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The Zanzibar Chest: A Story of Life, Love, and Death in Foreign Lands
     

The Zanzibar Chest: A Story of Life, Love, and Death in Foreign Lands

5.0 2
by Aidan Hartley
 

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Combining literary reportage, memoir, family history, and a quest to piece together a decades-old mystery, The Zanzibar Chest is a moving examination of colonialism and its consequences.

In his final days, Aidan Hartley’s father said to him, “We should have never come.” Those words spoke of a colonial legacy that stretched back through

Overview

Combining literary reportage, memoir, family history, and a quest to piece together a decades-old mystery, The Zanzibar Chest is a moving examination of colonialism and its consequences.

In his final days, Aidan Hartley’s father said to him, “We should have never come.” Those words spoke of a colonial legacy that stretched back through four generations of one British family. From a great-great-grandfather who defended British settlements in nineteenth-century New Zealand, to his father, a colonial officer sent to Africa in the 1920s and who later returned to raise a family there—these were intrepid men who traveled to exotic lands to conquer, build, and bear witness. And there is Aidan, who becomes a journalist covering Africa in the 1990s, a decade marked by terror and genocide. After encountering the violence in Somalia, Uganda, and Rwanda, Aidan retreats to his family’s house in Kenya where he discovers the Zanzibar chest his father left him. Intricately hand-carved, the chest contained the diaries of his father’s best friend, Peter Davey, an Englishman who had died under obscure circumstances five decades before. With the papers as his guide, Hartley embarked on a journey not only to unlock the secrets of Davey’s life, but his own.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A finalist for the Samuel Johnson Prize
A Publishers Weekly and Economist best book of the year

The Zanzibar Chest is a many-legged hybrid. In part it is a wrenching account of African horrors, particularly those of Somalia and Rwanda . . . [it] is also a loving, often evocative account of East Africa where the author grew up . . . An unassailable mix of irony, vainglory, passionate sympathy and despair.”New York Times

“An extraordinary and heartbreaking book, the finest account of a war correspondent’s psychic wracking since Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and the best white writing from Africa in many, many years.”—Rian Malan, author of My Traitor’s Heart

“A masterpiece.”Spectator (UK)

“A brilliant portrait, fond but candid, of the ‘hacks’ who chase dramatic stories in exotic and scary places—‘the good times, the friendship, intensity, fear, sense of purpose, the sheer escapism of it all’—but declines at all turns to lapse into sentimentality.”Washington Post

“A tale of furious adrenaline.”Christian Science Monitor

"Slam-bang adventure and shimmering poetry. It is hilarious, orgiastically bawdy, poignantly romantic, gory as war itself, and populated with a census-sized number of vivid personalities. All that—plus informative and dreadfully prophetic."Washington Times

"The Zanzibar Chest is a stunning piece of work. It will reside permanently in my memory. No one should dare say the word Africa without reading it."—Jim Harrison

"A lyrical, searing memoir. Out of the ashes of . . . misbegotten hopes, Hartley has fashioned a mesmerizing story of pain and loss."Newsweek

"A startlingly refreshing perspective on the political, social, and cultural impact of British colonialism in Africa and Arabia . . . putting a contemporary face on historic colonialism with an accuracy and veracity seldom seen in Western critiques."Booklist

"A profoundly moving masterpiece . . . This is much, much more than a book about war reporting. It is an extraordinary tapestry of friendships, love affairs, betrayals, and murders that finally come together to give us an intimate and epic portrait of Africa in the twentieth century."—Hossein Amini

"Thrillingly charged with an undercurrent of passion."—Salon

"A work of tremendous candor and vigor . . . a book that is impossible to forget."—Aminatta Forna, author of The Hired Man

"An outrageously brave and anguished heart disgorging the never-inert legacies of colonialism."—Bob Shacochis, author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul

The New York Times
Mr. Hartley writes with powerful detail of the pillaging of Mogadishu by the anti-Barre rebels. He writes of subsequent perilous daily sorties he made with his fellow Africa veterans. The Big Feet (star reporters) arrived of course, but they were never big enough to pick their way, unaided, through a quicksand.

