The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley (Review)


This is a story for someone who may need to experience stress vicariously through someone else. Don't laugh -- we all need to do this once in a while. Especially if you are someone like me who needs a certain degree of ground beneath my feet (routine, apartment with things in place, a general sense of security, etc.) but who also craves a healthy amount of chaos and edginess in life. I need this fix at least once a year and Hartley gave me a fair share. Not to mention that I read this while living in Kenya, which brought the whole story more close to home.

This is a book about a journalist who, luck or fate would have it, is swept into the most tumultuous events of East Africa in the 90s. He experienced Somalia during the most heated of conflicts (Blackhawk Down tries to capture this), and he walked across the wet, green hills of Rwanda during what are arguably the most maddening 100 days in all of human history.

Admittedly, he writes Zanzibar chest as an attempt at catharsis. He wants to rid himself of the demons only a witness of such atrocities could harbor. The bonus for the reader is that you get this raw and well-written account of what it was like to be the witness. And it's laced with Hartley's family history as well -- a British expat father who never did understand the point of colonizing other people's land so much as getting to know and love the people themselves, and an uncle who marries into the Muslim religion only to come under threat of death by his colonizing comrads. 

It's hard to imagine anyone weaving this all together coherently. And actually, I don't think it's a book with a story line so much as many story lines grabbing and tugging at your emotions and imagination until you begin to sense how someone could become as tortured as the author became, just by being a witness.