Zanzibar by Giles Foden

I first learned of Giles Foden's novel Zanzibar (a fictional recreation of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings) from an article in In These Times, where the book's inability to find a U.S. publisher was blamed on its subject matter:
U.S. publishers, however, were less than enthusiastic to take on a novel with a graphic depiction of a terrorist bombing and criticism of U.S. security and foreign policy. To this day, American readers can only find Zanzibar overseas or online. Knopf-Vintage Books, which published Foden’s two previous novels in the United States, hasn’t touched Zanzibar yet, though it is still reportedly considering it. For more than a year, Foden has been approaching several other publishers as well. As Foden explains it, one of them told him that "they just weren’t ready for this as entertainment yet." (In terms of how publishers value novels, that comment may say it all.)

"It’s not a question of censorship," continues Foden, who also works as the deputy books editor at the Guardian in London. "An orthodoxy just takes hold across the global media, and it’s like what Chomsky calls 'manufactured consent.' Some publishers are just too nervous to go against the orthodoxy on these hot issues."
I have a soft spot for controversial books, and so I sought this one out, and quickly found a copy of the British edition at the Dartmouth library. I held onto it for a while, but all my Dartmouth books are due back in a few days, so I read it this week, all set to be scandalized in some way or another.

Except the book is really rather tame. Yes, there are some criticisms of U.S. foreign policy expressed by generally sympathetic characters, but there's nothing that hasn't appeared in numerous books about terrorism, al-Qaeda, U.S. intelligence, etc., and very little that hasn't been said in some way or another in the pages of such radical rags as the New York Times. The portrait of a young man who becomes a terrorist is far less nuanced and disturbing than many others -- indeed, many characters in the book felt like less interesting, more stock versions of characters in Paul Bowles's 1955 Spider's House.

The idea that U.S. publishers wouldn't want to capitalize on the novel's sudden relevance after September 11 seems odd to me, too, because since when have major publishers been so sensitive? That's not to say I think Foden is lying when he says nobody wanted to touch it, but that I suspect either he didn't try very many publishers, or there are other reasons for why they didn't want to publish Zanzibar.

Though not the scandalous novel I'd hoped for, Zanzibar is well worth reading if political thrillers are to your taste, though for readers interested in neither the ins and outs of international intelligence operations nor marine biology, it's likely to be an awful bore. Foden's style is expository and reportorial, though some of his descriptions of landscape reach toward the lyrical. Landscape and physical environment are what he does best, in fact -- his characters are flat and cliched, but when he describes a place, the book comes alive. He is also very good with small details, small moments and gestures that feel particularly accurate or true.

The story involves four main characters -- a marine biologist who has gone to Zanzibar to work for USAID and find meaning in life; a grizzled, cynical old wise man who was once a leader of special operations for the CIA and now is a top advisor on the Arab world; a young man from Zanzibar who becomes a member of al-Qaeda; and a young woman diplomat working at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam. Their lives, of course, end up intertwining (in, I thought, both generally predictable and mostly unconvincing ways). But the characters are simply tools of the plot, ways to convey different ideas and points of view -- they are the sorts of characters we find in 18th century novels of ideas: not characters so much as hooks to hang stuff on. I don't mind that, so long as the author doesn't seem deluded into thinking the characters have depth and substance, and unfortunately at some points Foden does seem to think he's creating vivid, interesting characters, and it is at those points when the novel feels like a slog. (Thankfully, I found skimming through those sections quite easy to do.)

I suppose the most relevant question to ask about Zanzibar is: Why bother? There are tons of nonfictional accounts of U.S. intelligence operations, analyses of foreign policy, chronicles of al-Qaeda, biographies of bin Laden... What good is a novel when the reality is itself so strange and complex? Sometimes, Zanzibar is not good at answering this question, but at its best it does what only fiction can do -- it lets us visit the minds of characters in the midst of actions, and it juxtaposes their thoughts and actions with those of other characters. It creates imaginative intimacy and encourages empathy. The characters may be pretty flat, but they aren't useless. We explore ideas of obsession and loyalty, we watch characters try to make meaning in a world of chaos, we see people try to figure out their mistakes, we see the effects of suffering on various types of men and women. It's hardly Dostoyevsky, but it's often effective and, yes, entertaining -- both intellectually engaging and suspenseful.

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