Letter from Zaire

Owen Simmons is a former war correspondent. Now back home in an unchallenging desk job at a national newspaper, he finds an old photograph among the possessions of a recently deceased colleague. The photo brings back memories of his time spent with fellow journalists in war-torn Africa.

It would have been easy for O’Loughlin to slip into fade-up mode when he introduces the device of the photo. We could have been thrown straight into the fray, à la Oliver Stone, with the clatter of machine guns, and greasy, sweaty, alcohol-soaked journos diving for cover as all hell breaks loose around them. Thankfully, he avoids this, and instead we arrive in a Zaire we can almost taste, touch and smell, with an evocative opening that shows an assured hand.

O’Loughlin centres his novel around Simmons and the ramshackle group of journos and snappers who seem to be forever destined to bump into each other around the next bullet-riddled corner. There is Tommo, a genial photographer; Brereton, a caustic but affectionately-drawn cynic; Janson, a drifting Scandinavian photographer who subsists on pity and chance; Nathan Fine, a feature writer destined for great things. And, of course, the beautiful Beatrice, a woman with an identity so frustratingly mysterious that she manages to madden both Simmons and the reader in equal measure.

The problem with books like this is that they can slip into melodrama and didacticism so easily. It’s a tribute to O’Loughlin’s restraint that he avoids grandiose statements and preachy moralising.

Thanks probably to his own experience as a foreign correspondent, O’Loughlin manages to keep from laying it on thick and heavy, and he steers well clear of stereotyping. Instead we have people who seem to have fallen into this line of work almost by accident. When the group arrives at the scene of a massacre, there is no heavy-handedness; instead a wide-eyed sense of futility pervades. When Fine delivers the chilling line “Has anyone seen the other half of this baby? We mustn’t count it twice”, it kicks off the air of dread pragmatism in the book, and we know we’re in territory where there won’t be any crusading and moralising journalists wondering how they can change the world.

These are people who only care about following leads and filing when they need to. Friendships, such as they are, are bonds formed out of expediency rather than real warmth and affection. “It’s a shallow life, isn’t it?” says Brereton at one point, and Simmons replies, “Some people would find it romantic.” This exchange touches on the conflict at the heart of the book, a slow, eddying undercurrent that makes the reader both repelled and attracted by the interior and exterior landscape O’Loughlin explores.

It’s hard to like the characters, and it’s also hard to dislike them. It’s also hard to both like and dislike what they do, as every squalid moment is balanced by the curiosity and adrenalin of people willingly buffeted about by all the madness and chaos of a continent teetering on an ever-shifting abyss.

Ultimately, though, this is a book about loneliness. Whether it’s the loneliness of Simmons’ vile editor Cartwright; or the loneliness of someone more sympathetic like Janson, O’Loughlin manages to make us confront what it means to be a lost soul. “I call it loneliness, you call it love, maybe”, someone says at one point, and perhaps O’Loughlin sees no difference. Whatever truth he is searching for, one thing is certain – this finely-written book will make you doubt any foreign correspondent feature you ever read again.

© Ed O’Loughlin – Writer and Journalist