an interview with Giles Foden      
photo of giles foden

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  Bold Type: You grew up in Africa, which partly explains the incredible richness and authenticity of your novel -- did writing it change your feelings about Africa?

Giles Foden: My parents moved to Africa from England (where they were farmers) when I was five years old, and we lived in various countries, including Uganda, for the next twenty years. My father worked in agriculture, and I got to travel round remote rural areas with him, and see a bit of the landscape and people. It was all very exciting to a young boy, and when I came to write, I suppose I was in many ways trying to recreate those vivid experiences on the page, including the frightening ones, like seeing dead bodies or towns on fire, and having our jeep searched at gunpoint by soldiers. I don't know if writing The Last King of Scotland changed my feelings, really. It certainly brought them into sharper relief, and made me think hard about the role of white Westerners in Africa.

BT: Tell us about Nicholas Garrigan: why does he go to Africa, what makes him tick?

GF: After qualifying as a doctor in Edinburgh, Scotland, young Nicholas goes to Africa to improve his prospects and get away from a slightly oppressive Presbyterian home life. He is rather fearful, but greedy for experience, and throws himself enthusiastically into life and work at a remote rural clinic. But the signs of his blinkeredness and lack of inner strength soon become plain, especially in his brief affair with an Israeli woman doctor, Sarah Zach (who later turns out to be a spy).

BT: Garrigan doesn't seem to know what is happening around him, and he unwittingly becomes a passive accomplice in Amin's program of terror. Is Garrigan weak, or just afraid to admit the truth?

GF: I don't suppose he is any weaker than all of us. He suffers from the kind of disengagement that most of us practice when faced with something we don't want to admit, even when the evidence for it is right in front of our eyes. Some people have said they don't believe that Garrigan wouldn't have just fled when Amin's chaotic atrocities became apparent ("Program of Terror" is too mechanistic; he wasn't a systematic dictator, in the manner of Hitler or Stalin). But when I interviewed four doctors who were in Uganda at the time, the common thread was that "life went on as normal".

BT: You met and interviewed Bob Astles, a man widely perceived to be Amin's closest advisor -- what was he like, and how did he help you shape Garrigan's character?

GF: "Major" Bob, as he was known, is a former British soldier who inveigled himself into Amin's favour (he was much more proactive than Garrigan) and became part of his apparatus of repression. After Amin's fall, he was imprisoned for ten years in a Kampala jail. I discovered that he is now living in the leafy London suburb of Wimbledon, and managed to persuade him to talk to me. It was a strange, even spooky occasion, going to this little house and meeting the man the British newspapers used to call "Amin's White Rat." He had come to believe his own version of events, and in some ways I felt sorry for him. The weirdest part was that he had a pet magpie which kept hopping and flapping round the room while I taped what Astles was saying. At one point, it got up and sat on Astles's bald head and pecked it. The Major lit a cigar; then it dumped on his shoulder. Even though he now distances himself from the dictator, Astles seems to live in the same fantasy world as Amin. Garrigan does this too in the book, and that more than anything leads to his downfall: he becomes entranced by Amin's voice, as much as anything.

BT: Is your portrait of Amin based on research, memory, unagination, or a combination of all three?

GF: All three, but trying to keep the research at bay was a problem. I kept discovering these amazing things about Amin which I wanted to put in the book. This was disturbing, as I felt like I was being "dictated" to, or suffering the kind of demonic possession that Amin believed existed. Still, I guess I must have pulled through: mainly I tried to hang onto to the idea that this was a story. I wanted to make people turn the page.

BT: British crincs have been awed by your convincing depiction of Idi Amin. Were you worried at any point in the writing that he wouldn't seem real?

GF: Well, I don't know if they have been "awed" exactly! It is true that sometimes Amin did and said things that were so off the wall -- like writing to Nixon and asking if he needed to come to Uganda for a rest, after the tribulations of Watergate -- that I suspected people would think I was just making it up. A little of it I was, for structural, novelistic reasons, but the strangest things in the book are all factually true, even if they seem to be the stuff of fiction. Yet in some ways this fact-fiction debate too is engulfed by Amin's charismatic effect: he thought of and presented himself as mythological, and long before I got to him was "already a novel," so to speak. Added to this was the problem that in a country like Uganda at that time, things weren't written down, and many of the participants were dead when I came to write the book.

BT: Amin's regime lasted for eight years (1971-1979) -- what was his political motivation, what were his causes? Can you give us a sense of the scope of the damage he did to Uganda?

GF: I think his motivations weren't political at all, even though he might have thought they were. They were visceral, a matter of appetite: more guns, more money, more women. On a deeper level, his lack of a father figure lead him to worship his original colonial officers, and when Britain effectively abandoned him, he struck out like a sulky child. He was quite cunning in the way he did this, and one of the disturbing things about him was that many of his overtly political statements -- like saying that there should be more black people in the White House, and that the US should have a black Vice-President (at least!) -- were things which liberals agreed with. Some supported him (as did right-wing Western governments, including America and Britain), but eventually couldn't square his anti-racist, anti-colonial rhetoric with his awful actions. The damage those actions caused -- up to 800,000 deaths -- mainly came in the civil wars that followed Amin's downfall, but he and his thugs killed hundreds of thousands and it was his greedy schoolboy activities that broke the infrastructure of Uganda and, emptying its coffers, laid the groundwork for another decade of misery. Thank God, things are better now, with a new leader, Yoweri Museveni, in charge, once a guerrilla fighting against Amin and others, he has a clear and moral vision of Uganda's future. When I went back recently, I was amazed how much more prosperous the country was, and how much happier people seemed.

BT: Garrigan escapes from Uganda only to be vilified by the British press, who see him as Amin's right hand man and chief torturer. Are you commenting on the media's propensity to sensationalize, and their ability to ruin people?

GF: It was certainly true that Amin and people associated with him were pilloried in the British press -- sometimes deservedly, but a lot of the time it seemed like a way of drumming up racist sentiment or (and these things to some degree went hand in hand) assuaging colonial guilt by using Amin as a way of pointing out how wonderful things had been under the auspices of Empire. From my own point of view, I was also trying to explore, in a literary way, how sensationalism relates to the writing of fiction: at what point, I tried to ask myself, am I myself involved in the glamourisation of Amin's deeds? Where does the chain of responsibility and voyeurism that wraps itself around Garrigan end? With me? With you, the reader?

BT: Idi Amin is still alive, living in exile in Saudi Arabia -- what do you think would be his reaction to The Last King of Scotland?

GF: Well, this worried my mother a lot, who despite having returned to Britain, still reckons that Amin's men are going to come after me! I tell her not to worry. It's not likely: he is living in Saudi on a small pension from the government there, and doesn't have the resources he once had. Apparently he has slimmed down a lot and now has the nickname Dr. Jaffa, because he eats large numbers of oranges each day. It must be true, as the reason is pure Amin: he believes they will repair his ailing sexual potency. I heard this from a Scottish businessman -- it sounds too good to be true, but I swear he was Scottish -- who works in Saudi and visits Amin from time to time. He has told me of the dictator's response: not being able to read, he had a summary made of the book, and on having it read out to him veered between fury and flattery. Although the Saudi government won't let me go there and see him for myself, I feel like I know him well enough to believe that this is how he would react. Ah well, you can't please everybody.

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