The Last King of Scotland

by Giles Foden

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Nicholas Garrigan

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1549

In Giles Foden’s novel The Last King of Scotland, Nicholas Garrigan is a man feverishly contradicting British poet John Donne’s often quoted line, “no man is an island entire of itself.” Garrigan is an isolated man with few close friends and little contact with his family. Many of his attempts to reach out to another person are either ill-timed or ill-advised, especially his relationship with Idi Amin, the ruthless but childlike dictator of Uganda. Death is all around Garrigan, yet he refuses to believe this, building a wall between himself and reality.

While Garrigan does not openly say that he seeks to be as untouched as an island, Foden indirectly alludes to Donne’s famous “island” metaphor by having Garrigan’s father use another famous line from the same paragraph in Donne as a joke. “Ask not for whom the Bell’s tolls, it tolls for you,” jokes Garrigan’s father, referring to a popular brand of whiskey. Given the events of the novel, the full quote from Donne is particularly applicable to Garrigan’s circumstances:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Garrigan is a man who has sought to cut himself off and not be “a part of the main.” While serving as Amin’s personal physician, he is aware of the atrocities Amin perpetrates. His response after a particularly horrific period is to “build a castle” within himself and make himself “impregnable.” This is why he cannot ever “be useful,” as he so desperately desires; to be useful one must typically live among those one wishes to help.

Through his actions, Garrigan tries to ignore the truth in Donne’s statement that “any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.” No matter how hard he struggles against attachment, Garrigan is not completely disassociated from the deaths Amin causes. Each one of those deaths does diminish him in some way, which is why, by the end of the novel, Garrigan is a physical, psychological, and spiritual wreck.

Garrigan’s past and present tell the story of a man desperate to avoid meaningful connections. His childhood was spent as the son of a solemn and emotionally dead Presbyterian minister and his wife. In addition to his father being disappointed that he would not practice general medicine in Scotland, Garrigan remembers his father condemning him to a life filled with predestined misery. “You are as set for damnation as a rat in trap,” says his father. Religion covered the family like “fine soot,” remembers Garrigan, giving his childhood a dark and dusty image. The warmest relationship the young Garrigan seems to have developed was with his pet donkey, Fred, who eventually died from eating too many grass cuttings.

As an adult, Garrigan has not come to terms with his parents and their treatment of him. He is working at the Ugandan rural clinic when he learns of his father’s death. His mother’s death soon follows, but he does not fly to Scotland to be with his family on either occasion. Looking back on this, Garrigan suspects that something in him “had begun to close down.”

This is not to say that Garrigan has no feelings and does not make any connections with the people around him, but simply that, when he does connect with another person, it is temporary and not as deep as he had thought. Most of the people he gets to know well either leave suddenly or die. For example, he falls in love with Sara Zach, the Israeli physician at the clinic, but is clueless about her true purpose for being in Uganda. Sara’s actions are not typically those of a doctor: she takes notes during one of Amin’s rallies in Mbarara; her shortwave radio not only receives broadcasts but can also transmit messages; and she spends an inordinate amount of time with an Israeli road-building crew.

One day Sara is gone, her bungalow bearing signs of hurried packing. The next time Garrigan hears from her is three years later, when she is a colonel with Israel’s armed forces. A hijacked plane is sitting on the runway at Entebbe, and she calls to ask Garrigan if he will try to persuade Amin to help free the hostages. Garrigan refuses but realizes that she was probably a spy for the Israelis while working at the clinic. He realizes that he never did know her as well as he had previously thought.

For him to remain an untouched island, Garrigan must move through the novel like the proverbial monkey who can hear no evil. Early in the novel, his ears become so clogged that he has trouble hearing and is convinced that he has an infection in need of antibiotics. Sara correctly diagnoses the problem as a blockage and cleans out Garrigan’s ears. In this case, she literally opens her lover’s ears; later, she attempts to open his ears figuratively when she tells him “things will go badly here” and pleads with him to leave Uganda. He dismisses her concerns and ignores all of the signs around him that Amin’s despotic rule will lead to certain death. Amin expels Indians, Asians, and Israelis from the country, and he makes anti-Semitic comments, yet Garrigan remains oblivious. In retrospect, he realizes that the phrase “I should have known” sums up his life.

Garrigan’s other primary relationship in the novel is with Idi Amin. His affinity for Amin at first appears to be a genuine antidote to what has been missing from his previous relationships. Their conversations at first seem genuine, but upon further examination it is apparent that the Scottish physician is only fooling himself. Garrigan’s relationship with Amin depends upon his ability to deny the havoc Amin creates all around him.

