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The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley

The Zanzibar Chest

by Aidan Hartley

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This rating suffers because I don't think Hartley necessarily knew what he was onto at first--great stretches of this read like an "imperial family" memoir by one if its most insufferably smug scions, and much ore entertaining swathes like a foreign correspondent's memoir, which is much more interesting and colourful of course although also even more smug (the way he writes about his sexual "exploits" cannot be borne outside of fiction, and then there is also that awful subtitle), and there is a brief concern that he will go all torture porn on you, but no--i think this book was an attempt to write his way through the experiences that haunt and poison you--in Hartley's case, Rwanda, Somalia--until you know there's something fearsome that has emerged from inside you in response and is turning your dreams into fears. The fact that the only thing that makes that better is time, and then only if you give it air, and let it heal "very slowly, from the inside." And to get there he had to write through the other stuff. And while the combination makes for a much more unusual book, the way we get breezy and breezy and then the hard bulletin is not easy to take. But then it can't have been easy for the people who were there either, and certainly it makes me more capable of toughening up and handling my seventeen-hour cashless stint as a ghost in Addis Ababa airport, where it's so cold right now. ( )
  MeditationesMartini | Aug 12, 2012 |
There is a fair amount of reportage in this book, much of it harrowing although delivered with the nonchalance and detatchment of the war reporter, and yet one detects that the thick skin is somewhat cosmetic, self protective and indeed in due course it falls away. It is Hartley's inate love and empathy with Africa and Africans, and a hard earned camerarderie with the various hacks and rhino skinned media folk he falls in with, which lifts the writing above that of straight documentary. Whilst the title suggests this is the story of Peter Davey intertwined with the story of Hartley's father, these are anchors, and a constant reference and inspiration, for what is the story of Aidan Hartley and his Africa.
Hartley's fascination with Africa comes from a childhood spent listening to rich reminiscences of his parents and their friends, exotic tales of the late colonial period, of respect and adventure, and moreover of their love of the continent and its people. The trouble for Hartley is that he is attached to those stories ingrained in his physche but his African view is confusingly different as his days are spent in the immediate post colonial era with change and volatility all around. He comes to recognise the extent of change through the stoicism of his parents, and especially his father who is forced to adapt and although he is useful being fluent Swahili and a skilled negotiator with the Africans, his frustrations are there to see and feel and his reticence grows as nostalgia fades. Hartley finds himself sent to England for education and becomes influenced by the swinging sixties and intoxicated with social revolution though drawn inexorably back to Africa and as his age of responsibility dawns he descends into a seedy lifestyle avoiding the long shadow of a hero father. On discovering the 'Zanzibar chest' retained by his father containing the memoirs of a lifelong friend Peter Davey whose own life and times was inextricably connected to Hartley senior, it is in the finer details therein he begins to piece together the realities of the romanticised life of his father and his peers, a world of brave men, often harsh, often idyllic, sometimes secretive, always full of adventure. One can sense the frustration of being born into a time when opportunity for such adventure seems in the past and from Hartley's hedonistic, sleezy African existence of drink, drugs, prostitutes, and youthful high jinks, he is lost and the sense of inferiority is palpable. Redemption comes from the company he keeps and his inate African knowledge and instinct, and an articulate nature becomes a thing of value as a kindly hack sees the potential in Hartley and shows him the ropes of journalism and promotion of a story. In the ensuing years he finds himself bearing witness to the worst situations of conflict and famine, and finds his genetic bravery and attraction to risk takes him into the heat and heart of the story, into highly dangerous territory and in the company of equally dangerous people, and yet his survival instinct and no little luck leaves him largely unscathed. He falls in love only to ultimately realise the relationship only flourishes in the heightened state of imminent danger and enforced absences. Hartley's insights into the chaos of Somalia and what he describes as the human abattoir of Rwanda are especially heartbreaking and the losses and giving witness to unimaginable cruelty eventually take their toll. His honesty at feeling useless in the face of such tragedy is striking and bitter. Hartley stays close to his father throughout and it is through periodic reference of Davey's memoirs that he understands not only his father's sadness and longing but also makes some sense of the present, and it becomes clear that each man is yearning not for the good old days of colony but for those moments when cultures collide and magic is made and hope springs eternal. The only thing I missed was to know whether Hartley discussed his own experiences with his father and what he made of them. Perhaps they only needed look at each other. The book ends more or less where it began, and where his father left off, with Hartley living and working in rural Africa, and with optimism that the demons of both men may finally be behind them. ( )
  DekeDastardly | Sep 27, 2011 |
“…The author, Aidan Hartley, worked for Reuters as a freelancer for many years. He has an interesting family history: his father lived in Yemen and I was lent Aidan’s book by a Yemeni general, who recommended it to me.

