The Zanzibar Chest: A Memoir of Love and War

by Aidan Hartley
ISBN: 0002570599

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A Review of: The Zanzibar Chest
by Matt Sturrock

The critic James Wood has argued that some books are "so large, so serious, so ambitious" that they "flush away criticism." Aidan Hartley's memoir, The Zanzibar Chest, at 448 pages, is unquestionably large, but no more so than the many legal thrillers, Jazz album guides, or biographies of third-rate English gentry that are derided unto death in the weekend book sections every season. Yes, it is ambitious, but to a fault; the author's attempts to weave the variegated strands of family history, African politics, and personal experience into something whole are largely unsuccessful, while the writing, try as it might, rarely approaches art. But the seriousness . .
As a Reuters correspondent in the 1990s, Aidan Hartley reported on the AIDS epidemic in Nairobi, the famine and civil war in Somalia, and the genocidal slaughter in Rwanda. He visited some of the most hellish places the world has on offer, witnessed unfathomable brutality, suffered privation and assault and continual mortal danger, and produced an account of these times away from the censors of the newsroom and the limitations of the news story format. It's the seriousness of this account that can make the act of criticism seem untenable. For when the author writes about seeing "a mother with a baby strapped to her back gleefully using a machete to hack up another woman also carrying an infant," my position as commentator on the literary merit of that sentence becomes a gross extravagance. How can I, safely ensconced in the post-industrial plenitude of a Canadian city, hope to pass fair judgement on a work such as this?
The Hartleys, it seems, have ever led precarious, dangerous lives. The author's forebears were soldiers and adventurers who "sank in ships on faraway oceans, succumbed to fevers in tropical boneyards and died in small wars, mutinies and rebellions fought across the crimson atlas of the British empire." Before she got married, Hartley's mother was a member of the Women's Auxiliary Service in Burma, working just behind the front lines as Allied forces fought to expel the Japanese in 1944. His father was a colonial officer in the Aden Protectorates of southwestern Arabia, charged by the British government with extinguishing the conflagrations of clan violence in his territory and overseeing the development of a modern infrastructure.
Hartley was born in east Africa, into a home that his parents had themselves constructed out of volcanic rock and giant cedar beams on the dusty plains near Mt. Kilimanjaro. As the entire continent grew increasingly unstable in the late 1960s, however, with coups, riots, and growing anti-white sentiment threatening their safety, Hartley's mother whisked him and his siblings off to a more prosaic life in the U.K. His father stubbornly chose to remain behind.
By the time of his estranged father's death in the late 1990s, Hartley had graduated from London's School of Oriental and African Studies and worked as a journalist in Africa for nearly a decade. The Zanzibar chest of the book's title is the large camphor box inside of which the author, sorting through his late father's belongings, discovered handwritten memoirs and the diaries of a fellow colonial officer named Peter Davey. Large portions of the book are dedicated to Hartley's quest to piece together the men's lives-to what ultimate purpose it's never adequately explained. He visits the former Protectorates, interviews village oldsters who dimly remember the men, and recounts their stories about doomed love and shoot-outs with fierce tribesmen. Much of it has a dreamy, under-the-palms romantic appeal, but it's ultimately a sub-plot that competes with, rather than complements, the other more urgent sections about contemporary Africa with which it alternates.
I much preferred Hartley's first-hand recollections of life at Reuters. He and his "hack pack"- laconic, chain-smoking, madly fornicating fatalists, every last one of them-provide us with a superabundance of lunatic anecdote. Hartley crisscrosses the continent on battered planes flying low "over pulverized cities, refugee camps, [and] the acetylene-white flashes of anti-aircraft fire," forever in search of trauma and upheaval. In 1991, he's with rebel fighters in Mogadishu as they lay waste to the Presidential Palace of ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. As the rest of the world remains distracted by the Gulf War and events in the Balkans, Hartley watches Somali warlords wage an increasingly depraved conflict with one another over ever-scarcer resources.
Later, as the country is strangled by famine conditions, he covers the migration of the starving masses to relief centers set up by foreign agencies in Baidoa. Somali peasants, many beyond any hope of treatment, congregate near the tents with a quiet, sepulchral dignity; women almost too weak to move tenderly wash the bodies of their dead and wrap them in shrouds prior to burial. Stalking among them, however, to Hartley's eternal shame, are legions of foreign journalists collecting footage of the most emaciated, ulcerated victims they can find-the "skellies"-for jaded audiences back home already suffering from "donor fatigue." Cameramen trample over prostrate children in their haste to catch UN goodwill ambassador Sophia Loren spoon-feeding an infant during a photo-op. An American TV correspondent-shirt off, heart monitor strapped to his chest-takes early morning jogs "past a famine camp with the night's bodies laid out for collection."
Surrounded as they are by such casual and unremitting cruelty, it's no surprise that the ranks of Hartley's co-workers are thinned by simple despair in the latter portions of the book. In addition to the four friends killed by an enraged Mogadishu mob, and the two who die when their hijacked plane pinwheels into the Indian Ocean, there are others who commit suicide, die from heroin overdoses, or are so totally absorbed by the conflict they're reporting on they become combatants themselves.
By the spring of 1994, Hartley is psychologically ruined. As he travels through Rwanda, where Hutus eventually manage to exterminate 800,000 of their Tutsi brethren, he is confronted by a magnitude of atrocity remarkable even by 20th century standards. Morgues are crammed with victims missing hands and feet and noses; bloated corpses float down the Kagera River and collect, ensnared, in the papyrus-lined shores of Lake Victoria; churches are stacked high with the mutilated bodies of those naive enough to have sought asylum within; and everywhere, everywhere, there is an awful silence and the stench of human putrefaction. He writes now: "Rwanda sits like a tumour leaking poison into the back of my head." Though he never directly says so, it's this conflict-so horrendous it continues to shake off adequate explication-that likely impels him to abandon his life as a Reuters correspondent.
The news we receive from Africa is never good-when we get any news at all, that is. As I write this, the most catastrophic humanitarian crisis in the world is metastasizing in the Sudan, where government-backed Arab militias are ethnically cleansing thousands of blacks in the Darfur region, torching villages, poisoning wells, and strafing columns of refugees with fighter jets. Five million will face starvation in the coming months-not enough, it seems, to provoke much reaction from the western media. A recent article by Robert Lane Greene in The New Republic points to the "soft bigotry of low expectations" as the reason for such "quietism." Africans killing Africans? Well, it has always been thus.
Credit must go to Aidan Hartley for breaking the "quietis" norm. Yes, his message as it appears here is not a model of clarity or concision. Much of it seems hastily written, as though he's working under deadline to file a story for the wires. He struggles with the correct usage of pronouns ("Dad grabbed my brother and I . . .") and succumbs to clich (there is talk of "living life to the full," of avoiding someone "like the plague," of people "rich only in lost hopes and broken dreams"). But then, there are enough admirable aspects of this book-not least the vital importance of the subject matter and the dire risks the author braved while collecting his material-to make me feel meanly about myself for mentioning such minor failings.

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