Garrigan is gradually drawn into Amin’s world, but the connection he makes with Amin is that of an observer who gets trapped, not that of a friend. When new to Uganda, Garrigan hears Amin announce that he is “the last rightful King of Scotland” and thinks this may have some “special relevance” for himself, “as if I were his subject,” he remembers. After Garrigan successfully treats Amin for gastrointestinal distress, the two go out on the town as if they were old college chums. By the time most of the world’s nations have condemned Amin for his brutality and bizarre behavior, Garrigan is deeply involved with him. Even while agreeing with the West German Chancellor that a particular Amin statement is “an expression of mental derangement,” Garrigan pursues his fascination with the Ugandan ruler. “My life had already fallen into a pattern that concentrated on Amin. The closer I got to him, the fewer my illusions about him—and still I stayed, more fascinated than frightened,” recalls Garrigan.

To continue living in Uganda under Amin’s rule, Garrigan creates a fantasy world for himself— something with which he has experience. For example, while working at the rural clinic, he and Sara take in a friend’s younger brother, Gugu, who is orphaned as a result of the fighting surrounding the town. Meanwhile, Garrigan is oblivious to the war raging around him and to the fact that the clinic and his relationship with Sara are “going downhill.” Looking back on this period in his life, Garrigan admits that he “had been using Gugu to live out some kind of fantasy family life.” His association with Amin soon becomes a similar fantasy, and Garrigan is able to convince himself when he hears of the atrocities that they are exaggerated. Only when he begins to consider seriously the possibility of killing Amin, as requested by a British official, does Garrigan make the decision to leave Uganda. What finally provokes him to wake up and leave is the realization “that [he] had become enough like Amin to contemplate killing him for the sheer pleasure of it.”

When Garrigan finally escapes Uganda and arrives in London, it is not to his sister or close friends that he returns. An uncle has bequeathed to Garrigan a small cottage on a tiny island in an isolated corner of Scotland, and that is where he finds shelter from the storms of the previous eight years. By literally moving to an island, Garrigan believes that he has, at last, placed himself apart from humanity. Foden, though, has other plans for the Scottish doctor. Just as Garrigan finishes writing his memoir of horror, he receives a phone call from Amin, ensconced in Saudi Arabia but still able to contact his former personal physician. Garrigan, despite his best efforts, discovers that he still “is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” as Donne writes, very much connected to the hundreds of thousands who have died in Uganda.

Source: Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on The Last King of Scotland, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Sanderson holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing and is an independent writer who has lived in Africa.

The Concept of Identity

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2399

Postcolonial studies has arisen as a literary field as scholars think about the changes occurring in the cultures and individuals that have become free of British colonial rule. Postcolonial studies concerns itself with the analysis of the nationalism and politics that brought about colonial rule and then dismantled it. The field also considers differences between people that led to concepts like nationalism; how these differences are created and sustained by cultures and individuals; and how they become conflicts. In the postcolonial world, first and third world cultures often collide, and in these conditions, racial and gender differences are often magnified as well. The concept of identity is a major consideration in postcolonial studies because the ways in which people identify themselves and their world also determine what differences they might have with others. There is personal identity, which is the way individuals see themselves, and cultural identity, which are ideas of identity given to individuals by their societies. Identity is central to Giles Foden’s novel, The Last King of Scotland. This novel is positioned as a postcolonial novel, being set amidst the chaos of political change in the ex-British African country, Uganda, showing the collision of politics, cultures, and individuals. In the midst of this postcolonial setting, the complex issue of identity, both personal and cultural, underlies and influences the characters and their stories.

Nationalism is a form of cultural identity and can impose identities upon individuals. The concept of nationalism is a major influence for the characters in The Last King of Scotland. Early in the story, Nicholas Garrigan, the main character, notices a sign that says, in large print, “YOUR COUNTRY IS YOUR FAMILY,” foreshadowing the intricate manner in which all the characters relate with the cultures they are from. Garrigan identifies strongly with his own country of Scotland; his first-person narrative makes it clear throughout that he is Scottish and that being such implies certain traits and behaviors. Early on, he tells the reader that he is in “an inappropriately northern place to embark upon this northern tale,” making clear that although he is writing of Africa, he is located, literally and figuratively, in Scotland. Garrigan also remarks that he was “brought up according to the strictest precepts,” or, in other words, his culture told him specific ways to act and perceive. In tough times, Garrigan tells himself that he must “cultivate the discipline of his native land,” appealing to his national identity when his personal one is uncertain.

