The Last King of Scotland

by Giles Foden. Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. 335 pages.

Writing a novel about a historical character is difficult, because the reader comes to the book with a store of knowledge, opinions, and preconceptions that restrict the author's ability to present the character in a fresh way. If the character is a notorious dictator like Idi Amin, who at last report is still living in exile in Saudi Arabia, the challenge is even greater.

In The Last King of Scotland, his first novel, Giles Foden meets this challenge boldly and shrewdly. The novel, if not entirely successful in conveying the inner life of Amin and the secret of his rise to power, does present a believable picture of the dictator as he would have been seen by a member of his entourage, and something of the charisma that made this repellent person strangely attractive to those who knew him.

Nicholas Garrigan is a young, somewhat standoffish Scottish doctor who accepts a government contract to practice in Uganda, a country about which he knows little. He arrives around the time that the dictator Milton Obote is overthrown in a coup led by a young army officer named Idi Amin. (Obote, whose brutality rivaled Amin's, returned to power years later after Amin's departure.) After a short stay in Kampala, where a British embassy official asks Dr. Garrigan to report on his impressions of the political situation during his stay in the country, he travels in a battered matatu or bush taxi to a rural hospital, where he begins treating Ugandans for parasites, machete wounds, tuberculosis, sleeping sickness, and snakebite.

Driving through the countryside in a red Maserati, Idi Amin collides with a cow, and some soldiers fetch Dr. Garrigan to bind up his sprained wrist. Amin, who identifies with the Scottish as fellow rebels against British imperialism, is impressed by the Scottish doctor and plies him with money and alcohol. Garrigan is intrigued by Amin's ebullience, his cryptic proverbs, and something "half-fascinating, half-frightening" in his eyes. Garrigan's affair with a fellow doctor, a woman from Israel, has ended with her sudden departure from the country, and he is eager for a change of scene. His lover's unexpected exit had followed Amin's rantings about the threat of a secret Zionist army, but Garrigan is much more concerned about the impact of this development on his personal life than on its political implications. Despite misgivings, Garrigan accepts Amin's invitation to become his personal physician.

Garrigan is an intelligent man, well able to understand what is going on around him, and yet he stays with Amin until the very end, when the dictator is driven out by Tanzanian troops. Why? In part because he is afraid to leave (though he has more than one opportunity to slip out of the country). In part because Amin's patronage makes him an important person with a comfortable lifestyle. In part because he is hypnotized by the contradictions of Amin's personality: a volatile compound of high intelligence, charm, cunning, and ruthlessness. And in part because Garrigan, on some level, genuinely likes the man.

For much of the book, trapped in the point of view of the increasingly corrupt Dr. Garrigan, the reader may have the queasy feeling of being invited to admire Amin for his vitality and humor. Atrocities occur, but they happen offstage, and it is possible to imagine that they happen without the knowledge of the dictator. Eventually Garrigan is brought so close to the horror that he can no longer deny it, but even when no possible doubt remains, he fails to leave.

Packed with convincing details on life in Uganda, from the elaborate wire toys made by children to the practice of tropical medicine, The Last King of Scotland is also a shrewd portrait of a modern-day monster and of the self-deceptions and moral compromises that can draw a well-meaning man into his orbit.

From The Last King of Scotland:

We drank more waragi, just the two of us sitting at the long mahogany table in the banqueting room at State House, with the loathsome masks and the paintings of the colonial governor-generals looking down on us. I looked up at them, at the white-polled one that parroted my father especially, and Idi Amin's voice echoed in the big, gloomy space.

"It is good of you to speak with me," he said. "I cannot tell you how tired I am getting, from all this work. Leading Uganda. It is very difficult."

"You should delegate more," I said. "Get other people to do things."

"You do not understand. I cannot trust. There are many who are my friends today, who would betray me tomorrow. The one that is famous in the sea is the shark, but there are many others."

"What do you mean?"

"I have to be on my guard always."

I sipped my waragi thoughtfully. "Have you ever thought of retiring?"

He gave me a strange, benevolent smile, his cheeks gleaming under the dim light of the lamps suspended over the table.

"I will be in charge here for the full distance. As a man of destiny, I cannot go to a shamba and raise chickens. Yes, I must run for the distance. And, as you know, Doctor Nicholas, there is no distance that has no end. That is my tragedy."