No. I don’t believe in god, or to be specific, I don’t believe in superpower. I’ve always believed that my conscience was my God and my parents were my conscience. Apart from this belief, if there is one person whom I believe is capable of doing the impossible, the one who is capable of turning my world topsy-turvy with his stupendous imagination, which feels nothing less than real; who inspires me every time I hear his name, or see his picture – it is certainly Frederick Forsyth. My God.
Born on 25th August, 1938 in Ashford, Kent, England, he became the youngest pilot in RAF at the age of 19, serving from 1956 to 1958. For the next three and a half years, he worked as a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press in Norfolk and became a correspondent for Reuters in 1961, in Paris, at the age of 23 and then in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.
After returning to London in 1965, he worked as a radio and television reporter for the BBC. As assistant diplomatic correspondent, he covered the Biafran side of the Biafra-Nigeria war from July to September 1967.
He didn’t know that all this experience would come in handy during his later years as a novelist. “I became a novelist by fluke,” he says, matter-of-factly. “In January 1970, I had no job, no commission, and no money in my bank account either. So went back to the notion I had for the novel about the assassination of Charles De Gaulle. Sat down to write and finished the novel in 35 days.”
And thus the world came in possession of a genius. To this day, The Day of the Jackal is one of the most astounding books ever to be written.
“As a boy I had two burning passions - to fly for the RAF and travel all over the world,” he recalls. “Journalism National service achieved the first, and journalism and fiction writing accomplished the second.”
His style of writing is one of a kind. When most authors create a central character first and then weave a story around him/her, Forsyth creates the plot first and then introduces the character as per the needs of the story. Though the heroes in his novels are fascinating, plots play a bigger role, and a central character is just a necessity. In The Devil’s Alternative, the hero Adam Munro doesn’t realize his true role until the end, and so does the reader. There are bigger players playing the game.
The first few chapters are always slow. The reader doesn’t understand as to what is happening and why. The hero is not introduced so early in the novel. For example, Quinn, the protagonist in The Negotiator, doesn’t appear until 130 pages into the novel. Everything is under wraps. To quote him: “Unlike most novels, it (while talking about The Day of the Jackal) takes off rather slow. I’d like to set out my chess pieces in an orderly sequence. My novels start with a gentle arrangement of chess pieces.”
Reading Forsyth’s novels is like watching a masterful game of chess. You’ll have to read in order to understand what I’m talking about.
His novels are full of information about the minutest technical details: money laundering, illegal arms dealing, identity theft. The conversation between the Jackal and the gun-maker in The Day of the Jackal goes on for more than ten pages. The description of the rifle itself goes on for more than five pages. And in The Fourth Protocol, he actually gives detailed explanation about building a tiny nuclear bomb. And entire chapter is dedicated to it. And so is the burglary scene in the beginning of the novel. So is the case when he explains about the ship in The Devil’s Alternative. No wonder he takes about 2-3 years to research for each book. Every sentence reeks of authenticity; every little thing seems so real. And he doesn’t write about such things in detail to show off his research work, but to show what kind of world his characters live in. They are necessary, they are important.
Some may not want so much detail while reading a novel, but in my opinion, these are the things that make the stories look authentic. So if you are the kind of person who enjoys Twilight and Mills and Boon and the lot, Forsyth is not for you. As he says, the world is made up of predators and prey, and only the strong survive.
You read a headline in a newspaper and move on. Forsyth doesn’t. His novels are all about what might have happened behind those headlines. The “What If” scenario. His books show the ways in which mercenaries, terrorists, diplomats, mafias go about their business – behind the screens. For example, the Jackal in The Day of the Jackal doesn’t just buy a rifle and goes for the kill. He does a meticulous research on the man he wants to kill. He goes to the library and studies his target, obtains a false identity, tests his weapon in an isolated place. Months of research to kill a man. That’s Frederick Forsyth’s world.
Forsyth was the man who first introduced an easy, yet effective way of stealing someone’s identity, in a novel. That kind of identity theft was not heard until then, until The Day of the Jackal. Once the book came out, many assassins used the same technique to obtain false papers. When Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (popularly known as Carlos the Jackal), one of the most elusive fugitives, was caught, The Guardian gave him the nickname Jackal. Reason was simple. A copy of The Day of the Jackal was found in his bag.
This is one of the reasons why sometimes Forsyth is a headache for the secret agencies. When he writes about a building in a ‘specific area’ that is posing as a tax office, but in fact is a hideous front of CIA or FBI or MI5, you can believe it without questioning. The research is that accurate. When he talks about the world of ruthless arms dealers, drug dealers, mercenaries, the Nazi underworld, every scenario is entirely plausible. In The Afghan, the Al-Quaeda uses a ship to carry out an attack, similar to 9/11. In fact, there is a rumour that Forsyth coined the idea in the late nineties, about a terrorist group hijacking an airplane and how they are stopped from ramming the biggest building in the biggest city. He had to drop the idea when 9/11 happened.
But then again, as they say, one has to suffer for one’s art. Fresh from the success of The Day of the Jackal, when Forsyth traveled to Hamburg to research for his third book, The Dogs of War (a novel about a British businessman, who hires mercenaries to pull off a coup d’etat and establish a puppet regime), he ingeniously infiltrated into the group of arms dealers, posing as an arms buyer from South Africa. As co-incidence would have it, one of the gang members saw his picture in a nearby book shop under the advertisement of The Day of the Jackal. His cover was blown. A few minutes later Forsyth received a phone call from his contact, who informed him about his cover being blown. He had 80 seconds to leave the country.