Nationalism as identity can be subtle in its effects. Among people from the United Kingdom, Garrigan makes it clear that he is Scottish and quite different from the English. At one point, Garrigan notes that he is “missing Britain,” but quickly corrects himself by adding, “Or Scotland. Home.” From a native Ugandan’s standpoint, this correction would seem meaningless; there would be little difference between an English person and a Scottish one. Garrigan shows this also, when many of the Africans he meets consider him English, until he informs them otherwise. Garrigan identifies other people he meets in the story by immediately pointing out their national identities, whether it is the South African Freddy Swanepoel, the Israeli Sara Zach, the many native Africans he meets, or his fellow British working in Uganda. And like Garrigan, other characters also identify with nationalistic markers. In their first major conversation, Sara Zach identifies Garrigan as Scottish, telling him, “I never met a Scot before.”

Garrigan replies that he is a “typical example” of a Scottish person, choosing cultural identity over an individual one. However, when pressed to explain himself, Garrigan has trouble defining what a typical Scottish person would be like, showing confusion about his own self-concept. His best reply is that being Scottish means that he likes football, rugby, and drinking. Sara Zach thinks this idea is absurd, and then resorts to her own nationalistic idea that Israeli men would identify themselves very differently. Nationalism permeates even the small moments between characters of the book; the other doctors with whom Garrigan works view him as a “Scottish doctor,” a seemingly insignificant but telling perception.

Garrigan’s personal identity is a complex one. While he frequently mentions his personal connection to Scotland, he can’t help but think of his father, who dies while Garrigan is in Africa. He describes his father as a strict Presbyterian minister who had a particular view of the world and of Garrigan. One of Garrigan’s earliest memories is of his father telling him that he is “set for damnation,” and Garrigan has gone against his father’s advice by moving to Africa. Garrigan has memories of times when he did not receive enough attention from his father, and also thinks of his father in close moments with Idi Amin, such as when Amin is sick in bed and during Amin’s wedding. When Garrigan is very ill with a fever and having a crisis, he dreamily recalls his last conversation with his father, who told him to “minimize the harm” he could do in the world. Garrigan pleads out loud to his father to understand him, verbalizing his feelings that he has been disapproved of by a father who is no longer there. Garrigan has internalized his father’s disapproving view of him, and this faulty self-concept affects him deeply, robbing him of the integrity needed to stand up to the corruption of the dictator Amin.

Garrigan hardly mentions his mother at all, except to note that she “died of grief” when his father passed away. Not only Garrigan’s mother, but all the important women to Garrigan in the novel are vague to him and to the reader. Garrigan seems incapable of understanding women in the story beyond superficial description. Garrigan has a relationship with Sara Zach that is filled with empty conversation, and he knows her so little that only after she is gone does he realize that she was a spy. Garrigan also attempts to get to know Marina Perkins, the ambassador’s wife, but completely misreads her and alienates her with a try at seduction. Later in the story, he is surprised to find out that she is having an affair, which upsets him greatly.

There are revealing differences in how Garrigan presents European and African characters in the story. The European characters tend to be shadowy, strange, and untrustworthy. The English are either spies attempting to manipulate the government of Uganda behind the scenes, such as Nigel Stone and Major Weir, or depressed bureaucrats stuck between the two worlds of England and Africa, like Doctor Merrit and his wife. Sara Zach is an Israeli spy who deceived Garrigan. Freddy Swanepoel, a white South African, is a shady character with underworld connections. Marina Perkins is unpredictable and carrying out a clandestine affair. There is another white character who is briefly but strongly introduced in the book, Anglo-Steve (or, English Steve). This man has gone all the way into Africa, disappearing to live in the bush and believed to be crazy. When Garrigan identifies himself as sharing European heritage, but views all other Europeans as strange, misplaced characters, he undermines his image of himself. This can also be seen the other way around: Garrigan, having a shaky image of himself, projects questionable images of the people he most closely associates with. Hence the problems in completely understanding identity. Garrigan seems to understand this complexity of identity when he states early on, “Can you tell the truth when you are talking to yourself?”

Just as there is a trend in the way Garrigan identifies European characters, he also shows patterns when describing African characters. Early in the story, on his trip to Mbarara through the countryside of Uganda, his bus ride is interrupted by soldiers who harass the passengers. Garrigan backs down to a soldier’s demands for money, while a Kenyan man stands up to them and pays the price by getting hurt. Garrigan describes this African man as brave and “dignified,” and feels “ashamed” and “embarrassment” when thinking of himself in comparison. This scene shows many of the feelings that Garrigan has for Africans throughout the book. They are either faceless soldiers performing inhuman violence that fills him with fear, or strong and dignified people that make him feel inferior.

