I recently read The Last King of Scotland, mostly because I was quite peeved about never having got round to sorting myself out to go and see the film. Despite all the critical acclaim, I don't think it's very good: the prose is often clunky and, connectedly, the narrator, Garrigan, for a man implicated in one of the twentieth century's most notorious dictatorships, curiously uninteresting and unappealing. This, from the first page, setting up the plot, for example, might as well go around the streets screaming its intent:
That was Idi's way, you see. Punish or reward. You couldn't say no. Or I didn't think, back then, that you could. Or I really didn't think about it at all.
This is to say nothing about Foden's somewhat cheap use of various quasi-Orientalist tropes of the vainglorious and idiotic African, probably inevitable in a book about Amin. A glorified airport novel really, I'd say, although reasonably competently done. Although I can't quite rid myself of the feeling that it's just because it has a much nicer typeface, I've been enjoying Night Watch rather more (spoiler alert). Waters, to my mind anyway, writes so much better than Foden, is so much more alive to the compromises and vulnerabilities that life involves, and so much more able to accurately capture them. In contrast to Foden's often leaden literalism, Waters manages to inhabit the confusions and complications of close personal relationships, the evasions and understatements of the text mirroring the misunderstandings and unspoken agreements of the protagonists. In one scene, two lovers are preparing to go out for the day for one of them's birthday. One is increasingly bored by the other's preciousness, their insistence that everything be a perfect little piece of drama, that their love have the gallantry and passion of a play, and increasingly excited by and attracted to someone else. She suggests they go on their outing with friends; someone other than the person she is thinking of is suggested. Most of the scene has been concerned with the perspective of the other lover.
She sat and drew on her shoes, bending her head, so that her hair fell before her face. 'You don't,' she added lightly, as Kay was turning from the room, 'want to ask other people?'
'Other people?' asked Kay, surprised, turning back. 'You mean, like Mickey?'
'Yes', Helen said, after a second. Then, 'No, it was just a thought.'
'Would you like to call in on Mickey, on the way?'
'No. it's all right, really.' She straightened up, laughing at herself, her face quite pink from the effort of leaning forward and reaching to tie her laces.
Of course, Helen is not red from the effort of tying her laces; the scene before has her in a state of virtual ecstasy at the brushing of her arm against that of another woman: it is only because that is what Kay sees that that is what we are told. The book is full of moments like this; indeed, you might say it's about moments like this. I really like this sensitivity to what remains hidden, partly I think because of being perhaps a little hyper-aware of the costs of things being revealed. I'm never quite sure of exactly how to divide up the responsibility for this awareness amongst my own personal circumstances and inclinations, where I lie within the class structure of this particular society, and simply being a member of that society at all, although I'm fairly sure all three bear some of the blame. Being part of the kind of graduate community at Oxford, which, as you'd expect of an internationally renowned university, is quite cosmopolitan, brings the way in which simply being British - or maybe English - gives you a kind of reticence, an unwillingness to disturb people home, since so many other people find it odd. Of course, quite apart from the effects of a class structure on whether or not an attitude like that makes sense, being from southern England and middle class probably makes it worse - I understand people from the provinces speak to each other on public transport - but I think it is more general than that.
Having that kind of attitudes' particularity exposed as it is by encountering someone who doesn't share it understandably leads one to enquire into what might be said in favour of it; a logic which had seemed natural is made contingent, and you wonder why it ever seemed natural in the first place. Having relatively recently invoked Arendt, it would be tedious to do it again, although this is what I think of as an Arendtian point. Fortunately, Waters will do instead. What Waters knows, what that passage exemplifies, is the way in which public actions are not yours alone; they are interpreted, read, by others, and so slip away from you, become things you never meant. Although there's a thrill to that, an anticipation at the openness of the future, there's a danger too, a worry that things will run totally beyond your control. To be in public in the way that British reserve prevents you from being in places like the Tube restricts the scope of that worry in a way that is not without benefits. Of course, no moral worlds are without loss, and this is partly the product of a class system which creates so much more scope for misunderstanding, but no moral worlds are without loss, and the loss of this feature would, in this sense at least, be a loss.