The (bitter) taste of paradise: Zanzibar by Giles Foden

Alpha-ordered my bookshelves. Scrubbed the skirting boards. Written a concept album. There are so many things I could have done with my free time this past week. Instead, I chose to read Giles Foden’s Zanzibar. What a mistake! The thing about this book is that it is very much like the island of its setting: from a distance, it is enticing and exciting but up close you realise that it is filthy, full of problems and a disorganised mess. Despite this, Zanzibar itself is still charming; Foden’s novel is not. I was drawn to Zanzibar, like so many other lemmings, by the achievement of Foden’s previous work The Last King of Scotland and the fact that it is set in one of the world’s most culturally and historically fascinating places. But what a disappointment!

The novel follows a young American as he arrives on Zanzibar and starts work on a coral protection programme, a(nother) young American as she graduates from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and is posted to the US embassy in Tanzania, and a self-styled American ‘Arabist’, an expert in terrorism perpetrated by supposed Muslims. Oh, and there is a young Zanzibari man who is duped into joining al-Qaeda and ends up plotting and executing a bombing at the US embassy in Tanzania.

There are so many things wrong with this distasteful little book that I don’t know where to start, but with Khaled (the Zanzibari) is as good a place as any. What could have been a sensitive, detailed examination of how a young mind is brainwashed into believing a violent theology is, in Foden’s hands, turned into a confusing, disappointing portrayal. Poor Khaled is a two-dimensional character with less depth than a puddle on a dry day. Worse, in the end, he is reduced to a repentant simpleton: “ ‘Do not thank me. Thank Allah. His voice spoke me. It spoke me and told me to give up this trick. To do some things I should have done long time before.’ ” Who would ever speak like this?!

Foden takes great interest in the stump of a central character who had his arm amputated and lost his wife. The effects of these occurrences are eschewed in favour of fetishist descriptions of the stump and appalling ‘insights’ into what it is like to lose a spouse (eg, “…wondering if he would have peace before the rising dawn. Or ever, until he saw… the edge of Being where the Prophet on his Night Journey received God’s instructions before returning to earth. The edge of Being, beyond which his Lucy was.” WHAT?!). Further, Foden characterises this puppet as merely critical of everything, which does not help us to understand him as a fully formed human being.

The novel’s heroine is pathetic: she has some sort of undefined attachment to a dead father (the fact that it is undefined is perfectly natural and worth exploring but Foden seems to stick it on her like a temporary tattoo). She has no real emotional core: we see how she responds dumbly to external stimuli rather than gaining an insight into her mind. Our hero is much the same, a bore about whom a novel should never, ever have been written.

Finally, the story itself is woeful. Considering it is supposed to be an adventure/thriller, the action takes place only in the fourth quarter (the first three are pap, failed attempts at tension-building and characterisation). If Foden really wanted to tell a decent story he would have thrown us straight into the action rather than wasting our time with the lumpy chaff that should have never made it out of his notebook.

This book is so disappointing and downright terrible that I could go on for hours. But I don’t want to waste any more time. I’ve got better things to do.

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