Not Untrue and Not Unkind, Ed O’Loughlin, Penguin, pp 288, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1844881857
Journalism and fiction tend to be mutually opposing forces: one disdains the taint of the other. But Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist who reported from the frontlines of Africa during the upheavals of decolonisation, managed one kind of compromise between them. First dispatched to Africa in 1957 with little in the way of financial support, he produced a series of books that traced his lived experience of the continent as it underwent its cruel and difficult transformations. The genre he helped to develop he described as “literary reportage”: “Without trying to enter other ways of looking, perceiving, describing, we won’t understand anything of the world.” But having spent years travelling across Africa in the wake of coups and revolutions, he once remarked that he had met not one foreign writer along the trail. Where were they, while history was in the making? Back in Europe writing “little domestic stories”. So much of modern literature, he complained in 1987, was “never caught actually looking out at the world”.
But that was over twenty years ago, and the world has been slowly pressing in. Over the last decade there has been a steady stream of literature which jumps the picket fence. While a new generation of African writers, such as the Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, have been offering much needed perspective on the continent’s civil wars, in 1998 both Ronan Bennett’s The Catastrophist and Giles Foden’s The Last King of Scotland provided views of an African conflict through European eyes. But it is Dave Eggers’s 2006 novel, What Is the What, that most clearly attempts that imaginative leap into other ways of looking, perceiving and describing. A first person narrative which achieves an outstanding blend of fiction and reportage, it is based on years of interviews conducted with Valentino Achak Deng, a child refugee in the Sudanese civil war. The latest offering to jump the fence is Not Untrue and Not Unkind, a debut novel by a former Irish Times correspondent in Africa, set against the 1997 fall of President Mobutu and the bloody transformation of Zaire into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like Bennett’s The Catastrophist, this is a novel which offers a view of African wars from inside the international press corps. In so doing it attempts something more complex, and perhaps more honest, than fictional reportage. This is not a novel about war, or even a novel about “Africa”. This is a novel which admits, sometimes unwittingly, the full difficulty of what Kapuscinski proposed.
European literature has a long history of casting Africa as a disturbing enigma; the image of “the dark continent” lingered long beyond its time. But while Not Untrue and Not Unkind is yet another European novel with an enigma at its heart, for once it is not an African one. Owen Simmons is a journalist in retreat, a foreign reporter who has settled into a desk job re-working other people’s copy. But the death of Cartwright, the misanthropic editor who polices his Dublin newsroom, prompts him to reflect on his past life as a freelance reporter. In a file on the dead man’s desk he finds a photograph of a group of journalists and photographers on a dusty road in Sierra Leone. It is proof that even here someone had noticed what happened to Simmons and his friends in the mid-1990s. Someone was watching. And because of that, his story is finally allowed to unfold. It does so with a reporter’s logic. The beginnings are piecemeal: full of colour and detail, unfamiliar places and the jargon of the trade, as if this were a writer quickly establishing his credentials. While the writing is generally spare, it is also vivid (Owen describes how the Dublin wind “picked at my collar and slid fingers up my sleeves”). And gradually, at first almost imperceptibly, a more subtle and personal story is extracted from the maze.
This one begins in Zaire in the last months of Mobutu’s regime. As the media pack moves between the quiet of mass graves and the drama of aerial bombardments, the brutality of the conflict is inescapable. Yet this is a novel as much about the internal rivalries of the press corps as it is about the wars outside. Given his professional background O’Loughlin can claim to write with some authority, and Owen is given a fairly disillusioned perspective on his trade. Joining a disparate group of journalists and photographers along the reporting circuit in eastern Zaire, he enters a strangely self-enclosed world. O’Loughlin’s sketch is neatly comprehensive, encompassing veterans of Bosnia and Rwanda, like the bullish Charlie Brereton, alongside freelance operators, “lens monkeys” and ambitious young correspondents. Nathan Fine, a new arrival safely attached to an American newspaper, is the focus of Owen’s rivalry, while a more general disdain is saved for “network pussies”, dilettantes, and the star correspondents who are jetted in to scoop them all. One of these star turns, Timothy Drysdale, is a wryly self-conscious creation. A specialist in “finding hope amid the darkness”, he also specialises in turning his three-week assignments into bestselling epics.
