content then, in a novel that clocks in at just under 400 pages. All that and we have too a love story between Nick and Miranda, internal US intelligence struggles between Queller and an FBI rival, Al-Khidr’s training and increasing doubts about his mission and the story of conservation efforts in Zanzibar and in particular the difficulties faced by turtles in struggling to reproduce successfully. Phew!
Unsurprisingly, some elements work better than others. More to the point, some narrative threads work better than others. Jack Queller is a wholly stock character, the disillusioned spook whose warnings of the real threat are ignored by his bureaucratic masters. I would see him as being played by Harrison Ford in the movie most likely. Miranda Powers is a credible enough character, but as a hard working and conscientious young woman with ambition but a lack of fulfilling personal life I just didn’t find much there to really grab my interest or engage with (naturally, she’s beautiful, young female agents in thrillers tend to be I suppose).
Nick Karolides is better, although not that interesting in himself his issues with his mother who has become part of a fundamentalist Christian group with cult-like overtones, his problems with local bureaucracy and corruption, the conflict he faces between protecting wildlife and avoiding becoming himself a target for local poachers and fishermen, all this has some interest. Khaled Al-Khidr is easily the most rewarding character, his desire to be a loyal Jihadi and his barely suppressed realisation that he may not be working for the good of his faith at all making him surprisingly sympathetic (indeed, possibly the most sympathetic character in the novel).
At times, Foden brings it all off. The build-up to the terrible impact of the bombing (the event itself powerfully described by Foden) is carefully paced with the various actors in the drama living independently of each other and with Foden cutting from one to the other to good effect. At its best, this leads to a skilful sequence where Jack Queller is one of the speakers at the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s graduation day for new agents, and Foden alternates between Al-Khidr receiving an audience with Bin Ladin and Miranda Powers hearing the wisdom of those more experienced than her before she enters the world. Al-Khidr and Powers each hear the rhetoric of their own side, each takes part in their own rituals (“God bless America!”, “Praise belong to Allah, the Lord of all Being, the All-merciful, the All-compassionate, the Master of the Day of Doom.”), each is being prepared to perform the duties their organisations expect of them. To his credit, Foden does not fall into the trap of making some facile point of equivalence here, rather he builds a sense of coming conflict while maintaining a sense of underlying common humanity.
Foden also manages to a degree to combine the two novelistic forms in his use of description. Early on in the novel, he uses lush descriptive text, moving to terser but still evocative descriptions later. This struck me as a demand of the thriller, albeit one which here didn’t work too badly (although I thought the early descriptions in places possibly over the top for his intended genre). Consider the following two passages from different sections of the novel:
It was, considering the state of Florida, the kind of day when the sky might be glad to see itself anew on the sea beach – in the silvery surface of the water, in mother-of-pearl, in gum foil even.
Standing on white stone plinths raised above the quays, a pair of ancient Portuguese cannon guarded the entrance to the harbour. On both sides fishermen were releasing their catch – tuna, kingfish, mullet, shrimp and lobster, all glistening in the bright sunlight as they slithered from their nets into low wooden pens set out on the flagstones.
Although I do not personally much like the first passage quoted above (I find it overwritten, and on first read I was slightly incredulous at the idea that “the sky might be glad to see itself”), it is clearly a different sort of descriptive prose than that used in the second. Equally, an early description of a coral reef as a “cathedral of light” is poetic, rather than prosaic and the very first chapter in which Al-Khidr enjoys a rare sighting of a turtle laying its eggs but returns home to horror is skilfully drawn and gentle in tone. More unfortunate in terms of description is the passage where Miranda observes “The town didn’t conform to how she had imagined Zanzibar, which was, well – long white beach, spread of palms at the water’s edge, etc.”, an observation which actually works well as written but which through no fault of Foden’s jars rather with the UK cover which consists of a rather nice picture of a long white beach with spread of palms at the water’s edge.
However, the needs of the combine to good effect. A thriller requires a final confrontation, a literary novel about disparate factions and competing interests does not. Since this is, in part, a thriller it does include the obligatory chase scene and final face-off which utterly stretched my credulity, the desire earlier to tell the story through a mosaic of experiences giving way to the need to have people run about and point guns at each other. The whole end sequence of the novel is deeply cinematic, and thus distinctly at odds with the tone of much of the earlier parts.
The novel also contains frequent information dumps of a sort that tends to be rare in literary fiction. The passage above in which the sky sees itself comes shortly after a lengthy digression on the historic origins of the concept of April Fool’s Day, the relevance of which (it lies in the history of Islam and the West) I could see but which still felt like an infodump for all that (and, in all honesty, an unnecessary one). Jack Queller is all too prone to reflections on the history of US involvement with Al Quaeda or on past involvements in Afghanistan and it is quite evident these are simply a way of communicating needed background to the reader.
When it works, the novel works well. Foden is a skilled writer, he has intelligent things to say. The paradise Al-Khidr is willing to kill for, and that he comes to fear may be barred to him if he does as his chosen masters bid him; the paradise on earth that Nick and Miranda seek, in Zanzibar and in each other, the compromise and reality of both Island and relationship; the seductive danger that these disparate visions possess and their ability to prevent the achievement of real happiness in the here and now; these are all interesting themes that are well developed. It’s just a shame that with all this we have characters like Queller or Zayn (Al-Khidr’s controller in Al-Quaeda) who are stock figures from a thousand Hollywood action movies and who bring with them all the tired banalities of the more workmanlike of those films.
Equally, Foden has cogent points to make on the attractions of fundamentalism (Christian, Islamic, even that of Hari Krishna devotees at airports) or on the exploitation of Africa (the popobawa, a mythical white-skinned Vampire, is referred to on several occasions), but these are not as developed as they could be and if less space were needed for scenes of sneaking past Islamicist armed guards possibly the parallels with Nick’s mother could have been fleshed out a bit more.
Foden does bring Africa to life, he is at his best (in all his novels really) when he writes of it and of the landscape, the people and the challenges. Foden is tremendous as ever on the lure of ideology and on the ability of people of good conscience to find themselves engaged in terrible acts. Foden’s background in historical fiction allows him to effectively ground this work precisely in 1998 through the use of often-present but never intrusive news reports on the Ken Starr investigation into Clinton. All this is to the good. But while reading it it’s all too easy to imagine the film, in which Foden’s strengths as a writer could be dispensed with but his depictions of evil Jihadis and the good Americans who fight them could be presented in all its simplicity, a simplicity so much at odds with so much else in the work.
Foden’s fourth book was non-fiction, if he returns to fiction I will likely return to him as he has written two very good novels and this one has much in it that shows his talents remain. I hope, however, that in future he contents himself with being a good writer in the admittedly poorly remunerated field of literary fiction and leaves thrillers to those better suited to them. Like many genres, thrillers looks easy to write, but tight plotting and pacing is no easier than nuanced emotion or precise language and it is not often those disparate abilities are combined in one writer.