He writes the horrors along with the sharpest of vignettes. At a Somali checkpoint armed tribesmen demand the clan affiliations of those seeking passage. One man is pulled out and shot. "He should have borrowed the ancestors of a friend," a Somali remarks. — Richard Eder

The Washington Post
This account of the author's time as a foreign correspondent in Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s is a strange, mesmerizing, painfully honest book: part hilarious and part horrifying, part memoir and part journalism-cum-history, part mockery and part celebration. It paints a brilliant portrait, fond but candid, of the "hacks" who chase dramatic stories in exotic and scary places -- "the good times, the friendship, intensity, fear, sense of purpose, the sheer exotic escapism of it all" -- but declines at all turns to lapse into sentimentality. — Jonathan Yardley
The Los Angeles Times
In The Zanzibar Chest, Hartley has given us an unusually personal account of what it looks and smells and feels like to venture time and again into the belly of the beast. — Bill Berkeley
Publishers Weekly
Toward the end of this mesmerizing chronicle, Hartley writes simply of Rwanda, "Like everything in Africa, the truth [is] somewhere in between." Hartley appreciates this complexity, mining the accounts that constitute his book not for the palliative but for the redemptive. Born in 1965 in Kenya into a long lineage of African colonialists, Hartley feels, like his father whose story he also traces, a magnetic, almost inexplicable pull to remain in Africa. Hartley's father imports modernity to the continent (promoting irrigation systems and sophisticated husbandry); later, Hartley himself "exports" Africa as a foreign correspondent for Reuters. Both men struggle to find moral imperatives as "foreigners" native to a continent still emerging from colonialism. Hartley's father concludes, "We should never have come here," and Hartley himself appears understandably beleaguered by the horrors he witnesses (and which he describes impressively) covering Ethiopia, Somalia and Rwanda. Emotionally shattered by the genocide in the latter ("Rwanda sits like a tumour leaking poison into the back of my head"), the journalist returns to his family home in Kenya, where he happens upon the diary of Peter Davey, his father's best friend, in the chest of the book's title. Hartley travels to the Arabian Peninsula to trace Davey's mysterious death in 1947, a story he weaves into the rest of his narrative. The account of Davey, while the least engaging portion of the book, provides Hartley with a perspective for grappling with the legacy that haunts him. This book is a sweeping, poetic homage to Africa, a continent made vivid by Hartley's capable, stunning prose. B&w photos not seen by PW. (July) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Weary of the atrocities he has witnessed over the last decade, the African-born Hartley revives when he discovers an elaborately carved chest containing the diaries of his father's best friend, who fell in love with an Arabian princess. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Raised by British parents in East Africa, former Reuters correspondent Hartley chronicles a decade of encounters with the world’s bloodiest conflicts and considers the twisted legacy of colonialism through the microcosm of his own family. Not for the squeamish, these accounts of Ethiopia, Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and other conflicts seethe with shocking and grisly consequences often wrought, in the author’s view, by the "one-size-fits-all solutions" imposed by well-intentioned but clueless Western power structures. United Nations peacekeepers are portrayed as effete by design (undermanned, underequipped, etc.), spooked in fog-of-war conditions, and when left to their own devices occasionally capable of barbarities that mimic the African adversaries they are supposed to buffer. American efforts in Somalia are viewed as typically cynical, exploiting technological superiority to gain PR or political benefit, but almost always arriving too late and leaving too soon, with neither concern for nor full comprehension of the inevitable aftermath. Food drops left unguarded in starving villages, for example, are simply commandeered by the local warlords who rule by terror. Hartley’s m.o. is to recount the impact of these revelations on his own psyche, along with his rationalizations, yearnings, and compensations practiced in the company of likeminded "hacks": foreign correspondents who regularly drink, drug, and fornicate to excess in the name of requisite therapy. They are mostly runaways, he postulates, "from emotional distress at home, divorce, bereavement, career burnout, boredom, or simply themselves." As most of his close companions become casualties, an intermittently persistent love affairwith a young American photographer provides the obligatory passionate interludes that punctuate the horror. His native’s perspective on African affairs enhances the narrative, although a habitual barrage of corroborating details—no projectile breaks a window without notation of its probable caliber—sometimes doesn’t. Overall, morbid and engaging. Agent: Clare Alexander/Gillon Aitken Associates, UK

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780802125859
Publisher:
Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
12/13/2016
Pages:
480
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

In the corner of the veranda was a Zanzibar chest, carved with a skill modern Swahili carpenters have forgotten. The old camphor box bore a design of lotus, paisley, and pineapple, and was studded with rivets tarnished green in the salty air. When I opened the chest lid, cobwebs tore and something scuttled into a corner.

