Most journalists posted to Africa inevitably encounter the horror of conflict and the degradation of poverty. All but a handful, however, resist the temptation to exorcise the ghosts of the dead by turning the contents of their notebooks into a work of fiction. It is very hard to maintain the facade of credibility while trying to create fiction, though Ed O’Loughlin, former Africa correspondent for the Irish Times, makes a good try.
His posting in Africa, where he followed the overthrow of Zaire’s Mobutu and the unspeakable brutality of the genocide in Rwanda, provides the background for Not Untrue & Not Unkind, his much-vaunted debut novel. While the process of writing may well have been cathartic, the result is rather irritating.
For the first 50 pages or so, it seems as if the author felt his first objective was to establish his own worth as a foreign correspondent, dropping place names from Cape Town to Kinshasa, using the jargon of the journalist’s trade.
Sometimes it is embarrassing reading. Early on, in a painful combination of generalisation and cliché, we are told: “In Africa the sun beats down hard most days, flattening shadows and bleaching out colours.”
The jargon he uses has a curious ring about it. Photographers are always “snappers”, or “lens monkeys”, with their “monkey gear”, or they are “Leica pikeys … glamorous rich kids pretending to be freelance photographers”.
While he does not, thank goodness, call reporters “news hounds”, many of the words and phrases he does use could come from the pages of the Boys Own Paper: “Old hands agreed that this was the biggest story on the beat”; a character called Tommo asks: “You think we should go looking for bang-bang?”
The problem with this risible stuff is that it distracts the reader, and destroys belief in the world the author is trying to create. The outcome is certainly not a “phenomenally vivid evocation of Africa war zones of the late 1990s”; nor is it a “portrait of the practice of journalism on the edges of the world’s attention”, as the publicity plugs and puffs would have you believe. For that you want to read Aidan Hartley’s fine The Zanzibar Chest, or Chris Munnion’s Banana Sunday.
Location established, credibility created, O’Loughlin the storyteller takes over from O’Loughlin the hack. As one moves into the second half of the book, an intriguing plot unfurls. In Dublin a newspaper editor is found dead, and his colleague Owen Simmonds – aka Ed O’Loughlin, one assumes – discovers a dossier on the editor’s desk. In the dossier, Simmonds finds a photo which takes him back to Africa and the girl he once loved.
As O’Loughlin develops the plot, and gets into his stride, the writing gathers strength and confidence. And then fresh doubts surface. With perhaps one exception, there is no African voice in this novel, no African perspective on the continent’s tragedies. There are only African victims, notably dead children and distraught mothers, who provide the emotional background for the young Irish journalist Simmonds, and who feels as sorry for himself as he does for the casualties of Africa’s wars.
For all these flaws, Not Untrue & Not Unkind may well be the debut of a considerable talent. First there is a big hurdle to clear – next time round we’ll see whether O’Loughlin has made the tough transition from journalist to novelist.
Michael Holman is former Africa editor of the FT and author of ‘Fatboy and the Dancing Ladies’ (Polygon)