Zanzibar by Giles Foden

28/08/02, The Times

History has many cunning corridors and down one of these Giles Foden’s third novel, Zanzibar, has been ambushed. Who could have predicted the spectacular terrorist attack of September 11? Certainly not an innocent novelist nearing the completion of a work which delves into the prehistory of that attack.  The irony is that Foden didn’t set out to write a prehistory of the September 11 attack; it is history which has unfairly thrust this ramification onto Zanzibar.

The novel centres on the bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998 by the same infamous al-Qaida group which was to wreak much greater havoc three years later in the heart of the US itself. But the preemptive strike, this time by history or reality itself, has diminished what could have been an oracular political thriller to an unwittingly proleptic work, overshadowed by later events and the intense media attention, analyses and investigations which followed in their wake: Zanzibar has become almost parenthetical  since September 11. Does this explain the slight air of distractedness which hovers above the pages, the laboured and unassimilated quality of its historical sections which sit so uneasily within the fictional framework?

Foden examines both the macro and the micro worlds caught up in the run-up to the 1998 bombings and their aftermath.  Through the figure of the CIA agent Jack Queller who trained and supported Osama bin Laden and his mujahideen fighters against the Soviet Union during the Reagan years, Foden weaves in the bigger historical reality – including the unfolding of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the retaliatory bombing of Sudan, the beginnings of the ‘blowback’ phenomenon – with the more intimate fiction of Nick Karolides, a Greek-American reef scientist posted to Zanzibar, and Miranda Powers, junior security staff at the US embassy in Dar.

There is no denying that Zanzibar is a fleet-paced page-turner but, in aiming to capture the meshes of complicity, duplicity and power which bind the west and the east, Foden occasionally falls short and achieves the James Bond novel instead of Le Carré. But he writes of Africa with great beauty, even  love; his sense of place is unerring, his details exact, felicitous, often rising to the luminosity of poetry, whether he is writing of coral reefs, clove farms, or the markets of Zanzibar and Pemba. There is no trace of colonial, condescending or orientalist attitudes in his writing, but that is only to be expected from the author of The Last King of Scotland and Ladysmith. Put together, they form a powerful trilogy for a continent which has always resisted discursive finality.