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Last Updated Tuesday July 18 2017 10:58 AM IST

Book review: The life of the Master Storyteller

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the-outsider-forsyth (Left) Cover of The Outsider, (right) Frederick Forsyth

One of the first books that I read, which fell under the category of thrillers, was "The Day of the Jackal". This was the story of an assassin who was hired to kill President Charles de Gaulle of France and came within an inch of achieving his target. It was an edge of the seat suspense from page one till the last as the book traced the movement of the hired killer from Vienna to Paris and the efforts of the French Police to trace and stop him. As one closed the book after reading the last page, one could not help feeling empathy for the main protagonist who had come very close to achieving his goal, only to be thwarted by a combination of sheer misfortune and some excellent work by the police. The movie by the same name based on the book was also a huge hit.

Frederick Forsyth became a household name among readers of English language fiction with that book. He wrote and published 18 more works, 16 fiction and two non-fiction, and all of them achieved bestseller status. Readers all over the world would wait anxiously for his books to be published while a new genre of writers emerged who followed his path and penned works involving espionage, intrigue and international conspiracy. Not surprisingly he came to be known as the "Master Story Teller".

Hence it was with plenty of curiosity and anticipation that I started reading his autobiography titled "The Outsider: My life in intrigue". The book details the extraordinary life that he has led right from his childhood till the present and outlines the unique and varied experiences that he had during his 76 years. He was born in 1938, just prior to the outbreak of World War II and the fears of German invasion by the sea forced his parents, who were living in Ashford, Kent, to send him to the secure confines of Norland Institute, famed for training nannies! His parents survived the war and he was returned to them once the fear of German invasion receded.

fredrick-forsyth

After the war ended, his parents strove to give him a normal childhood. They sent him to spend his vacations in Paris, Germany and Spain which helped him to learn French, German and Spanish languages and more importantly speak like a native. He was a good student who completed his "O" and "A" levels examinations ahead of schedule but refused university admission stating that he wished to become a fighter pilot. He enlisted for national service and served Royal Air Force as a pilot for some years before deciding to become a journalist.

He started out in the backwater of Norwich but managed to push his way to London where his skill with languages helped him to land a job with Reuters, who sent him to Paris soon afterwards. He reached Paris in 1962 at a time when the city was in turmoil and the Secret Armed Organization (OAS) was plotting to assassinate President de Gaulle. His experiences in Paris formed the backdrop of his book "The Day of the Jackal". This was followed by a stint in East Berlin, then ensconced behind the Iron Curtain, which provided him with such adventures as helping locate the pilot of a US spy plane that crashed, sleeping under the stars with a lady secret police agent and almost starting the third world war. It ended when he found that the lady he was seeing was the girlfriend of the powerful defense minister of East Germany, a man who had a nasty reputation when it came to handling people who dared to cross his path.

He quit Reuters and joined BBC as assistant diplomatic correspondent in 1967. He was posted to cover the events taking place in Nigeria where the rebellion by the Ibos from the eastern part of the country, who had set up the Republic of Biafra, had gained strength. The British establishment supported the government in Lagos against the rebels while Forsyth found himself drawn to the Biafrans led by Col Ojukwu. His reports and observations, which went contrary to the stand of British Foreign office, invited the ire of the mandarins in BBC and soon he found himself grounded. He used this time to visit Israel and meet up with none other the legendary David Ben-Gurion, a few weeks before his death, following which he undertook freelance work in Biafra where he worked behind the lines for the rebels. This provided an opportunity for him to see at close quarters the white mercenaries who descended upon Africa to fight the wars waged there, which formed the backdrop for his book "The Dogs of War". The defeat of the Biafrans forced him to return to England penniless and without a job.

It was this desperate situation that forced him to do something that would be considered ridiculous by any conventional standards. He decided to write a book to earn money. He sat down and typed out in 35 days the manuscript of "The Day of the Jackal", only to find out that there were no publishers willing to bring it out. Through a strange confluence of good fortune and daredevilry, brought about by sheer despair, he managed to present the manuscript to the editorial director of Hutchinson, who liked what he saw and offered him a three book contract.

"The Day of the Jackal" turned out to be a big success and he followed it up with "The Odessa File", which was about a secret organization working inside Germany that helped Nazis to escape and resume lives afresh with new identities. The research that he did for this work was so meticulous that it resulted in identifying a Nazi named Eduard Roschmann, former commander of a concentration camp at Riga, living in exile in Buenos Aires. Roschmann was arrested but tried to jump bail and escape to Paraguay but died of a massive heart attack on board the ferry that was taking him out of Argentina.

"The Odessa File" was followed by "The Dogs of War", for which he decided to supplement his experience in Africa by interacting with a gang lord who earned his bucks by selling and shipping weapons of war to the various rebel groups waging wars in Africa. He got found out but was tipped off by someone in the inner circle of the gangster and managed to escape before they could lay their hands on him.

Forsyth also describes a couple of instances when he helped the secret service of the British government by passing parcels inside hostile territory and establishing contact with important persons. The book also narrates a near-death incident when he was caught in a cyclonic storm that changed its course just off the shores of Mauritius. He also had to face a financial crisis when his life’s earnings were wiped off by a rogue trader but he managed to recover thanks to the earnings from his books.

Frederick Forsyth has been fortunate to live an amazingly unique and unusually engaging life. When one reads his autobiography it would emerge that he had experienced in real life, at some time or the other, the thrilling escapades that has made his works of fiction bestsellers world over. He was also lucky to grow up during the post wars in Europe where he could, as he himself has written, experience "the best of the last and the last of the best", and this helped him to mold his personality and character. "The Outsider" is a remarkably easy read portraying an extraordinary life; there would not be many people of the genre of Frederick Forsyth to adorn either humanity or English writing in one’s lifetime.  

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