The Zanzibar Chest

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Aidan Hartley was lucky with his parents. His mother, born in India to British colonials and toughened by nursing service as a teenager in India and Burma during World War II, went in 1949 as secretary to the British governor in Aden. There she met Brian Joseph Hartley, newly appointed head of agriculture in the Aden Protectorates, Southwestern Arabia. Aidan Hartley says that his father “lived enough to cram the journeys of three restless men into his eighty-nine years.” Along with stories of his own roaming in dangerous places, Hartley tells the story of Peter Davey, his father’s close friend in Aden and whose diaries his father left to Hartley in a Zanzibar chest.

Aidan Hartley was born in 1965 in Tanganyika, where his father bought a farm after his retirement, and he now lives in Kenya. Besides an interlude in Kosovo, Hartley covered, close up for Reuters, the awful events that racked Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda, and the Congo in recent decades. One day while scattering quicklime on a pit of Hutu cadavers Hartley and a French Foreign Legionnaire saw a child’s hand waving among the rotting bodies. The weeping Legionnaire rescued the boy, only to have him die that night.

Hartley is aware of the psychic cost of his profession and ponders a terrible insight: “The sight of people committing acts of unspeakable brutality against others fills a hole in some of us.”