Book review: Accommodation with an ogre

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND by Giles Foden, Faber pounds 9.99
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TO THOSE who grew up in the 1970s, Idi Amin was a comic bogeyman, a regular standby for satirists and the kind of impressionist who likes to black up. But for those who had the misfortune to spend those years in Uganda, Idi Amin Dada was no joke. And it is this Amin, paranoid, sadistic and unpredictable, that Giles Foden has taken on in his excellent first novel.

A young Scots doctor arrives in Uganda just as a coup is bringing Amin to power. Summoned to treat the President for an injured wrist after he has crashed his Maserati into some hapless peasant's cow, Nicholas Garrigan rapidly finds himself drawn further into Amin's court, even as he learns more of its depravity.

An early scene at a state banquet suggests the book will be a post-colonial light comedy: brittle British ex-pats, intriguing foreigners, absurd speeches by local potentates in ridiculous uniforms, all underscored by tremors of real fear. But when Amin starts boasting about eating human flesh, it is clear that light comedy is not the goal.

Foden's interest is in the relationship between doctor and dictator, between healer and mass-murderer. The book purports to be Garrigan's memoirs, written on his return to Scotland, and for a while his voice threatens to be that of a pub bore, telling us of his "unremarkable" childhood and "long hard slog of a medical degree". But when he's dealing with Africa, the framing device slips away. Garrigan becomes a compelling, detailed observer. But Foden lets us see that he is rarely an insightful one.

Above all he is a person in whom professional and personal detachment are disastrously united. On arrival in Uganda, he fails to intervene when soldiers beat up a Kenyan on a bus. Later, he makes mistaken advances to the British ambassador's wife, only to have her react in horror, "her face pinched like a pair of pliers". He sees his Ugandan hosts and friends fall victim to the man he has chosen to serve. Through it all, he clings to Amin.

Amin's come-uppance provides the final section of the book, a tumult of action in which Garrigan rides into Kampala with the liberating Tanzanian Army, only to give them the slip when he tracks down Amin in his bunker. This sudden welter of action is unexpected, though historically sound: Foden lists his sources as if he were writing history.

Cinematic action apart, the Amin / Garrigan relationship is always the centre of interest. Amin is a terrifyingly volatile figure, both funny and menacing, uttering surreal proverbs in the fractured but vivid English of East Africa. The self-declared "Last King of Scotland", he comes to seem almost supernatural as he plays on the doctor's fears, ambitions, loyalties and even patriotism.

Garrigan is an intelligent man, and not a bad man. He professes always to have acted for the best of motives. And yet he is constantly drawn back to Amin, answering his calls, doing his bidding, even as the dictator's wickedness becomes clear. Foden's thoughtful depiction of a reasonable man's accommodation to evil transcends its African setting. This is, after all, the great theme of our century.