Not Untrue and Not Unkind Telegraph review

The veteran foreign correspondent Edward Behr called his memoirs Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? But in the United States the name was changed to Bearings: a Foreign Correspondent’s Life Behind the Lines. Both titles reflect two common tones in writing about war: the first knowingly distasteful, the second solidly authoritative.

In Ed O’Loughlin’s first novel, one correspondent – the kind who “made a fortune by turning his three-week assignments into epics of suffering and hope” – writes a book called Not Untrue and Not Unkind. That book contains an emotional account of the correspondent’s friendship with a murdered photojournalist (though he barely knew him) and caricatures of the tough-but-vulnerable journalists he met in Africa. Given that O’Loughlin himself has previously reported in Africa for The Irish Times, and that the journalists in this novel are mostly tough-but-vulnerable, the real author seems to be having some knowing fun.

Not Untrue and Not Unkind opens with Owen Simmons, a former Africa correspondent for a national paper, working quietly in the newsroom and contributing the “odd worthy think piece”. After an ambush in the field that leaves him with a limp, he has lost his enthusiasm for foreign travel.

His life in the office is paralleled with the story of his time in the Congo after the Rwandan genocide of 1994. We hear how he visited burnt-out villages and then raced to return to comfortable hotels from where he could file his copy in peace; and about his affair with Beatrice, a fellow journalist who has a dark secret about her time in Bosnia.

The writing in the novel (longlisted for the Man Booker Prize) combines both straight reportage and lyricism. “African states, however hollow, are jealous of the borders that the Europeans left them,” Owen informs us with a veteran reporter’s authority. A paragraph later he is noticing the “avocado trees with their unripe fruit” and tin roofs that seem to be hanging from clouds. O’Loughlin, to his credit, is trying to explore the wholeness of his experience in Africa: to humanise the landscape. But this sometimes leaves the impression that he is including all the poetic images cut from his Irish Times copy.

O’Loughlin also explores the moral dilemmas of reporting. In one scene, a group of journalists argue over whether to help a woman bury her dead grandchild. Though undoubtedly powerful, there is something schematic about these scenes; the author’s real interest lies in the dynamics within the reporting world – how the necessary numbing of emotions affects, for example, Owen’s love life.

This book is a jumble of ideas and intentions. At one moment Owen is quipping about the vanity of television news presenters; the next he is describing the bravery needed to escape a rebel attack. But Not Untrue and Not Unkind is neither as callous as Edward Behr’s favoured title nor as haunting as the straight reportage found in, say, Philip Gourevitch’s book on the Rwandan genocide. The combination of so many tones was brave and I am not sure the risk has paid off.

© Ed O’Loughlin – Writer and Journalist