Sunday, March 15, 2009
Frederick Forsyth, above, is known primarily as the author of such blockbusters as Day of the Jackal, The Dogs of War, and The Veteran.
Forsyth started out as a reporter for the BBC, and in 1969 covered the Biafran war. Out of this experience came a book, The Biafra Story, written to alert the world to the plight of the defeated Biafrans. Like most books of its kind, it died a quiet death.
After that, Forsyth decided to write instead for money, and in 1971 came out with Day of the Jackal, a fictional account of a failed assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle, which he reportedly wrote in 38 days. The book was a bestseller, and was followed in quick succession by The Odessa File, about a German reporter who tries to track down a Nazi concentration camp commandant, and The Dogs of War, about a mining magnate who hires mercenaries to overthrow an African country.
While reading Day of the Jackal in 1974, at age 20, I found myself occasionally looking at the picture of Forsyth on the inside back flap. There was just something about the no nonsense prose of the book, combined with its occasional sly humor, which gave the impression that the author himself was pretty formidable.
The picture on the inside cover of the book showed a three quarter view of a lean man gazing off to the side focusing on something in the distance. Not particularly handsome, but hard-looking. (It wasn't the photograph above; I couldn't find the original one on the internet). The copy read:
"Frederick Forsyth was born in 1938 and was early attracted to a life of adventure: at six he tried to hitch a ride to the D-Day invasion on an American tank; at sixteen he was soloing in a Tiger Moth biplane; at seventeen he became an aspiring matador; and at nineteen he was a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force."
After reading his first three novels, I didn't think much more about him, though those three books always occupied a preferred place on my bookshelf.
Then in May of 1978 I happened upon a Newsweek article headlined The Forsyth Saga, featuring the same photograph of him from the book's inside cover. This immediately attracted my attention. The article summarized a longer article which had appeared in the previous Sunday's London Times:
"According to the Sunday Times, Forsyth put up nearly $240,000 in 1972 to overthrow President Francisco Macias Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, one of Africa's most ruthless dictators.
Forsyth's chief operative, the paper said, was a Scottish mercenary named Alexander Ramsay Gay, whom Forsyth had met in Biafra when the writer was covering the region's attempt to secede from Nigeria. For the Guinean caper, Gay supposedly ordered a small arsenal -- including automatic rifles, light machine guns, mortars, bazookas, and 40,000 rounds of ammunition -- from a prominent Hamburg arms dealer. In the southern Spanish resort of Fuengirola, he found his troop transport, a 64-foot fishing vessel called the Albatross. He recruited thirteen other mercenaries and lined up 50 former Biafran soldiers who would join the invasion at the last moment. According to the Times, Forsyth's 'objective throughout was to provide a new homeland for the defeated Biafrans'."
But the mercenaries were arrested by Spanish authorities off the coast of the Canary Islands in December of 1972, so the coup never happened.
[The Dogs of War is a thinly veiled account of the actual coup attempt, with the only difference being that the fictional coup was successful, and had been motivated by a desire to get at the fictional Zangaro's mineral wealth instead of to help the Biafrans.]
The true story emerged when one of the mercenaries Gay had hired was killed by the police, who then had come upon his diary which had detailed the plot.
Forsyth of course denied the story, and authorized his former literary agent, Bryan Hunt, to deny it as "a load of old codswallop." Hunt went on to say that Forsyth could not have organized the operation since "at the time he was reportedly forming this army, around the summer of '72, he was actually in my London flat, sick for three weeks with a stomach virus." Hunt also said that Forsyth was too tightfisted to fund such an operation, adding, "To imagine Freddie giving anyone tenpence would be amazing."
Let's examine that statement for a moment. If Forsyth actually had been staying with his agent for three weeks while sick, it can only be because they were good friends. (Most of us wouldn't stay for three days, let alone three weeks, with people who weren't good friends.) And no good friend would tell the press what a skinflint you are unless he were doing it to cover for you.
It was that discrepancy which convinced me the story was true.
Gay himself later said, "I'm not denying my part in it, but I won't comment on anyone else involved."
The original Times article itself was more detailed, and reported that Forsyth had originally met Gay while covering the Biafran war, that the two were good friends, and Gay had actually been the model for the title character in Day of the Jackal.
So Gay had been covering for Forsyth as well.
Two of the most admirable qualities are intelligence and toughness. Either without the other becomes infinitely less appealing. Forsyth embodies both.
A more recent update: A year ago I took out an audio version of Forsyth's 2001 book of short stories, The Veteran, from the local library. One of the longer stories was a love story, a departure from the blockbusters about international intrigue Forsyth is known for. It was quite well done; I found it moving.
Most recent/older update: While searching for an appropriate picture of Forsyth on the internet for this post, I stumbled across an old photo from the early 1970's showing Forsyth with Faye Dunaway, then at the peak of her beauty:
This picture did not detract from my admiration for the man.