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Not Untrue & Not Unkind, by Ed O’Loughlin

July 31, 2009

o'loughlinI approached this book with some degree of personal interest. In my former working life, one of my tasks was to supervise what was then Canada’s most extensive news agency which had a number of foreign bureaus, including Africa. I have had some experience with African correspondents and the challenges that they faced — O’Loughlin’s book, according to the previews, was “a gripping story of friendship, rivalry and guilt among a group of journalists and photographers covering Africa’s wars.” That seemed to offer promise.

In the spirit of blogging transperancy and intellectual honesty, I finished reading this book about four weeks ago — I found it so bad then, that I decided not to review it. Now that this debut novel has made the Booker longlist, I am reversing that decision, but my opinion has not changed. Obviously, others have a different view. So my negative opinion now seems worthy of being expressed — besides, if I am going to review all 13 longlisted books there must be a couple that I don’t like.

The narrator of Not Untrue & Not Unkind is Owen Simmons. We meet him as he begins his work as foreign editor of a Dublin newspaper, inheriting the post from an apparent suicide who has left behind a blood-spattered file folder — it contains pictures and clippings that remind Owen of his own experiences as a roving correspondent in Africa during the 1990s. It was a troubling time in that continent, with the genocide in Rwanda, assorted outbreaks in Nigeria and disruptions in the Congo. Even without my personal interest in those events, that offers material for an interesting work.

O’Loughlin’s opening paragraph does suggest an additional, important story line, the frustration of the war correspondent now chained to a desk:

Ten years ago I became a hero, and when I came home my old paper took me on again. They thought I’d be an ornament. Ten years now working four shifts a week, six hours a shift and six weeks off each year. If you can call that working. At any rate, I get paid.

There is promise in both that premise and that start: A correspondent who covered some of the most disastrous events of the time, called home to Ireland to edit copy and achingly remembering what had been. I know enough from real life to know that that is not an unheard of phenomenon.

Alas, the rest of the book is a disaster.

There is a cadre of journalists who wander the world and drop in on catastrophes — a mix of freelancers (usually the first to get there), who then get overtaken by the fully-employed, foreign-based reporters, who in their turn get replaced by the even-more-out-of-touch foreign experts from head office. The stories they write don’t change but as the correspondents change the stories move from page 24 to page 3 or 4 to Page One. All of these journalists face challenges (and obviously the first, lowest-paid know more about the situation on the ground than the latest, most-highly-paid arrivals) but whatever those challenges might be the story on the ground is quite a bit more important than the story of those who are trying to tell it.

The problem with O’Loughlin’s book is that it focuses on a handful of reporters who wander around covering African disasters and their problems. But if there is a final message to the reader in this book, it is that the story is quite a bit more important than the people who are telling it. Unfortunately, the book is about the storytellers, not the story.

The narrative moves from country to country, crisis to crisis, city to city. Transitions tend to occur like this:

We were both broke, as usual, but Beatrice had a plan., There was a conference starting in Durban in a couple of days — sustainable development, something like that — and she was sure that her French paper would want her to go. French editors love covering conferences and big set-piece stories, where facts don’t screw up your themes. If her company would pay the bill, for the trip we could both go to Durban and stay in the Edward, overlooking the sea.

Offsetting these travel arrangements, sitting around in bars (Graham Greene is an obvious reference, but a facile one) and shifting love affairs are the inevitable conflicts with the authorities (there are always at least two sets in every conflict, by definition) and equally inevitable incidents of pointless and inhumane violence, since these are war zones after all. O’Loughlin has a curious way of treating these like a version of weather reports — none of them involve characters, just events that effect the war correspondents.

I could accept the idea of putting the Africa story in the background, if any of the journalist characters in the foreground were interesting, but they are not (Evelyn Waugh did just that in Scoop, a vastly superior novel about this same set of circumstances). They move from crisis to crisis, satellite phones on hand; compete for stories; form and break small alliances; have and end romances; hate head office. Because the author needs to move them from crisis to crisis, the narrative features a lot of violence and grotesquely-damaged, dead bodies — since his story is about the people who are observing the carnage rather than what the journalists are observing, that bigger picture of the carnage always makes his narrative seem to be a caricature. And, since he never gets the opportunity to really fill out those characters, a not very good caricature.

I read this book to the end, but only because of my personal background — the deeper into the book that I got the more frustrated and annoyed I became at how shallow the portrayal, not just of the African story but of the journalists, was.

The Booker jury obviously found something in this book that totally passed me by. If you can explain what it is, please don’t hesitate to correct me in a comment. For me, Not Untrue & Not Unkind was a profoundly disappointing book.


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