So-so Skinny Latte

James Francken

  • Zanzibar by Giles Foden
    Faber, 389 pp, £12.99, September 2002, ISBN 0 571 20512 7

Those who argued that 11 September could change the direction of contemporary fiction soon had a facer. The Corrections, published a week before the terrorist attacks, became a runaway bestseller, and the case against Jonathan Franzen and his kind of big social novel did not look so watertight. There may be something too wised-up about these novels, but interest in large-scale fiction has not fallen off after the attacks. Writers quickly settled back into familiar tracks; in the introduction to his new collection of essays, How to Be Alone,[*] Franzen acknowledges that ‘within 48 hours of the calamity’ he was giving author interviews once more: ‘business,’ he concedes, ‘is business.’

The publication of Giles Foden’s impressive third novel – which centres on al-Qaida’s role in the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Tanzania – could never have been that straightforward: the events of last September might easily have derailed his project. Zanzibar includes a cautious qualification in its preliminary note – ‘this novel was, largely, written before the attacks on America of 11 September 2001’ – but 9/11 inevitably looms over the book. Franzen chose not to gussy up his essay collection, although he recognises that some of his pieces may read differently now that the World Trade Center has gone, and that others might be coloured by the emergence of the anthrax threat and John Ashcroft’s rise to power. It must have been tempting to introduce a phoney topicality, but with ‘so much fresh outrageousness being manufactured daily’, Franzen allowed himself only ‘minimal tinkering’. For Foden, the difficulties were more acute. Zanzibar is a historical novel about the very recent past, but the terrorist attack in Tanzania already has a different look. Comparison with his work-in-progress – published as a short story towards the end of last year – reveals that Foden has made revisions for the final version of the novel, perhaps from a sense that his narrative has been outstripped by recent events, or concern that readers might shuffle off the implications of a story which might be thought to have been sabotaged by more newsworthy developments. There are moments when Foden seems determined to give the book an up-to-the-minute relevance: who, after all, reads yesterday’s papers?

Zanzibar has at its heart the budding relationship of Nick Karolides and Miranda Powers. Nick is a marine biologist ‘with the sea in his veins’, holed up in a research lab in Florida, where he nurses a faintly crackpot obsession with saving the planet. When he sees a small ad in Ocean magazine for an American-sponsored job in Zanzibar – a conservationist is required for the protection of the reef – he feels that he has found an outlet for his can-do enthusiasm. Miranda first appears out on the tennis court (‘she looked good as, holding out her racquet arm, she tossed the ball up freely’), a sexy and ambitious official at the Bureau of Diplomatic Security in Washington. She earns a longed-for posting to a foreign embassy and winds up in Dar-es-Salaam, far from stay-at-home friends, but close to Nick.

The two characters appeared in the earlier short story, which was included in The Weekenders, an anthology of fiction and travel pieces written in response to the war in Sudan. The anthology was published last autumn, and there is a sense of uncertainty about Foden’s contribution; according to his author’s note, the story was written ‘before the terrorist attacks on the USA on 11 September 2001, which at the time of writing some are attributing to associates of Osama bin Laden’. Nick and Miranda, ‘flushed with love’, sit in the TV lounge of a hotel in Zanzibar; the Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania have already taken place and the couple are watching CNN reports of an American reprisal: missile attacks on ‘key elements of the bin Laden network’s infrastructure’ – more specifically, a complex of camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum. The short story forms a large part of the final section of Zanzibar; earlier chapters build the tension of Nick and Miranda’s on-off romance and provide vivid descriptions of the aftermath of the Embassy bombings in passages which display Foden’s characteristic keenness of observation. But there are small but telling differences between the two printed versions, and the tweaks can seem a bit like cheating.

