Saturday, May 24, 2008

Book Review - The Zanzibar Chest

Following is a book review:

The Zanzibar Chest: A Story of Life, Love, and Death in Foreign Lands
By Aidan Hartley; Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, 2003

This book is half memoir and half biography. The Kenyan connection comes via the memoir. Author Aidan Hartley was born to a British family in Nairobi. His childhood was spent in Tanganyika, at school in England and at the family home in Malindi. Scion of a family of empire builders, Hartley’s father was a colonial official, rancher, aid agricultural advisor and humanitarian worker. Rarely at home, Hartley’s father was constantly seeking adventure on the dusty plains of the continent. Thus, the son mythologized his father and imbued himself too in the call of Africa. Aidan followed the family path, but in the ways open to him in the 1980s and 1990s. He became a foreign correspondent for Reuters.

In the book Hartley reflects nostalgically on the Africa he knew as a child, an Africa that passed away due to independence, corruption and population pressures. Yet Hartley does not criticize much, he just reports. As a young adult Hartley signed on as a journalist and was soon smothered in the adrenalin of the profession caught up in a never ending series of wars, famines and disasters. He recounted marching for months with Tigrean rebels as they toppled Mengistu in Ethiopia. He was there in Somalia off-and-on for years as warlords – Hartley claims to have coined the term for Somalia – battled each other, looted the nation and ravaged humanitarian assistance. Hartley was also there in Rwanda as genocide swept the land. He walked into Kigali with rebel forces, bunkered down as fighting raged about and chronicled in very human terms the unfolding catastrophe.

The memoir gives an inside look at foreign correspondents. Home based in Nairobi, they were a colorful lot, fueled not just by the constant flow of new horror, but also by liquor, drugs and sex. They called the impetus of needing vibrant new copy every day, “feeding the beast.” And they did their best to comply.

Hartley’s talent as a writer is clear. His taunt prose paints vivid pictures of violence, death and famine. The details – for example, rescuing a still twitching child from a mass grave or a conversation with an abandoned stringer in the ruins of his Mogadishu home - provide the realism that makes the narrative compelling. Additionally, Hartley’s honesty, reflections on his actions, motives and feelings provide credible depth to his journal.

Juxtaposed among the journalistic memoir is another story - that of Peter Davey, a colonial era friend of his father who died in 1947 in Aden. Burned out from war, Hartley found Davey’s diaries carefully stashed in a Zanzibar chest in the family home in Malindi. Hartley then tells Davey’s tale of intrigue and mystery on the Arab peninsula filling in connections to his own family and even his name – the Irish spelling of Aden. Strangely enough, the mix of stories works. As did Hartley, the reader too needs respite from the flow of degradation, misery and violence of the reporter’s memoir.

The Zanzibar Chest is gripping read and highly recommended. The book is a couple of years old. Copies are available from on-line bookstores, but also check out your local library.

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