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The Last King of Scotland
GRAHAM BRACK | Giles Foden, a journalist with The Guardian newspaper, has written an inventive novel framed around Idi Amin's years in power and told from the viewpoint of Nicholas Garrigan, a Scotsman who was Amin's personal physician.
The British had a special horror of Idi Amin. This was not to do with his assumption of the title "Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular", nor his award (to himself) of the Victoria and Military Crosses plus a Distinguished Service Order to boot, but from a feeling that having to be halfway polite to such a bounder who professed such admiration for a country he was intent upon humiliating was asking too much of our diplomatic corps. At first he was regarded as a comic figure - Alan Coren wrote a brilliant weekly diary of sorts in the Amin persona for Punch - but as details of his savagery leaked out and were validated, he ceased to be a source of amusement.
Amin had a special love of the Scots, having seen Scots regiments in the British Army with their pipes, drums and kilts, and wanted to win Scotland its "independence" from England, after which he would be graciously prepared to accept the throne of Scotland if the Scots wished to show their gratitude in that way, hence the title of the book.
Garrigan takes up a post in rural Uganda as a sponsored doctor, but a freak accident involving Amin's car introduces him to his future boss. Summoned to Kampala, and encouraged by the British Embassy, where the idea of a Briton close to the dictator's ear appeals, he has light duties since the tyrant is monstrously fit, as one might expect from an ex-heavyweight boxing champion who stands six and a half feet tall and weighs around 280 pounds.
A shady diplomat at the Embassy suggests to Garrigan that the judicious use of drugs might temper the excesses of Amin, and Garrigan finds himself increasingly caught between his duty of care to his patient, and the manifest need to control the leviathan. Most writers could express the evil of Amin, but Foden succeeds in conveying his charm, his low cunning, his complete control of others' lives, and those occasional moments when he is genuinely appealing. Amin may do foolish things, but he is nobody's fool; and such is his complete control of the intelligence network, so powerful his personal image, that none dare oppose him. They cannot know what support they would have; they cannot know whom they would trust; they cannot know what he already knows, which he occasionally demonstrates is rather more than they would expect.
Increasingly it becomes clear that if Amin is to be stopped, internal Ugandan opposition will not do it, and the need for a lone man with access to Amin and the means of his destruction is obvious to many, increasing the pressure on Garrigan to act. Although Amin is brutal to him from time to time, still the physician's over-riding concern for his patient impedes his action.
Foden contrives to lay bare the dilemma of the doctor whilst still leaving us unclear until the end what action - if any - he will take. Since any of us with knowledge of the relevant history will know how the events must turn out, it is quite an achievement to craft a tale which still grips, and allows us to realise that men may be at the centre of major events and still not understand them, at least not at the time.
"The Last King of Scotland" is a book with some humour in it, despite the grimness of its subject, and I learned quite a bit of tropical medicine as I read it, together with a gentle admixture of local African lore and history. The intriguing tale justifies its telling and Foden has the right background and ability to present it properly.
GRAHAM BRACK , a pharmacist by day, is the staff book reviewer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He lives in Cornwall, England.