It’s two stories in a way: Aidan’s reporting in Africa, including Rwanda – serious crisis reporting – and then the story of this friend of his father’s, Peter Davey, a British diplomat who practically went native in Yemen and who died in mysterious circumstances. They’re almost two different stories and they possibly don’t even belong in the same book, but I love the book. There’s so much material from Aidan’s journalism, a lot of it horrific, a lot of it very personal. Aidan Hartley took a lot of drugs and slept with a lot of women, and if you’re a woman memoirist you’re going to find it harder to get away with that kind of material. …”

But what I like about Aidan’s life is that he took major risks. He was right in the centre of the action and it really gives you a sense of what went on there, which you don’t necessarily get when you just read the papers. He talks about the effect of doing this war reporting on a relationship he’s having, and how, actually, his relationship is supported by the adrenaline of what he’s doing and tends to falter when he’s on holiday. …” (reviewed by Jennifer Steil in FiveBooks : http://fivebooks.com/interviews/jennifer-steil-on-foreign-memoirs)
( )
  FiveBooks | May 14, 2010 |
I think that the sections of the book concerning Hartley's experiences as a reporter in Africa work quite well. I thought Hartley's discussion of his own reaction to atrocities he witnessed in Somalia and Rwanda were very affecting, and the cynical insight he provided about life as a journalist were extremely interesting to me, if at times sort of horrifically funny - for instance, he tells a story about Sophia Loren coming to Somalia as a UN good will ambassador to help feed the children, but one of those starving children she was there to raise awareness for was trampled by the mass of photographers that followed her around and broke a limb. His discussion of the neglect of Africa among many major news outlets was also extremely interesting to me. However, I found the portions of the book in which Hartley attempts to learn about the life and death of a friend of his father's to alternate between being boring and distracting.

I'd also heard quite a lot about this book in connection with colonialism, and I'm not quite sure how I feel about it on that level. While Hartley is the child of colonialists, which of course affects his life, and he at times draws connections between colonialism and the wars that he covers in Africa, he also at times says things like "To be truthful, I saw [President Bush Sr's push to bring aid to Somalia under the label of a New World Order] as a new civilizing mission, similar to the imperialism of my British forebears in that it would bring to an end starvation, war, and dictatorship and replace it with peace, justice, and proper government" (214), which made me do a bit of a double-take since it seemed to so contradict what he himself identifies as the ill effects of colonialism. I'm clinging to the thought that I am just missing some sort of joke since it doesn't quite come together for me in a sensible way.

Although the book does have its problems, I would say it is worth reading for the sections about his time as a journalist, and you wouldn't miss anything by skimming or even skipping the chapters about his father's friend. ( )
  legxleg | Nov 27, 2009 |
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From time to time, God causes men to be born - and thou art one of them - who have a lust to go abroad at the risk of their lives and discover news - today it may be of far-off things, tomorrow of some hidden mountain, and the next day of some nearby men who have done a foolishness against the state. These souls are very few; and of these few, not more than ten are of the best.

- Kim , by Rudyard Kipling
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My father was the closest thing I knew to the immortal.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0006531210, Paperback)

A deeply affecting memoir of a childhood in Africa and the continent's horrendous wars, which Hartley witnessed at first hand as a journalist in the 1990s. Shortlisted for the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction, this is a masterpiece of autobiographical journalism. Aidan Hartley, a foreign correspondent, burned-out from the horror of covering the terrifying micro wars of the 1990s, from Rwanda to Bosnia, seeks solace and solitude in the remote mountains and deserts of southern Arabia and the Yemen, following his father's death. While there, he finds himself on the trail of the tragic story of an old friend of his father's, who fell in love and was murdered in southern Arabia fifty years ago. As the terrible events of the past unfold, Hartley finds his own kind of deliverance. 'The Zanzibar Chest' is a powerful story about a man witnessing and confronting extreme violence and being broken down by it, and of a son trying to come to terms with the death of a father whom he also saw as his best friend. It charts not only a love affair between two people, but also the British love affair with Arabia and the vast emptinesses of the desert, which become a fitting metaphor for the emotional and spiritual condition in which Hartley finds himself.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:13 -0400)

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"In his final days, rising from a bed made of mountain cedar, lashed with thongs of rawhide from an oryx shot many years before, Aidan Hartley's father says to him, "We should have never come." Those words spoke of a colonial legacy that stretched back over 150 years through four generations of one British family. From great-great-grandfather William Temple, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his role in defending British settlements in nineteenth-century New Zealand, to his father, a colonial officer sent to Africa in the 1920s, building dams and irrigation projects in Arabia in the 1940s, then returning to Africa to raise a family - these were intrepid men who traveled to exotic lands to conquer, to build, and to bear witness. Finally there is Aidan, who becomes a journalist covering Africa in the 1990s. Weaving together stories of his childhood in Africa, his family's history, and his experiences as a reporter, Aidan tells us what he saw." "After the end of the Cold War, there seemed to be new hope for Africa but again and again - in Ethiopia, in Somalia, Rwanda, and the Congo, the terror and genocide prevailed. In Somalia, three of Aidan's close friends were torn to pieces by an angry mob. Then, after walking overland from Uganda with the rebel army, Aidan was witness to the terrible atrocities in Rwanda, appearing at the sites and interviewing survivors days after the massacres. Finally, burnt out from a decade of horror, Aidan retreated to his family's house in Kenya where he discovered the Zanzibar chest his father left him. Intricately hand-carved and smelling of camphor, the chest contained the diaries of his father's best friend, Peter Davey, an Englishman who died under mysterious circumstances over fifty years earlier. Tucking the papers under his arm, Hartley embarked on a journey to southern Arabia in an effort not only to unlock the secrets of Davey's life, but of his own. He traveled to the remote mountains and deserts of southern Arabia where his father served as a British officer. He began to piece together the disparate elements of Davey's story, a man who fell in love with an Arabian woman and converted to Islam, but ultimately had to pay an exacting price."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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