Number One Id

Hilary Mantel

  • The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden
    Faber, 330 pp, £9.99, March 1998, ISBN 0 571 17916 9

When in the mid-Eighties I lived in the port of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, I lived in a city policed by gossip and run by rumour. While its citizens, flapping in white robes and black veils and wrappings, glided through the streets like formal ghosts, its guest-workers crept through their contracts, guided by intuitions as evanescent and mysterious as those of spiritualists. Perplexing questions hung in the still air. Some hung there year after year: who killed the nurse Helen Smith? Some were of immediate import: where has the main post office gone this week? Some were insoluble, questions almost too puzzling to pose: where, oh where, is Idi Amin?

The Uganda dictator, driven out by Tanzanian troops in 1979, had been offered refuge by a regime more merciful than others – or perhaps by a regime that was beyond embarrassment. But where did the Saudis hide him? How in that monochrome urban habitat would you disguise a streak of equatorial virescence, and how would you muffle behind the walls of a Red Sea villa the roaring of an imprisoned bull-elephant? The district where he lived was known; or at least, people mentioned it to each other, as if they knew it. Standing outside the Safeway supermarket, liquefying in the evening heat, waiting for prayers to end and the metal shutters to rattle up, I sometimes used to imagine I might see Idi pushing a trolley, among the counters of pallid veal and the glossy flavourless vegetables. Perhaps he had dwindled in exile, I thought. Perhaps his skin is grey and dusty now, and too big for him, perhaps he wears it in swags. Perhaps his many wives bully him and send him out to shop. But I never saw him, and I never heard anyone claim they had: we caught not a glimpse of the manic, blood-stained days of glory of ‘His Excellency President for Life Field Marshal Al Hadj Doctor Idi Amin Dada, Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular’.

To perceive Amin as something more than a fugitive wraith, or a sick joke, you must turn to Giles Foden’s first novel. Its title suggests the endless scope for macabre comedy that Amin provides. As a former soldier in the British Army, he had done part of his training in Stirling, and admired the Scottish officers he had met; he understood the part that empire-building Scots had played in Uganda’s history, and recognised their pioneering qualities even if he was forced, as an anti-imperialist, to deprecate them. These Caledonian connections were enough for Amin to proclaim himself a proponent – indeed a leader – of Scottish nationalism, and of Welsh nationalism and Irish nationalism, just by the way. But it was the Scottish tradition with which he most identified, and with which he identified his hapless country-men. One of the most bizarre moments in The Last King of Scotland occurs when the narrator, Nicholas Garrigan, is picnicking out in the hills with his Israeli girlfriend, Sara:

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