Charisma overwhelms a good man's revulsion

The Last King of Scotland

By Giles Foden

Alfred A. Knopf

336 pp., $25

The story told by British journalist and first-time novelist Giles Foden in "The Last King of Scotland" is about a distinctly unheroic hero, a Scottish civil servant, who becomes the personal physician to the Ugandan dictator and mass killer Idi Amin.

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Nicholas Garrigan arrives in Uganda fresh out of medical school in 1971.

He is looking for exotic adventures and an opportunity to help people. Before long, he is called upon to leave his clinic in the countryside to serve as Amin's personal doctor.

When the horrors being perpetrated by the dictator become known, Garrigan is asked to participate in a plot to poison the murderous megalomaniac. But Garrigan can't bring himself to harm this charismatic man he has come to think of as his personal friend.

Even later, when he sees firsthand evidence of the atrocities, Garrigan can't bring himself to act.

Still later, in a Hamlet-like moment when he actually finds himself really wanting to do it, he decides against it, telling himself that such a deed would make him too much like Amin.

Now, as he recounts his story years later, having returned to his native Scotland, Garrigan is a broken man, haunted by memories of Amin, Uganda, and his own inadequacies.

In Garrigan, Foden has created a character whom many may find uncomfortably close to home: a well-meaning individual who becomes an accomplice to evil.

Garrigan himself is not quite sure how he ended up in this position. Was he, as he might wish to believe, too humane a person to injure anyone, even a mass murderer? Or was it, as he also suspects, a combination of simple cowardice and not wanting to get his hands dirty? And might it not have been his own lack of a moral compass and sense of identity that made him so susceptible to the dictator's charisma?

An incident in a bus when he first arrives in Uganda serves to epitomize Garrigan's problem. He is the only white passenger on a crowded, ramshackle bus, which is stopped and boarded by some rag-tag soldiers bent on intimidation and robbery. Garrigan gives them the money they demand.

They proceed to bully the only other well-dressed passenger, a black man who says he is a Kenyan diplomat and refuses to let them have his briefcase. The soldiers beat him savagely, grab his case, and make off with it.

When Garrigan goes over to minister to the wounded Kenyan, the diplomat fiercely rebuffs him: "What good are you to me now? You said nothing when you should have come forward.... You did not step forward when you had the power."

Although the novelist exercises some measure of restraint in dealing with the gruesome subject matter he has chosen to treat, this is not a novel for the squeamish.

It does, however, raise interesting - and disturbing - questions about why good people sometimes lack the will to prevent what they know to be evil.

* Merle Rubin reviews book regularly for the Monitor.

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