Which brings me to Mr. Frederick Forsyth, who has written over 20 books of fiction and nonfiction
If you think of literary fiction in terms of food, then thrillers are at the opposite end from Masterchef cuisine: quick, greasy, and soonest forgotten after being devoured. And like McDonald’s or KFC, they are (to use a high table word!) ubiquitous. Check the shelves in your retired uncle’s study, scan the library in ye olde alma mater or go through the second hand bookstores in Nilkhet. Or Charing Cross Road here in warm weather London for that matter—they’ll ‘ave ‘em, guv. Lean in close and you’ll see big bold letters on broken spines, surnames as familiar as climate change terms. I’m talking Archer, Clancy, Forsyth, MacLean, Sheldon, et al. They may not be Shakespeare, Kipling, or Dickens but the argument can be made that they are as known, if not more, and as popular as the lit hotshots named above. And this is so because they write works that are not merely global bestsellers, as the eminence grise of literary critics John Sutherland said, but supersellers. Written to—he acknowledges the dumbing down—appeal to the mass market. Sure, I agree. They are not the fare for Sutherland and his ilk at the London Review of Books—no argument there—but I have to hand it to these guys, these geniuses who crank out writing that reaches a global audience. Yes of course, they are formulaic and lowbrow. They are, unashamedly, beach reads, guilty-pleasure hacks, but hey, better this devil than cellphone addiction caused by traffic jams.
Who doesn’t need a hamburger once in a while?
Which brings me to a certain Mr. Frederick Forsyth, who has written over 20 books of fiction and nonfiction, including two bestsellers. Both were boosted by blockbuster productions, The Day of the Jackal and Dogs of War. I remember my first foray into the world of thrillers, the route not unusual amongst many from Dhaka: the hippest names back in the day—Feluda, Tin Goyenda, Masud Rana—and of the lot, after many moons, only Feluda remains a favorite. Then I got a taste for English thrillers when I spotted a stylish Edward Fox playing the Jackal. After seeing the film on a Friday afternoon on BTV, I looked for it in our house. Eventually I had to borrow a dog-eared copy from a friend. I was told to treat it with care, because it belonged to his elder brother and back then all elder brothers appeared to be angry humans. And boy, that was one battered paperback, beyond redemption, but that made it all the more fun because it had all scribbled notes from more than one reader on both sides of the margin. The notes were mostly banal—“Forsyth is the best”, “FF is my idol”—and even as a sixth-grader I could tell someone was going doolally more than necessary.
In 2015, when Forsyth published his autobiography, The Outsider, everyone thought he was calling it a day from writing books. In a follow up Guardian interview, he said he was unable to write any more books because “he cannot travel to adventurous places.” That sentence covers a tumultuous life—flying fighter jets for the RAF, working for the BBC, sleuthing for MI6, supporting the Biafra breakaway—and now, ingloriously perhaps, slumped to supporting Brexit. A life in which his companions were men both kind and ungracious, dodging bullets and daggers shoulder to shoulder with mercenaries, revolutionaries, and statesmen alike. He made his name as a master storyteller first with Dogs of War in the early 1970s—a book he wrote because he was desperate for money! And after which there was no looking back.
In 1967 Biafra attempted, much like us in 1971, to secure independence from the central Nigerian state. War broke out. Like us later in 1971, it was the dominant news of the time. Forsyth was sent, against his will, to cover it for the BBC. Before leaving London, he was given a lengthy brief by his bosses: that rebel leader Colonel Emeka Ojukwu was a rogue agent and the Brits really had to back their man Colonel Yakubu Gowon at the center or else all hell would break loose. The jewel in Africa for the colonial minded Foreign & Commonwealth Office was always going to be the mineral-rich Nigeria. And so, the fallen Empire persisted with their influence, thanks to Mir Jafars that crop up in every century, every decade—even though the country was sovereign. To cut a long story short, when Forsyth met the Oxford-educated Ojukwu, he realized how the BBC had sold him a lie and he opted out of the BBC.
Broke, jobless, and a longer stint in Nigeria, thanks to his friendship with Ojukwu, Forsyth had an idea to put some dough in the bank. He wrote a thriller set in Africa, drawing from his rich experiences in the Biafra. Thus was Dogs of War born but it was no easy sell. In the end, only one publisher agreed to take a punt and the rest, as they say, is history.
When I wrote to Ed Victor, the late agent of Forsyth and many other luminaries, he was okay with the idea of his client traveling to Bangladesh for the Dhaka Lit Fest. Most agents are but, you know, there’s always the odd joker who wants to be the party pooper, perhaps because a certain kind of mind loves red-tapism in the literary world, a friend remarked in jest. Anyway, I digress. I was told Forsyth doesn’t travel long distance but I could meet him at his book launch party.
Fast-forward a few weeks. Two things happened: Forsyth is humbled by our invitation and surprised to learn that he has a readership in Bangladesh, though I like to think that was another example of humility. Nonetheless, he declined politely saying he wouldn’t be able to make the long flight because of health issues. The second was a surprise I had arranged for him. I took Ojukwu’s son Okigbo, a fellow writer and friend, along with me. Uncle Freddie and Oki hadn’t met each other for over 20 years. Though it was emotional it was also formal (please, no sex or tears, we are British!).
Forsyth has returned to the ring with the publication of his race-against-time thriller The Fox (Penguin Books) next month. I am looking forward to devouring this particular hamburger. With extra cheese, and don’t slack on the relish, please!
Ahsan Akbar is a Director of Dhaka Lit Fest. [email protected]