Nowhere is this paradoxical view of Africans more apparent than in the way Garrigan views Idi Amin. Amin fills him with fear, but also attracts him with many qualities Garrigan admires. In the beginning of the story, Garrigan finds that he “couldn’t say no” to Amin’s personality, which is “punish or reward.” Time and again in the story, Garrigan is witness to Amin’s violence as well as to his brilliance in manipulating people and events. Garrigan’s relationship with Amin is complicated by the fact that it is a reversal of the long-ingrained identities created by colonialism. In the past, the differences between Europeans and Africans were also the differences between the powerful and the subordinated. Amin is a masterful manipulator of people because he understands these subtle identity problems and plays upon them. In calling himself the “last king of Scotland,” he deftly places himself between Garrigan and England, and also makes himself both a sympathizer and superior to Garrigan.

When analyzing identity issues, the very way in which this story is told presents complexities. When Garrigan describes other people in the first person, he is seeing them through his own filter of the world; thus his descriptions of them may say just as much about Garrigan and his culture as they do about the other people and their cultures. The field of postcolonial studies has addressed this complex issue of identity in narrative. Postcolonial studies has asserted that the way identities are formed, both personal and national, helped shape and propel colonialism. Colonialism spread because of the way in which a dominating culture identifies with the culture being dominated. Dominant cultures create attractive images of the other culture. The subordinate culture becomes a figment of the dominant culture’s imagination, and individuals of the other race and culture have certain useful identities impressed upon them. These are never real, but these images create certain behaviors. For example, part of the allure for the British people who colonized Africa was the idea that in Africa they could recover a forgotten or better part of themselves. Tired, depressed bureaucrats in worn-out cities could imagine the other culture as a place of fertility and strength, of endless opportunity, of vitality that they themselves had used up.

This image of Africa differed greatly from the real thing, but it was the image that took them there, that propelled the spread of colonialism. This imagining of the African culture shows up in Garrigan. He recalls dream images he had as a child of a place with “a sensuous geography of temples and jungles.” Garrigan wonders about what had led to all his problems in Africa, his “malignant destiny,” and then mentions the “special vision of myself that took me there in the first place.” Reality for Garrigan eventually differs from his imagination. When Garrigan is confronted by the harsh situation of warfare, he thinks of the English actor Michael Caine in a movie about Africa— another deeply ingrained image that is confronted by the real image. Garrigan says that the “old vision of Africa I’d had, the same that led me there and doomed me: it returns like a specter,” or an unreal image that haunts him. Garrigan also acknowledges that his problem is that “the world doesn’t deliver what I seek.” Even some of the Africans in the book understand the identity that has been put upon them by Europeans. Waziri, a Ugandan, asks Garrigan if he wants to see “the real Africa,” with a “slight mocking tone in his voice.” This real vision of Africa turns out to be a superstitious dance that is put on “for the tourists.”

Garrigan also identifies with the colonial myth of the tired, effete European going to a land of vitality and strength. On his first day in Africa, when Garrigan sees soldiers, he states, “I was conscious of my nakedness, of my pale, presbyter’s face . . . my narrow chest . . . and my long, thin legs.” This is in stark contrast to the way Garrigan describes his own symbol of Africa, Amin, who has “a quality of naked, visceral attraction.” Garrigan is fascinated by Amin’s “physically dominating” presence which “radiated a barely restrained energy.” Beside Amin, Garrigan becomes weak and filled with “hopeless perplexity.” In a revealing summary of his first meeting with the dictator, Garrigan invests a sentence with double meaning when he writes, “I had no way of getting back myself.” He is talking about going home, but also speaking of losing himself and his own identity when confronted by the powerful vision of Amin. Garrigan describes Amin as appearing like “a being out of a Greek myth.” This is interesting because myths are stories that cultures tell to define themselves and their place in the world, or stories told to define identity. For Garrigan, Amin represents an identity that renders him powerless because it plays upon the deepest stories he knows. Other Europeans share this mythology of Africa. Swanepoel says to Garrigan, “we all come back here,” because Africa is the “[c]radle of the human race!” By including Garrigan as “we,” he is identifying with him as a person sharing European heritage, as well as sharing the common myth of Africa as a place of primal vitality that contains something that must be recovered.

Garrigan’s identity problems take their toll. Because Garrigan doesn’t understand the complexities of identity as well as Amin and is confused about his own personal and cultural identity, he becomes susceptible to this dictator and eventually under his control. In the end, he is forced to look back upon his life in Africa from a vantage point of exile on an island in Scotland. His disapproving and confused self- identity have come true; his identity problems created problems with his integrity that consume him, and he is forced to rewrite his story to come to terms with his new identity.

Source: Douglas Dupler, Critical Essay on The Last King of Scotland, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Dupler has published numerous essays and has taught college English.

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Critical Overview