Most helpful positive review
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
An exceptional story
on 11 September 2003
The title of Aidan Hartley's book - the Zanzibar Chest - is an arresting one, but it has actually little to do with the contents of the book itself. We can read fragments of the diaries found in the camphor chest belonging to his father - written by a Peter Christmas(!) Davey, his friend - who had spent his early years in Arabia in the '30s and, speaking arabic, was employed as a political officer for the British government. In this role he was expected to broker peace between the feuding tribes so some sort of development could begin. Davey fell in love with a local woman, around which is woven a beautifully described and romantic story, with vivid descriptions of the Yemen of the period, its architecture, and its people. At the same time, and this really is the principal subject of the book, we read of the author's own experiences in Africa, from the time he was born there, his first vague recollections, and the experiences of his own parents during their early lives about which the author describes vividly the results of the "winds of change" blowing through Africa at the time. However,it's as if the author is too modest to say "this is what I have done with my life" and has found an excuse to write his memoirs - despite his still being only 35 - and to use the story of his father's friend as a leitmotif for writing the book. The story that is really gripping - until the last page - is of Aidan Hartley's own experiences - and derring-do - in what have been the most dangerous places on earth, as a "stringer" for Reuters, working with them in places from Bosnia to Rwanda, from Ethiopia to the Sudan, from Somalia to Burundi. He describes in horrific detail what he has witnessed, and although at the time he finds sufficient moral strength to support the unsupportable, we realise, reading between the lines, that years later he was haunted by, and bore the consequences of, these experiences. His book is full of drama and humour; historically and politically we put it down having learnt more than when we picked it up (not altogether surprising as part of his erudition stems from a Master's from the School of African and Oriental Studies, a degree in Politics from London University, and, also, incidentally a degree in English from Oxford). However, academic accomplishments aside, it takes someone of outstanding character and courage to face the hardships and dangers to which Aidan Hartley subjected himself in his years working as a journalist. His writing skills are prodigious -each page of his book comes to life with his descriptions of human relationhips (his extraordinary friends); horror (the massacres witnessed in Somalia, Burundi and Rwanda)and excitement (his daring exploits in Ethiopia, and surviving a plane crash!), against beautifully described backdrops of the regions in which he lived. His own personal feelings about himself and his work sometimes penetrate the pages, adding another dimension to this remarkable book, which, as one reviewer says, deserves to become a classic.