In the short story, the TV correspondents sound every patriotic stop as they report on the American strikes. Nick and Miranda follow all the goings-on, worried that the justification for the bombings is a cop-out. One by one, politicians appear on CNN to lend support to American actions: Clinton, his Defense Secretary, William Cohen, and the National Security Director, Sandy Berger, all have their moment, as Foden annexes real-life speech. Berger’s explanation of the advantages of long-range missiles – they avoid ‘giving the show away’ – cues a moment of reflection as the narrative lists those who might be listening to this bluster: it’s going out ‘on TV screens worldwide, in a hotel lounge in Zanzibar, on an opium farm in Afghanistan, in the officers’ mess of the Sudanese air force’. Foden revises this passage in the novel: Berger is now seen on TV screens ‘in a hotel lounge in Zanzibar, in a suburban house in Florida, at a secret location in Afghanistan’. All of a sudden, bin Laden is on the scene and al-Qaida’s influence reaches into America’s suburbs. This attempt to postdate the action is an unnecessary sop to the reader; other, similar changes are no more plausible. In the short story, William Cohen contends that the Sudanese factory was bombed because bin Laden had ‘contributed to this particular facility’. Miranda watches his speech, then leaves the room to make a call. When she gets back, she asks Nick if she’s missed anything. ‘I dunno,’ he replies casually, ‘I can’t get a handle on it.’ In the novel, Foden adapts Nick’s reply, adding sentences that take a swipe at the American failure to deal with bin Laden: ‘I don’t think so. I can’t get a handle on it. What’s the point of bombing if it doesn’t kill the guy? It doesn’t make sense.’ Lucky guesswork or genuine insight, Nick’s prescience is too convenient, the omens extorted from him too exact.

For the most part, however, Foden’s tense, involving, well-constructed book presents history as the participants might have seen it, without the benefit of hindsight. Zanzibar is deliberately circumscribed, and brazens out its provisional position: the novel was completed after 11 September, but before the Southern District Court of New York had ‘concluded its considerations of the events of 1998 upon which the story is based’. The five-month trial ended last October: four men received life sentences for the bombing of the two Embassies. It had been a slow business; by the time the decision was reached, the details no longer fired the public imagination: ‘what were we doing for this long?’ one of the jurors complained. ‘Nobody was listening to this, nobody was paying attention.’ The events of last autumn shifted interest away from the trial, although there were those among the jury who felt that with their in-depth knowledge of al-Qaida, they should have anticipated the attacks. An outspoken juror dismissed all that as shoddy self-delusion: ‘This is Monday-morning quarterbacking.’ Foden is similarly reluctant to offer any last-ditch explanations. By and large, Zanzibar is too alert and understated to try to be wise after the event.

Foden’s first novel, The Last King of Scotland, was equally restrained, relying on the tacit and equivocal. Its closed-mouthed narrator keeps tabs on his emotions and ignores much of his past. Nicholas Garrigan is a young doctor from Edinburgh, on secondment in Uganda and wet behind the ears, when he ends up, by chance, as personal physician to Idi Amin. According to his version of things, he was just another lickspittle making the most of the dictator’s largesse. He gets caught up in Amin’s delirious obsessions and finds himself in desperate straits, but the first-person narrative never reveals the whole story. Is Idi gaga and Garrigan trapped in his retinue, or are the two men acting in collusion, the doctor simply a nasty piece of work? The Last King of Scotland is evasive, and the conundrum never fully resolved. Instead, the reader is strung along, the book’s great narrative energy encouraging a sneaking sympathy for the doctor. By the end he has parted company with Amin and returned to Scotland, where he lives alone in an island bothy, working up his ‘genuine eye-witness account’. But there is something suspect about what he writes, and his hopes for island life sound a false note: ‘here on the island, it’s all clear.’

Nothing is clear on Zanzibar, where the effort of getting at the truth is like ‘looking through a steamed-up window, only to find another behind, and another, more and more’. Nick had an idea of the castaway’s loneliness long before he left Florida – ‘if you made yourself like an island, you couldn’t be hurt’ – and is surprised to find love when he arrives in the ‘golden land’ of palm trees and spice farms. Foden doesn’t make heavy weather of Nick’s relationship with Miranda. The narrative moves, full-tilt, towards the bombing in Dar-es-Salaam and leaves the couple little scope for simpering exchanges and cutesy-poo routines. Nick is too cold a fish for there to be many soft-edged moments; Zanzibar tends to focus on the asperities in the romance. Besides, their island paradise is soon disturbed by the arrival of three rough-looking customers: the al-Qaida associates who, it turns out, will co-ordinate the attack.

