Duncan Campbell enjoys a worthy successor to The Quiet American

It is more than 50 years since the appearance of Thomas Fowler, the
world-weary foreign correspondent at the heart of Graham Greene’s The
Quiet American, but he casts a long shadow. Owen Simmons, the
world-weary foreign correspondent at the heart of Ed O’Loughlin’s
first novel, Not Untrue and Not Unkind, has been filing from modern
Africa rather than 1950s Vietnam, but he shares much of the scepticism
and many of the traits of Greene’s earlier antihero.

Both reporters, for instance, make disparaging observations about
their counterparts of other nationalities. Fowler describes his
American colleagues as “big, noisy, boyish and middle-aged”, while
Simmons’s impression of a young US reporter is that his face had “that
keen, stupid look that speaks of squash and post-graduate study … He
told me he was a writer – American hacks often call themselves that –
and from the way he paused when he mentioned his name I guessed he
reckoned he was a star back home.” While Fowler observes that “the
Frogs can’t take Scotch”, Simmons mocks the “Frogs of war” and the way
that “French editors love covering conferences and big set-pieces,
where the facts needn’t screw up your themes”. And both men share a
horror of returning to the more prosaic demands of routine newspaper
office life. Although Fowler manages to avoid the dreaded recall to
London, Simmons reluctantly accepts his new, sedentary life back at
base in Ireland where “I still churn out the odd worthy think piece –
global affairs; the big picture; filler, really, rewritten from the
wires.” From this backwater and through the prism of an older
colleague’s sudden death, he reviews his life as a correspondent in
Africa and the twist to its tail-end.

O’Loughlin, who was born in Toronto and grew up in Ireland, has
reported from Africa for the Irish Times and from the Middle East for
the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, so we can be fairly certain
that many of the events and some of the characters are based on
reality. Doubtless there will be a few old Africa hands of the
author’s acquaintance who might find the book uncomfortably true and
rather unkind in its unflattering portrayals of journalistic
derring-do and derring-didn’t. Simmons/O’Loughlin is certainly
scathing about the “bigfoots” – those high-profile senior broadcasters
and journalists who arrive at trouble spots in their neatly pressed
safari jackets and casually bounce the local correspondent out of the
frame before zooming off home again. One such character, Tim Drysdale,
“made a fortune by turning his three-week assignments into epics of
suffering and hope, with titles he stole from an English lit poetry
course”.

At which point it should be said that O’Loughlin’s own title is stolen
from the last line of Philip Larkin’s poem, “Talking in Bed”. And
there is, indeed, some bed, some love even, amid the bullets and the
boors and the dodgy hotels and the missed scoops, as Simmons tries to
make sense of the Rwandans and Nigerians and South Africans he
encounters in Kinshasa and Goma and Johannesburg. African politics and
war, however, remain very much a backdrop to the relationships between
the hacks and photographers and fixers.

O’Loughlin is a graceful writer. He can evoke a scene or a character
in a few short sentences. For instance, “Fred” is a young,
under-appreciated British – ie BBC – broadcaster dispatched to Congo
“to do all the chicken shit stuff that Tim Drysdale and the other war
lords didn’t care for”. Poor Fred, “when he talked, his neck couldn’t
quite hold his head steady and this made him look too earnest, as if
he were forever presenting a bad piece to camera”. And you can almost
smell the sweated alcohol and overhear that mixture of cheerful
camaraderie and late-night braggadocio from the terrace bars in the
cities of half-remembered conflicts.

At one point, back in Dublin, Simmons remarks to a colleague that
“most people who live vicariously do it through other people, but what
if you tried to live vicariously through yourself?” His colleague
wonders what he means by that and so does Simmons, although he thinks
it sounds quite clever. Perhaps it is. Perhaps Simmons has captured,
in that thought, the seductive essence of being a foreign
correspondent. And it’s not untrue and not unkind to say that
O’Loughlin’s limping, regretful hack is a worthy successor to Monsieur
Fowler of Saigon.