But in this novel the darkness is unrelenting. Its evocation of a bloody period in recent African history, from rebellion in Zaire to civil war in Sierra Leone, is stark in its depiction of violence and brutality. Yet it is also a novel which plays on the significance of stories told and untold, and it is worth considering what remains unwritten. In itself, the timing of O’Loughlin’s account is suggestive. Owen’s reflections on his experiences in Africa begin around 1996; along with the press corps, the main action of the novel quits the Congo after the fall of Mobutu in the following year. With international media resources being diverted to Iraq, it is apparent to all that “the market for African wars had suddenly vanished”. And yet of course the wars continue, whether or not an international audience is watching. As Western attention turned to the Gulf, the region descended into the second Congo war, a devastating conflict which would eventually claim over five million lives. Admittedly, as far as untold stories go, by the end of Not Untrue and Not Unkind it is apparent that for this novel the most significant stories are of a more personal nature. But if it eventually skirts public events for private drama, it presents an unflattering image of a similar introspection on the part of the media.
Far from “looking out at the world”, the media machine O’Loughlin portrays is on a relentless circuit of self-consumption. For most practitioners, news is a commodity, a means of advancement. Reporters are dispatched to war zones about which they know little, working in a haze of misinformation. Brereton gestures disdainfully at a group of newcomers who are hanging on the words of the aid agency which sponsored their trip: “telling them that the Western countries should all send soldiers into Rwanda right away to rescue these poor Hutus from the evil Tutsis. I don’t know where he gets that from – the French, I suppose – but he’s been saying it all week … Most of these idiots will never go near the genocide story. It would only confuse their readers back home.” When rebels lay siege to Goma and the international pack descends on Zaire, only to find themselves trapped across the border in Rwanda, Owen, along with the other old hands, finds himself suddenly promoted to the status of “an informed source”: “it was like feeding bone meal to cattle”. The novel’s image of a cannibalistic media is neatly encapsulated in the tale of “gorilla guy”, a reporter who is driven crazy feeding an insatiable news cycle. Trapped in his hotel room giving phone interview after phone interview, all he can do is recycle other sources. “It’s like he’s not there himself any more,” remarks one of the pack. “He’s become a conduit.” It’s like he’s become the ultimate reporter.
With no apologies, Not Untrue and Not Unkind firmly reinstates the reporter within the frame of the historical events it describes. But in doing so it raises a nagging question. Where is the real story here? The reporter’s lot, it might be assumed, is to be present but invisible, a witness to events but not an actor in them. The rise of “the new journalism” upset that illusion by placing the writer at the heart of his narrative, but in doing so it ran the risk of a certain self-absorption. There is a similar danger here. The rivalries and love affairs among these journalists, the “little domestic stories”, can sit uneasily in the context of the bloody conflicts around them. Is O’Loughlin’s Africa – with its cruel wars, poverty and corruption – an actor or merely a backdrop in this story? The problem, perhaps, is one of genre. The breed of “literary reportage” which Kapuscinski developed typically sacrificed a cohesive narrative for snapshots and set-pieces. In the first half of this novel the same tendency is evident, and along the way O’Loughlin produces some memorable images, like the “scrawny, sick-looking kid” in soldier’s fatigues at Mbuji-Mayi airport. A lone hand grenade is “his symbol of office”, and as Owen’s plane scrambles to escape an attack, leaving some spilled cargo on the oily tarmac, he sees “Grenade Boy, now bare-chested, hugging his bundled T-shirt in his arms. It was stained white with flour.” But as the novel’s plot slowly coheres into a more conventional tale of love and betrayal, the book both gains and loses in impact. What allows it to draw together as a novel can also undermine the powerfully direct gaze which it casts on these African wars. As the characters’ lives enmesh, the narrative undoubtedly becomes more compelling. But why care about these self-involved lives? With this going on? What about the other story?
Of course they are part of that larger story too, and this is not a novel to shirk these kinds of questions. Holed up in hotels on satellite phones to Europe, O’Loughlin’s reporters appear as far from Africa as the development workers who make sure to send their children to the best international schools “in whatever shithole you’re currently pretending you don’t really live in”. But detachment is an illusion. Early on, a visit to a refugee camp in Goma forces the point. The site has seen a mass killing, and while the group goes about its work cataloguing death, “looking without seeing”, an elderly woman approaches to ask for help to take her granddaughter’s body back to Rwanda. The silent consensus is for inaction.
‘We can’t just leave them both here,’ said Beatrice flatly. It struck me how she said it – she sounded almost bored, like a policeman or a bureaucrat stating a rule.
‘Too fucking right we can,’ protested Brereton. ‘Everybody else in Africa has.’
