Faithfulness in a war zone

CONGO, OR ZAIRE as was, has long been a draw for novelists, many of them taking their lead from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness . Recent examples have included Harry Smart’s Zaire (1998) and Ronan Bennett’s The Catastrophist , published the same year.

Bennett’s book deals with the difficulties of love in the confused and violent political circumstances of Belgian decolonisation of the Congo in the early 1960s. It features a writer and a journalist among its cast of characters.

Not Untrue and Not Unkind , the debut novel by journalist Ed O’Loughlin – formerly of this parish, who was also Middle East correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age of Melbourne – in many ways picks up the baton from Bennett, in another story of doomed love set against a Congolese backdrop, with journalists as characters.

This time, however, the violence and confusion are associated with the invasion of Congo from the east by Rwandan-backed forces in 1996-7, which eventually lead to the fall of Mobutu, the Zairean dictator. Into this cauldron, O’Loughlin drops Owen Simmons, a journalist on a newspaper clearly identifiable as The Irish Times , though neither the paper nor the city of Dublin are ever specifically named.

The book begins later, after the suicide of Cartwright, eminence grise of the newsroom, who is used by the mild-mannered editor of the paper as a kind of enforcer. This aspect of the novel need not be taken as a roman à clef, since anyone who has worked on a big paper will recognise the type. The reader is given to understand that Cartwright’s demise is somehow associated with Simmons’s earlier life covering sub-Saharan Africa, when he was based in Johannesburg but roamed wherever the news agenda took him.

Out of that experience as a correspondent – very similar to O’Loughlin’s own, I suspect – emerges a passionate, colourful but also downbeat story. It involves a bunch of journalists who bump into each other mainly in the Congo but also in Sierra Leone and South Africa. Among them are Tommo, an Australian “snapper”, Beatrice, with whom Simmons falls in love, Fine, an American who is Simmons’s rival for Beatrice’s affections, and Charlie Brereton, a cynical but amusing Englishman.

Along with a few others, this bunch of wild geese turn up in godforsaken places, often sharing cars to chase the turn of events. They are the professionals, this is their “patch”. They distinguish themselves from the “firemen” and “bigfeet” who come later – the parade of media stars who descend when the story is an important one. They also set themselves apart from the “network pussies” from the United States, who hardly ever leave the satellite feed, and from the “freelance explorers”, who are looking to finance their kicks with a bit of writing.

Above all, they despise Timothy Drysdale, who writes “bestselling books about his excursions, finding hope amid the darkness”. Drysdale is only referred to, he does not appear: like O’Loughlin’s novel, his latest memoir is called Not Untrue and Not Unkind . Partially misrepresenting them, it features Brereton and other characters in O’Loughlin’s novel as “real-life” characters. So does a second “sub-text”, an academic article.

TRICKSY AS THEY are, these devices bring thematically germane questions of representation usefully into play. They highlight one of the aspects of faithfulness – the faithfulness of the writer to the events and people he wishes to depict – on which both Simmons and O’Loughlin focus. The others are faithfulness to lovers, to friends, to history – and also to some ideal of human kindness, in its deepest sense.

The phrase “not untrue and not unkind” is actually from Philip Larkin’s poem, Talking in Bed , where it refers to the difficulty of authentic emotional communication. In this novel, which is love story and tragedy, mystery and professional satire (à la Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop) all rolled into one, that resonance is there too. But there is also another, going beyond personal relationships, which is concerned with the difficulty of maintaining a balance between empathy and objectivity when covering a harrowing story.

This particular dynamic is salient when Beatrice wants to help an old Rwandan woman stranded on the desolate volcanic slopes of Mt Goma. Picking her way through the flapping plastic of UN refugee tents and scores of rotting corpses, the woman wants to take the body of her daughter back to Rwanda:

“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.”

It turns out that Beatrice has her own reasons for not wishing to abandon the body, which Simmons eventually discovers. The unwrapping of the mystery of Cartwright, and why he has kept a dossier on all these characters, takes longer; it involves examination of what it means to live vicariously, a process as relevant to the reading of fiction and journalism as it is to the writing of them.

O’Loughlin himself is a good writer, particularly when describing landscape and character. The portrayal of the journalists is spot-on. Now and then there are moments of overwriting, but on the whole I was impressed. By the end, the various types of faithfulness have been brought into an elegant equipoise.

Giles Foden is author of The Last King of Scotland and worked for many years on the Guardian . His new novel, Turbulence , is published by Faber in June. He is a judge of this year’s Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award

© Ed O’Loughlin – Writer and Journalist