Review: The Last King of Scotland

The Last King of Scotland
The Last King of Scotland
Giles Foden
New York: Vintage International, 1999

Review Copyright © 2000 Garret Wilson — March 14, 2000 9:45 a.m.

Idi Amin Dada, the Ugandan dictator. Nicholas Garrigan, his Scottish personal physician. The first, I know, existed. Was he the playfully-eccentric monster portrayed in Giles Foden's The Last King of Scotland? Was Nicholas Garrigan a real person, or is he merely Foden's literary vehicle for parading the atrocities and absurdities of Amin? Foden's is a story well told, but this work of fiction is held together by the mesh of the messy historical events it mirrors; knowing how much of the reflection is genuine would have added immensely to the experience.

As a story, The Last King of Scotland is intriguing. While the real subject of the work is Amin, an artificial secondary plot of Garrigan's life in Uganda is brought to the forefront. The writing, at alternately steadfastly descriptive and descriptively unstable, brings to life a doctor who lived for helping people and helped one person who harmed so many.

Foden's descriptions of a visitor's first impressions of Africa are above average — not only does the reader see a picture of a first encounter, Foden succeeds in constructing the scene and the environment to a "T." Surely every western visitor understands Garrigan's awkward feeling at having to answer those who believe that, since the visitor is from America or Great Britain, he/she can help one get admission to a western university (85). And Foden goes out of his way to explain quite useful native concepts:

(a single Ganda person)
('the people')
(the Ganda tongue)
(the land of Ganda) (81).

This probably explain why I was referred to as a "muzungu" in Rwanda, but Peter Uvin, in Aiding Violence, refers to the westerners as "buzungu."

The use of dashes, though, sometimes mars the landscape, creating cumbersome sentences such as, "We passed clumps of banana plantations by the side of the road and open lorries going in the opposite direction, most of them piled high with the waxy fruit — it's eaten green, in a savory dish, not yellow like at home — and belching out clouds of black exhaust" (47).

But did Nicholas Garrigan really exist, or is his willfully naive compliance really just a means to bring out the real Amin in the pages of a novel? More importantly, is the Amin of the novel the Amin of real life? Certain quotations, articles, conversations, and public broadcasts are certainly presented as if they were verbatim; was there really such a man who could be so egotistical, extravagant, cruel, kind, and irrationally rational, all at the same time?

I President Idi Amin Dada of Republic Uganda. I would like to denounce reports that Kampala is in the hands of foreign aggressors, that my government has been overthrown and that theyhave formed their rebellion government in Uganda. I myself am in a relaxed and jovial mood. I am in a very comfortable place. I dismiss as nonsense reports that I have run away . . . I assure that as a conqueror of the British Empire I am prepared to die in defense of my motherland . . . which will survive this completely. Though it is true that Tanzania and its Zionist friends — including Cuba, Israel, America and South Africa — have been attacking the country. They have killed very many innocent Ugandans, children, young and old, and women, killing doctors with long-range artillery. Destroying the whole Kampala including the Mulago Hospital, killing doctors, nurses. . . (291)

While Foden's story of Amin masquerading as a story of Doctor Garrigan would not be the excellent work it is without the Amin it describes, the work would have been greater still if there had been at least some indication of the veracity of that character. The persona of Garrigan begs for some explanation of historicity as well. But perhaps both these plots are really disguises for a greater explanation of inexplicability. Nicholas Garrigan, upon returning to London, defends himself:

I am innocent. My only crime was that I got caught up in the machine and then stayed... I only worked in the interests of people's health, as a doctor should. I did nothing wrong, unless it was wrong to have seen some very terrible things... I'm being painted with the same brush as Amin because people are guilty about what happened there" (318-320).

The Last King of Scotland shows how Garrigan did all the wrong things, yet his explanation is not necessarily inconsistent with the events. It shows how people can be many things at one time. It shows how terrible events can be viewed from several perspectives, and from each of these viewpoints still be just as terrible, just different. Foden succeeds in showing that life, like his novel, sometimes has no final explanatory page satisfactorily revealing the truth behind the facts that precede it.