A life well lived

A life well lived

A life well lived

The Outsider
Frederick Forsyth
Bantam Press
2015, pp 368, Rs 399

A word of warning for wannabe writers who pick up Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography, The Outsider, with the intention of learning his writing secrets. The first mention of any of his books comes in at page 260 (of 350-odd), and a dozen pages later, he’s already talking about his fourth book. So, this is no manual of writing style.

In a roundabout way, though, it does tell us how Forsyth came to write those amazing thrillers of the Cold War and beyond: he lived through that age, and he closely followed the events that defined it. Forsyth is following the basic dictum of writing: write what you know about. So yes, he’s writing about The Jackal because he knows what kind of security cover was present around Charles De Gaulle. He’s writing about mercenaries in Africa because he was in Nigeria during a civil war. He’s writing about catching large ocean fish, or about flying a single-seater airplane in a fog, or about the inner workings of news agencies and British secret services because he’s either done it or observed it from close up.

As readers, we somehow knew this already. No one can write as meticulously as Forsyth does about a complex topic without having lived it. He must know something we don’t. And that suspicion is now confirmed in reading this book.

Forsyth has had an interesting life. It seems like he’s done it all: flying, sailing, bullfighting, hitch-hiking, spying. Underneath it all is an enthusiasm for the unexplored, for going out there and just doing it. Reading this autobiography, it would seem the books and the subsequent fame were entirely incidental, as if they don’t really matter to him. Jumping into new adventures was what really mattered. When he describes writing his first book, The Day of the Jackal, at the aforementioned page 260, he just tells us he sat down for 35 days and wrote it. None of the melodramatic “writer’s block” and “building up the mood” that a lesser writer would have struggled with. “When you have nothing else to do and nowhere else to go, you might as well get on with it,” he says wryly.

The Outsider is structured as a series of vignettes, two to 10 pages each. Every vignette ends in a sort of hook that keeps you leading on to the next. Forsyth is, after all, a thriller writer, and he knows how to keep his audience entertained. Being autobiographical, the stories are somewhat more prosaic stuff than his novels, not that it takes away anything from their readability. They come across as a favourite uncle telling us about “that time when…”, and then waiting with a devilish grin for us to ask what happened next. So we hear about how Forsyth got his pilot’s license, how he almost died on a boat in South Africa, and how he almost triggered World War III by reporting an unusual military formation in East Germany.

The book can be roughly divided into three parts: The first covers Forsyth’s formative years, as he went through his schooling and college, becoming a licensed pilot and then a reporter. The second part features his time in Nigeria covering the Nigeria-Biafra war, as a reporter for the BBC, and later as a freelancer. And the third is his life as a writer and a family man. Of these, one can feel Forsyth’s passion the strongest in the middle part. The Nigeria-Biafra war was a civil war triggered by the secession of a part of Nigeria populated by the Igbo people, and their declaration of this new country as Biafra. The Nigerian armed forces attacked Biafra and eventually conquered it.

In the course of this conflict, diminishing food supplies and lowered morale had condemned millions of children in the area to a slow death by starvation. In no uncertain terms, he blames the British government of the day for its role in this war. If only they had acted rationally, he says, the tragedy could have been prevented. Millions of innocent lives could have been saved.

Forsyth traces the roots of this prejudice, starting from one British civil servant taking a dislike to an Igbo military commander, and ending with the British cabinet resolution to keep supporting the Nigerian army even after the full extent of the human loss was known. In fact, The Biafra Story was Forsyth’s first (non-fiction) book, written about this war, though it isn’t as widely read as his later fiction work.

Born in the late 1930s, Forysth has seen it all: as a child during World War II, as a reporter during the Cold War, as an active observer during umpteen world events. This book is a recounting of these times, and of a life well lived. That the author is one of the best thriller writers ever is only secondary.


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