Reviewed by Joshua Hammer

Before the rise of the Internet, before the elimination of international
bureaus at magazines and newspapers, the Africa beat in the 1990s epitomized
both the dangers and the romance of the foreign correspondent’s life. As
dictators fell, tribal animosities exploded and wide areas of the continent
dissolved into anarchy, a pack of reporters and photographers shuttled from
bush war to coup d’etat, documenting the upheaval.

The outpouring of memoirs that resulted offers convincing evidence of the
intensity of their experiences. Among the most memorable are Aidan Hartley’s
“Zanzibar Chest,” about his days as a Reuters reporter in the Horn of
Africa, Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi; Michela Wrong’s “In the Footsteps of Mr.
Kurtz,” an account of the collapse of Zaire under the dictator Mobutu Sese
Seko; and Keith Richburg’s “Out of America,” which recounted the conflicts
and massacres through the eyes of an African-American journalist.

Ed O’Loughlin’s first novel, “Not Untrue and Not Unkind,” is a worthy
fictional addition to this company. O’Loughlin, who reported from Africa for
The Irish Times and other newspapers during that decade, tells the story of
Owen Simmons, a former Johannesburg-based freelancer. The novel begins in a
wintry city that seems like Dublin, where Simmons has been marooned for
nearly a decade, bound to a desk job after an unspecified calamity that sent
him home “a hero” but left him with psychic and physical scars.

“Nights come early, the low buildings shrink from them, and I remember that
most of the city is built on silt, and that out past the sea wall the waves
are still hissing,” Simmons tells us, summoning an atmosphere of melancholy
and loss. Cartwright, his longtime (and deeply unpopular) editor, has just
been found dead in his home. Looking through the man’s personal effects,
Simmons discovers a dossier Cartwright has compiled on him, filled with his
raw copy as well as photographs documenting his days in Africa’s war zones.

The discovery prompts Simmons to take his own journey into the past, first
to wartime Zaire during the last days of the Rwandan genocide. Almost a
million Hutu refugees had crossed the border in Goma, where they were dying
of cholera by the tens of thousands. “It was my first foreign story,”
Simmons recalls, “and none of it looked real — the light, the volcano, the
polythene-green banana trees, fat Warsaw Pact freight plans sinking down
from the sky.” Here the untested correspondent confronts mass death for the
first time: “The bundles lay in two files, one on either side of the road,
stretching with occasional gaps for 30 miles. … They were the hardest
things of all to believe in. Mummified by cholera, they didn’t even smell.”

In Goma, and later in Kinshasa and Kigali, Simmons is introduced to a small
group of Western journalists with whom he forms a tight yet complicated
bond: a hard-living Scandinavian photographer with a collapsing marriage; an
enthusiastic but green Italian photographer who becomes Simmon’s sidekick; a
“pig-ugly” British journalist who takes Simmons under his wing. A
confidence-oozing reporter for a prestigious New York daily shows up to
compete with Simmons for the affection of the enigmatic Beatrice, “a
diplomatic brat” with whom Simmons engages in a doomed love affair.

The pack stays together through wartime adventures that O’Loughlin recreates
in understated, haunting prose. In Kinshasa, they witness Mobutu’s flight
into exile and the seizure of the city by a rebel army. “We were at the end
of the jetty now, where the river slid past with its warm kennel smell,”
Simmons writes of a tour of the decrepit port with a rebel leader. “Beyond
… was another fringe of reeds dividing it from a great reach of rippled
water red with the sunset, and beyond that again, several miles distant,
were the lights and towers of Brazzaville.”

Riding with Nigerian peacekeepers through liberated villages in civil-war
racked Sierra Leone, the correspondents encounter a lynch mob getting out
revenge on a captured guerrilla of the Revolutionary United Front: “The man
was shiny with his own blood. His face was still twisted in horror but his
eyes were losing interest, turning to other things. Then I suppose he must
have caught one glimpse of something worth hoping for because with a sudden
turn of speed he doded a swinging ax handle and burst through a gap in the
mob.”

Despite its eloquence, O’Loughlin’s novel can be frustrating. It’s never
entirely clear why Beatrice suddenly ends her affair with Simmons — just
after he learns about the death of her former lover in Bosnia. And while
O’Loughlin adroitly maps out the sexual and professional rivalries, the
resentments and the symbiosis among these writers and photographers, several
of them remain elusive. Among the most opaque is Cartwright, whose tortured
psyche and violent death are alluded to throughout the book, but whose inner
demons are never clearly defined.

Still, with its intensely evocative language and atmosphere of looming
tragedy, “Not Untrue and Not Unkind” is a book that far transcends the usual
literary efforts of the former combat reporter. It stands as an elegy not
only for Simmons’s band of colleagues but for a golden era of journalism.