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Revisiting the books of male adolescence – Part 4

Continuing his adolescent odyssey, Simon Akam this week turns his attention to Frederick Forsyth…

Frederick Forsyth, unlike Clancy, at least began as no pot-bellied shore side scrivener. As a journalist he covered the Biafran separatist war in Nigeria. The ‘Dogs of War’ opens with a clear facsimile of the end days of the enclave there – “I didn’t bring any supplies, sir, there were no more supplies to bring.” Subsequently we follow a disparate collection of mercenaries through their reengagement to topple the government of a West African state to secure a platinum concession for a London mining entrepreneur.

However, Forsyth’s journalistic background, though it may have provided him with elements of the required material, hampers his fiction prose. The balance of the text is concerned with the preparations for the coup; the procurement of weapons, a ship for their carriage to Africa and so forth. All too often the exposition of these processes involves a complete step back from the narrative, a blunt intrusion of authorial voice.

Such prose not only violates that cardinal creative writing school principle of show not tell, but also undermines any three dimensionality the characters may otherwise have acquired. Blank statement of facts has a place in journalism but it is an affectation to be wary of in fiction. Long sections of ‘The Dogs of War’ read like the middle passages of magazine stories, as the following example illustrates.

“The trade in lethal weapons is the world’s most lucrative after narcotics, and not surprisingly the governments of the world are deeply involved in it. Since 1945 it has become almost a point of national prestige to have one’s own native arms industry…”

The target of the coup is called Zangoro. The conceit of the fictional West Africa state has pedigree, with some antecedents that are recognisably more literary than Forsyth. Graham Greene never names Sierra Leone as the analogue for the ‘colony’ in ‘The Heart of the Matter’, while, seven years after ‘The Dogs of War’ was published, William Boyd set his debut novel ‘A Good Man in Africa’ in fictional Kinjanja. Despite the track-record of such a device it can be clumsy though, necessitating repeated references to an unnamed former ‘colonial power.’

Likewise, while Forsyth writes from a more substantial reservoir of experience than Clancy, elements of authorial fantasy-enactment still find way into the text. The industrialist’s minions employ their particular dog of war at the recommendation of a freelance writer who has written stories about mercenaries. So far, so fair enough, the writer is evidently an avatar of the author. Is this a cunning metafictional device, à la the appearance of a writer called Martin Amis in the Martin Amis opus ‘Money’?

Readers, it is not. The in-text writer has a girlfriend who is a model, who has been to “model school” with the daughter of the mogul commissioning the coup. Anyone who uses the term “model school” cannot surely be acquainted with many of the graduates of such institutions. Is this ironic, Mr Forsyth, a clever witticism? I am not convinced. (Nb. The use of the rhetorical question here despite my previous criticism of the form is hereby acknowledged).

We have parsed two thrillers now, two novels both purportedly marketed at an adult market, which I read in youth. A penchant for right wing views binds the books together; these sentiments are more widespread in Clancy but occasionally more pointed in Forsyth, whose hero, for example, hits a woman as a badge of his non-nonsense character.

But true common ground, the binding stuff of the thriller, is surely the concentration on surface matters, the emphasis on process and action at the expense of characters who often come across as one dimensional cut outs with no inner life.

As I mentioned before, much of ‘The Dogs of War’ concentrates on exposition of contraband processes; on buying arms or shipping them. The neglect of the inner life, combined with the forms of international communication widespread at the time the novel is set, make Forsyth’s book a kind of eerie reconstruction of EM Forster’s ‘telegrams and anger.’ Let us not forget that telegrams and anger are precisely the irrelevancies of life. To connect is what matters.

Simon Akam is Reuters’ correspondent in Sierra Leone. His website is and he has also written these which we think are excellent:  The Long and Winding Road (on Land Rover parts in Africa) and Stars of the Stalls (on second hand book shopping).

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