Inside one box file were my father's hand-written memoirs on which he had been working for years. I opened a second file and reached down to grasp the pages. The instant I touched them they began to crumble in my hands. Time, heat, and the drenching humidity had ravaged them. Mildew dusted the covers, giving off that scent of the forgotten.

I quickly realized I had stumbled on a secret that had been buried for half a century. Here were the diaries of the man named Peter Davey, my father's good friend. Ever since I was a boy, the story of Davey crept in and out of conversation at home in vague, half-finished sentences. The tale had always been there, yet my father never properly talked about it. Davey was a silence, a shadow that moved constantly out of the corner of one's eye. And now, as if it had been deliberately dropped into my lap, was the full and tragic rendition of Davey's life.

What People are Saying About This

Hossain Amini
A profoundly moving masterpiece. Whether he's writing about a searing love affair in the middle of a war-zone, or describing friendships made and lost in the confusion of the front-lines, Hartley's book is heartbreaking, achingly beautiful, and shockingly honest. Rarely has a writer bared their soul to such magnificent effect. This is much, much more than a book about war reporting. It is an extraordinary tapestry of friendships, love affairs, betrayals, and murders, that finally come together to give us an intimate and epic portrait of Africa in the 20th Century.
—(Hossain Amini, Academy Award Nominated Screenwriter of The Wings of the Dove)
Jim Harrison
Aidan Hartley's The Zanzibar Chest is a stunning piece of work. There is an amazing depth, breadth and grace of fine writing in this book. It will reside permanently in my memory. No one should dare say the word 'Africa' without reading it.
—(Jim Harrison, author of Off to the Side)
Bob Shacochis
Hieronymous Bosch reincarnated as a frontline correspondent invited to the midnight banquet of Africa's bloody horrors, that's who Aidan Hartley seems to be, an outrageously brave and anguished heart disgorging the never-inert legacies of colonialism.
—(Bob Shacochis, author of The Immaculate Invasion)
Aminatta Forna
A work of tremendous candour and vigour. Passionately articulated, The Zanzibar Chest offers a vision of Africa through the eyes of the war reporter that is unsettling, compelling and moving by turns. Reportage, history, family memoir and personal testimony intertwine in a work of passion and intensity to create a book that is impossible to forget.
—(Aminatta Forna, author of The Devil that Danced on the Water)
Rian Malan
This is an extraordinary and heartbreaking book, the finest account of a war correspondent's psychic wracking since Michael Herr's Dispatches, and the best white writing from Africa in many, many years.
—(Rian Malan, author of My Traitor's Heart)

Meet the Author

Aidan Hartley was born in 1965 and brought up in East Africa. He read English at Oxford and studied politics at London University. He joined Reuters as a foreign correspondent and worked in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Russia. He now writes a column for the Spectator (UK). He lives with his family in Kenya.

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The Zanzibar Chest: A Story of Life, Love, and Death in Foreign Lands 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Without Aidan Hartley and the other journalists/photographers mentioned in this moving work, the plight of Africa may have been forever beyond our realm of comprehension. A fascinating combination of memoir and social commentary, particularly relating to the First World's selective interest in the Third World countries of Africa, this is a must read for anyone interested in journalism/political science.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you are interested in the politics of near 'down and out' and near down and out countries where lawlessness and self-preservation is a constant in life, this book is for you. Very educational and eye-opening of how countries that speak of human-rights can and do affect those left behind by ignoring such countries as it is not 'good' media will leave you spell bound in disbelief. Very interesting reading.