In his dotage, Henry Kissinger has come to resemble Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars. After his five decades of insidious influence on US foreign policy, his face has crumpled into a ripple of wrinkles, but the eyes retain their wily luster. When he enters a room, he does so briskly, and his somber suits barely contain his contempt for those who repeat the accusations that have been gaining traction since the end of the Cold War—that during his tenure as secretary of state in the 1970s, Kissinger abetted, and sometimes incited, mass murder on three continents. The man’s dark aura is magnified by his raspy, Teutonic timbre, which habitually turns the scores of journalists sent to interview him into deferential scribes cowering at the pharaoh’s feet.
As was the case with Palpatine, Kissinger’s overconfidence may well turn out to be his weakness. Since 2001, judges in several countries have called for him to testify about his involvement in the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, and activists have demanded his indictment for his role in some of the bloodiest chapters of Vietnamese history, to name only a few of the countries where he wreaked havoc. His travel schedule regularly inspires activists to protest his public appearances. For the moment, however, Kissinger remains a highly coveted pundit—passing judgment on the Ukrainian and Middle Eastern crises in some of the world’s most prestigious newspapers—and dinners are still held in his honor. Public anger, it seems, only invigorates Kissinger, and he is as unassailable now as when he haunted the White House with Tricky Dick.
James D’Costa, the protagonist in the title story of K. Anis Ahmed’s Good Night, Mr. Kissinger, is a man with an “unlikely name” from an “unlikely country,” an exiled Bangladeshi waiter working in one of New York’s fine-dining establishments, The Solstice. One evening, James’s life becomes even more unlikely when he is asked to tend to one of the restaurant’s most distinguished patrons, Henry Kissinger:
When I brought the check to Kissinger, he asked me, “So how is your unlikely country doing these days?”
“Quite well, sir,” I replied, trying to stay neutral.
“It can’t be doing that well if you are here, can it? How long have you been in America?”
“Just two years, sir.”
“I hope your country isn’t still a basket-case for the sake of those who are stuck there,” said Mr. Kissinger, as he wrote in a fat sum for the tip.
James’s unlikely exchange with Kissinger soon becomes a regular occurrence: “Kissinger came to The Solstice at least once a month; usually for dinner, and never failed to engage me in what he must have considered friendly banter.” What Ahmed’s fictional Kissinger doesn’t take into account is that his waiter is better informed than he thinks:
Like all educated Bangladeshis, I held Kissinger culpable to some degree for the genocide that occurred in my country in 1971. I knew that he did not order it, but I also knew that he did nothing to discourage his Pakistani clients, though he wielded enormous influence on them. These were issues I had gladly left behind. Yet, suddenly now the issue was palpably before me, demanding to be fed and humoured.