Scenes and characters shift with unusual dispatch. Miranda turns tail and runs when things get sticky in the relationship; she leaves Zanzibar and returns to her job at the Embassy. A crisis gathers after the bombing, clues are discovered and Jack Queller, a scapegrace CIA agent, is put on the scent. Queller was a big player way back when, ‘the guy who trained bin Laden’ and supplied his mujahids with missiles. After the Russian retreat from Afghanistan, bin Laden betrayed Queller, putting a bullet through his elbow in a final shoot-out: the leathery old agent lost part of his arm and is left with a stump, which figures like a talisman through the later stages of the novel. This is all time-honoured tough stuff and the shortcuts in Queller’s portrayal limit the character’s inwardness and interest. But his stories of derring-do are tight, and the turf war between Queller and the stuffed shirts at the FBI over the American response to the bombs is well done. Foden gives a blow-by-blow description of the mechanics of the reprisal; the launch of the cruise missiles provides an eerie battle-piece:

Initiating the vertical launch systems of the various vessels was a matter of diverse hands turning diverse keys and punching diverse buttons. It was all as safe as could be, and as controlled: the organisation of violence . . . Navy weapons officers detonated the solid-booster explosive charges that lifted the Tomahawks from their silos. The missiles rose straight up at first. Then, the optimum altitude having been reached, their casings fell away. Tail fins and wings were deployed, pushed out of slots in the sides of the missiles by automated servo motors. Tiny rockets on the missiles changed the angle of thrust. Then the turbofan kicked in.

Foden’s casual-seeming prose vaccinates against the dangers of the attack: this is high-tech warfare as seen on TV; freeze-frame shots conceal their menace. Technology fascinates Foden (he has written about this interest, which he assumes is hereditary: his family built the Foden lorry and the Foden defumigator, an instrument used to delouse uniforms in the First World War). In Ladysmith, Foden’s Boer War novel, technology has an almost magical power. Henry Nevinson, a reporter for the Daily Chronicle and one of many characters in the novel to be drawn from history, uses the telegraph to deliver his copy: ‘the atoms of the telegraphs’ somehow travel ‘via Durban . . . passing deep under the sea, up to Zanzibar, Aden, and finally through to London, centre of the known world’. Zanzibar was an important point on the route; in The Shadow of the Sun, Ryszard Kapuściński stresses the fact that a number of the great travellers – ‘Livingstone and Stanley, Burton and Speke, Cameron and Thomson’ – sent their telegraphs from the island. Kapuściński admires the technology of ‘long-ago days’. In Zanzibar, old technology no longer has that allure; when Nick discovers a ‘nub of copper’ that was part of the telegraph system, he uses the relic to moor his boat. The ‘old order’ may have been ‘connected by thousands of miles of steel on the seabed’, but Nick lives in a fragile, disconnected world.

Kapuściński has written about Zanzibar’s desperate history as a centre of trade: the traffic in slaves, the profits made from ivory, palm oil, animal skins and precious stones, have left Zanzibar ‘a sad, dark star, a grim address, a cursed isle’. Foden’s novel has a more equivocal take on the consequences of globalisation: ‘the worldwide spread of trade was in the main a force for good, but it often came with a price.’ The force for good is spelled out. Foden goes in for product endorsement, and Zanzibar is saturated with consumer goods: characters eat Heinz spaghetti, drink Johnnie Walker, smoke Marlboros and shop at amazon.com. (In The Last King of Scotland, Nicholas Garrigan justifies his expat’s love of Bell’s and cornflakes: ‘little reminders of home began to take on enormous importance.’) But the price of trade is made clear. Early on, we learn that bin Laden parted company with the Americans because of ‘their godless ways, their Mercedes and McDonald’s’. The novel bemoans ‘the erosion of local enterprise, unfair pricing systems, the replacement of democracy by corporate power’, but it offers no all-purpose solution. Ten pages from the end, Miranda – back in Washington to sort stuff out with her superiors – ends up in Starbucks: ‘she didn’t usually go into them, they were too regimented for her, but there was nowhere else nearby.’ Things with Nick have hit the skids; over a so-so skinny latte, she tries to make plans for a future on her own.

[*] Fourth Estate, 281 pp., £16.99, 7 October, 0 00 714725 2.