22 September 2007

Book Review: The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden

Book to Movie Challenge #1
Armchair Traveller Challenge #3

The Last King of Scotland To someone who grew up dreaming of adventure, a village in Uganda sounds like an ideal place to take up work as a doctor. The reality, however, might be something else, as Nicholas Garrigan realises even before he reaches Mbarara. The local military is corrupt and the British embassy wants the new government employee to do some ... er, observation for them. Nevertheless, Garrigan stays, loving the place and the challenge of practicing medicine in the tropics. Then the government is toppled, and a charismatic soldier named Idi Amin seizes power. Amin is fascinated by all things Scottish, even going so far as to style himself the ‘Last King of Scotland’. After a chance meeting, he is taken with the idea of having a Scot as a personal physician, and makes Garrigan an offer on the spot. Following his return to the city, he becomes entranced by his new boss’s charm, even as he is terrified by his occasional outbursts and horrified by the brutalities of his regime. By the time he realises just how far in over his head he’s gotten, the borders are closing and escape may well be impossible.

This is my book number one in the Book to Movie challenge, and one whose corresponding movie I haven’t seen. So, no comparisons. What I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed the literary version. This was in spite of the various gruesome and/or disturbing bits; Foden doesn’t pull any descriptive punches and I now know rather more than I wanted about tropical diseases and the effects of shrapnel.

It takes a while for the title character to appear, but it’s time well spent. Garrigan’s early years at Mbarara, plus his recollections of growing up in Fossiemuir, set the stage for the rest and make it believable. By the time he’s mired in the increasing chaos of Amin’s reign, the reader has already seen his childhood fascination with exotic adventures, his indecisiveness, his poor judgement plus a certain blindness when it comes to people. It is all these things that keep him in Uganda long after other Westerners have bailed out, and without them he would have looked like an idiot. As it was, he came across as intelligent man who was also a weak one, plagued by a few disastrous flaws. It was hard to truly like him as a person, but his observations made him an entertaining narrator. The towns and countries of Uganda sprang to life on the page, and it wasn’t the stuff you’d see on a package tour; he spent a lot of time in some quite run-down areas. (Ergo, another brilliant choice for the Armchair Traveller Challenge.) I could see why he found Amin so captivating, even if I didn’t experience the effect myself. There were moments when it was almost possible to think that he sounded reasonable, though the impression never lasted. Perhaps I’m too cynical to accept the surface of things the way Garrigan does. That being the case, I thought the book worked better as a portrait of Uganda under Amin, than of Amin himself.

Rating: B+


Literary Feline said...

Great review! I probably should read this book. I saw the movie not too long ago and hadn't realized it was based on a book at the time. The movie was very good and so I can only imagine just how good the book is in comparison.

Debi said...

I haven't seen the movie, but have been wanting to. I didn't realize it was based on a book either. Definitely think I'd like to read it first. Thanks for the review!

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776