But as it will transpire, they are also the actors and victims in war, whether they want to be or not. Intervening to protect a beaten soldier from an angry mob in Sierra Leone, Owen is disgusted as much by his own interference as by the photographer pausing to take his picture. Ironically, an earlier looting spree in a presidential palace in Zaire had presented him with less difficulty: “It’s the thing to do… It’s a story to tell afterwards.”
Is that what they are doing, looting Africa for stories? In his disillusionment, Owen almost presents it as a smash and grab affair – sorry for your troubles and thank you for the byline. Wearily chasing action (or the lack of it) in Sierra Leone, he unwittingly wishes on himself the bloodshed which follows: “it was almost a relief, the evening we reached Lunsar, when a Nigerian corporal was shot through the head”. O’Loughlin’s descriptions of such scenes are tersely effective:
The corporal was still frothing at the mouth when they carried him back to the roadside. They set him down outside the schoolhouse, beside another soldier who’d been hit in the forearm and who sat with his back against a tree, holding his shattered arm out stiffly to avoid further staining his pants. Blood pattered to the ground from a spreading damp patch on the elbow of his shirt, dripping fast and irregular, like a message in Morse. The wounded man watched the corporal until the corporal’s breathing stopped and they covered his face, and then the wounded man sighed and closed his eyes and slid over sideways. Perhaps he bled to death there. I forgot to check.
But if there is a kind of contrition in telling these savage stories, this is a novel which also admits the innate sadism of the storyteller. It is a feature clearly on show when Owen is finally told the truth about his colleagues’ experiences in Bosnia. There is a morbid skill in the telling, and in its carefully timed revelations. In the cruelty of its “fan dance”, as Owen calls it, it might be a microcosm of the novelist’s art.
Not Untrue and Not Unkind is a novel partly about the ethics of journalism, the rivalries of the press corps and the strains of a war zone. It is a novel about the desperate state of two African nations and the human cost of their conflicts. It is evocative and direct, unsparing and honest. But it is also a novel which turns back on itself to raise questions about storytelling, journalism and investigation. The self-reflexive element is inescapable; this is a journalist writing about journalists, and not only that but treading over his own professional patch in doing so. At times this can lead to the driest of irony, or to a certain coyness, depending on your perspective. Timothy Drysdale’s bestselling memoir shares the same title as O’Loughlin’s book, as well as the same characters; it is “very well written, spare and almost honest”. But the conceit of a book within a book is not confined to this. Cleverly, O’Loughlin gives his African story a frame which allows him to purge some of that self-consciousness. Cartwright, the truculent and mysteriously deceased Dublin editor, has kept files on each of his colleagues – like Owen, he is another journalist investigating journalists, and another echo of his author. It is his discoveries about Owen’s past that force the latter’s memories of Africa out into the open. And ironically, in the end it is left to Owen himself to uncover the truth behind Cartwright’s misery and death. The investigative circuit has come full circle. In doing so, it offers a reminder that if no one is watching, no one remembers and if no one remembers, the story no longer exists:
Cartwright will be the first to go. That old lady next door can’t last much longer, and she has more of him than anyone but me. Perhaps I should go round there some afternoon, invite myself in for a cup of tea, do a little digging. See if I can drag him out a bit longer. It would be like going on the road again, except minus the notebook. But can you imagine how Cartwright would feel if he thought I was prying into his secret little griefs? After he had had the last laugh? Then again, he might just think that it was funny. It might even be what he wanted all along.
Owen has his own “secret little griefs”, the secrets that keep him tied to a desk in a Dublin back office. He is being groomed for Cartwright’s job, he suspects, and perhaps by the end the obvious parallel between the two is a novelistic touch too far. Part of storytelling is knowing when to stop. But the tragedy at the centre of Not Untrue and Not Unkind stems from a story never told, or rather a story told too late. Owen attempts to understand it, examining it from all angles, “snatching quick squints at it, too hard and bright to look at for long”. But the person he is trying to capture melts away. There are too many selves, too many untold stories, to pin down. And they are not stories which look out at the world, but stories of intimacy. Where the journalist ends the novelist begins.
Carol Taaffe is a former IRCHSS Post-Doctoral Fellow of Trinity College Dublin. She is the author of ‘Ireland Through the Looking-Glass: Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen and Irish Cultural Debate’ (Cork University Press, 2008) and co-editor, with Edwina Keown, of ‘Irish Modernism: Origins, Contexts, Publics’, forthcoming from Peter Lang in 2009.