In his own words, “I managed to penetrate their world and was feeling rather proud of myself actually. What I didn’t know was that the arms dealer had passed a bookshop shortly after our meeting. And there, in the window, was The Day of the Jackal. With a great big picture of me – the man he thought was a South African arms buyer – on the back cover.
“I left all my clothes, grabbed my money and passport and ran across the square to the train station. There was a train pulling out so I did a parachute roll through the window, landing on a bewildered businessman. The ticket conductor asked me where I was going. I asked him where the train was going and he said Amsterdam. So am I, I said.”
Now, can you imagine the risk involved? All for the sake of a novel. On the other hand, there are a bunch of so-called best-selling authors in India. (No, I'm not talking about geniuses like Amitav Ghosh, Vikas Swarup, Vikram Seth and the lot. I'm talking about those who write cheap and sell cheap.) The only research they do for their novels is as to how to have sex in the most uncomfortable places, in the most uncomfortable situations. In the backseat of a car parked in a parking lot, when the couple’s friends are within earshot; on the terrace, when the girl’s family is celebrating downstairs, to name a few. Anyway, let me not divert your attention.
So, coming back to the real man; the risk he took to research for his latest novel, The Cobra – released in August 2010, after a gap of four years, with the last novel being The Afghan, released in 2006 – was nothing less. He flew to Guinea-Bissau in 2009 (at the age of 71) to investigate its role in moving cocaine from South America to markets across Europe. The tiny West African country is the hub of the international drugs trade according to UN officials, and billions of dollars worth of cocaine are believed to pass through the poor, weak nations of the region.
Forsyth, posing as a bird-watcher, flew there, only to find himself in the middle of chaos.
“It was just my luck that I landed during a coup d’etat. Someone had blown up the head of the army, and the army were coming into town to avenge whoever did it, and I landed about an hour before they came. I installed myself in a hotel, couldn’t sleep, was reading and heard a hell of a bang down the street and I knew it was not thunder but an explosion.”
The blast was actually an attack on President Joao Bernado Vieira, who was killed in revenge for the assassination of armed forces chief of staff General Batista Tagme Na Wei, hours earlier.
On his return, Forsyth contracted septicemia in his left leg, from a sting in Africa, and spent several weeks in hospital before resuming his research.
During his stay in Guinea-Bissau, he borrowed a phone from someone (he doesn’t use cell-phones) and dictated about 1,000 words to Daily Express, for which he writes a column, about what was happening in the region. This was intercepted by NSA (National Security Agency) and his wife’s laptop was hacked.
“Unfortunately, the American intelligence services listened to it and wasted my wife’s computer screen and totaled all her lunch dates.”
He claims his suspicions were confirmed to him by his sources – the people who provide information for his books – whom he likes to describe as his “friends in low places”.
“Everything up there in the ether is intercepted, probably by the NSA at Fort Meade in Maryland, and I think my report ended up somewhere on a desk at Fort Meade.”
According to him, they assumed he might be involved in the attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau in some way, because he had previous experience in the region, and had written about a fictional coup in Equatorial Guinea in The Dogs of War.
He had also discussed the details of such a coup in 1973 with real-life plotters and given them money in return for information. The coup never materialized as the participants were arrested before it came off.
Now, isn’t he the man who lives on the edge?
Here is a man, who doesn’t trust the material found on the internet. He doesn’t use a computer, let alone the internet. He doesn’t even use cell-phones. He still uses an old Canon typewriter to write his novels, which he does at a rattling speed. “Twelve pages a day, 3,000 words a day, seven days a week. But it’s the research that takes time. I can finish off writing in about 40 days. And, yes, I have to force myself to write. Sounds ungrateful, I know.” He further adds, “I am slightly mercenary. I write for money. I feel no compulsion to write. If someone said, ‘You are not going to write another word of fiction,’ it wouldn’t matter a damn.”
Pretty unlikely for a brilliant author. Maybe only a man of his stature can say something like that.
He’s been chased by arms dealers, stripped down by the KGB and interrogated, and many more. Once, when he was researching for a novel in Prague, he was constantly followed by the secret agency, the StB. One night, at a disco, he met a girl called Jana. “We had a drink and a dance. It was a hot August night, and I suggested we have a swim in the lake. So we went skinny dipping, then I spread out a rug and we made love. As I drove her back to the hotel, I remarked that there were no headlights in my rear view mirror. ‘Where the hell are the STB?’ I said. She replied, ‘You just made love to it’.”
That’s Frederick Forsyth for you. I can brazenly say that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who have read his novels and those who haven’t. I am happy I belong to the former.
Read Avenger, and Cal Dexter will put Rambo to shame. Read The Fist of God and The Afghan, and Mike Martin will tell you that heroes are made of steel. Read The Odessa File, and you’ll understand what it really takes to investigate. Read The Negotiator, and Quinn will give you the real definition of intelligence. Read The Devil’s Alternative, and you’ll know how the game of international politics is played. Read The Fourth Protocol and The Cobra, and you’ll know how plans are made and executed to perfection. Read The Dogs of War, and you’ll understand the world of mercenaries and what they are capable of doing. Read The Deceiver, and marvel at Sam McCready’s deceptions. And I don’t need to say why one should read The Day of the Jackal. It is compulsory. Period. I’m yet to read Icon and No Comebacks. The latter is a collection of ten short stories. I’m saving them for difficult times. If I read it, I won’t be having anything marvelous left to read.
Whichever book you read, in the end you’ll be left with a single question: Was it fact or fiction? Believe me; you won’t be able to answer it.
With The Cobra, the 73-year-old genius has announced his retirement. He insists that he has no plans to write any more books. “I’ve said that at least three times now. So, who knows?” he says with a chuckle.
Hope he doesn’t hang up his typewriter. May he live long, may he write more, and may we read more.