Friday, December 08, 2006

Sort-Of Related: The Wonga Coup, by Adam Roberts (2006)/The Dogs of War (1981)

There’s art imitating life. And there’s going through the looking glass.

In his book Roberts, a correspondent for The Economist, recounts the fascinating tale of an attempted coup in the West African nation of Equatorial Guinea in March 2004. It reads like a real-life version of a Ross Thomas novel. You’ve got mercenaries with names like Nosher, Captain Pig and Victor Dracula. Shadowy arms dealers. Cannibalistic dictators. Mystery men signing checks. And figures from various intelligence services who may or may not approve of what’s going on. Even the charmless son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gets caught up in the action.

But the strangest aspect of the story is how it’s a pop culture hall of mirrors. The coup’s mastermind, former SAS officer Simon Mann, was inspired by the derring-do of a fellow mercenary whose exploits were fictionalized in the movie The Wild Geese. Mann briefly left professional soldiering for the film business, serving as actor and technical advisor on Bloody Sunday. When he set out to overthrow Equatorial Guinea’s government, his blueprint was the 1974 Frederick Forsyth novel The Dogs of War, a near-documentary account of a previous coup attempt in the country – which, Roberts discovers, Forsyth had a hand in organizing and financing. When Mann runs short of capital, he allegedly receives support from another novelist, Jeffrey Archer, who in 1980 wrote his own story of overthrowing an African government. Meanwhile, Mann’s failed effort has already been turned into a BBC film, with Roberts as consultant. Is that clear to everyone?

The 1981 movie version of The Dogs of War has been parked on my DVR for months. Roberts’ excellent book finally prompted me to watch it. It’s smartly made but not exactly fleet of foot. There’s a memorable scene in which Christopher Walken, playing a mercenary masquerading as a nature photographer, reels off the scientific names of several species of bird. You haven’t heard Latin until you’ve heard it from Christopher Walken.