IN­CRED­I­BLE jour­ney

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by John K. Collins

AN­JAN Sun­daram is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has re­ported from Africa and the Mid­dle East for the New York Times, For­eign Pol­icy and The As­so­ci­ated Press. His book is a vivid ac­count of how he aban­doned life as an out­stand­ing math­e­mat­ics stu­dent at Yale and the prospect of a lu­cra­tive po­si­tion with Gold­man Sachs to go to the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo in the hope of launch­ing a ca­reer in jour­nal­ism. Sun­daram’s rea­sons for turn­ing his back on a ca­reer in high fi­nance ap­pear to have been in­spired by the moral courage of Serge Lang, his math­e­mat­ics men­tor at Yale, as well as by the African books of Pol­ish writer Ryzard Kapuscinski. To learn on the job, he picked a coun­try that is, on the one hand, rich in min­er­als cru­cial to the econ­omy of the mod­ern world and, on the other, a cesspool of klep­toc­racy, rape, slav­ery and mass­mur­der. Don’t look here for an anal­y­sis of the eco­nom­ics and his­tory that lie be­neath the ap­palling hor­rors of Congo life; nor does Sun­daram pre­tend Stringer is any­thing of the sort. At one point, another jour­nal­ist de­scribes Sun­daram’s ap­proach as “Gon­zostyle” — per­haps, if you can have Gonzo jour­nal­ism with­out a pre­pon­der­ance of sex, drugs and pro­fan­ity. He writes un­apolo­get­i­cally about him­self and how he was in­flu­enced by the peo­ple and events he ex­pe­ri­enced in Congo. Through a se­ries of im­pres­sion­is­tic anec­dotes, he builds up an out­sider’s view of peo­ple strug­gling to live and pre­serve hu­man feel­ing in a state founded on cor­rup­tion and bru­tal­ity. With, it seems, no more ad­vanced plan­ning than to ar­range lodg­ings with a fam­ily on the brink of des­ti­tu­tion, he ar­rives in Kinshasa. Within the first 50 pages, his cell­phone is stolen and he chases the thief through the dan­ger­ous streets of Kinshasa, smokes pot and drinks pastis in a no-go area ruled by feral teenagers, is robbed at gun­point of most of his money and finds the po­lice work only for those who can buy their ser­vices. For­tu­nately, he is soon hired as a stringer for The As­so­ci­ated Press. Al­though he is to be paid only for sto­ries printed, he will have an in­come, how­ever pre­car­i­ous. Through what of­ten seem to be ac­ci­dents and wrong turns, he gath­ers ma­te­rial for news sto­ries that at­tract in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion. His big break comes dur­ing the 2006 elec­tion when a vi­cious bat­tle breaks out in Kinshasa be­tween ri­val mili­tias. As most other cor­re­spon­dents have left the city, he be­comes one of the few news sources there. Re­mark­ably, by his own ac­count, he spent all but one day of the bat­tle shel­tered in the guest room of a mar­garine fac­tory. Nev­er­the­less, his iso­la­tion did not stand in the way of his fil­ing con­stant re­ports. As the bat­tle raged out­side, the New York Times called him. His ca­reer was made. Oc­ca­sion­ally, Sun­daram’s prose over­reaches. Wa­ter flows into a “sonorous tub,” two men (fully dressed) have “buxom chests,” a con­ver­sa­tion is “lu­dic.” What­ever his rea­sons for go­ing to Congo — and there re­mains the sus­pi­cion that, like many non-African au­thors, he started out see­ing Africa as merely a con­ve­nient trove of ex­cit­ing sto­ries — he pro­vides valu­able insight into the daily lives of a peo­ple of­ten re­duced to mind­numb­ing sta­tis­tics. As in­ter­est­ing as that is, for any kind of un­der­stand­ing of the hu­man catas­tro­phe in Congo, this book needs to be read be­side more sub­stan­tial works like Ja­son Stearns’ Danc­ing in the Glory of Mon­sters and Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. Bear­ing that in mind, Sun­daram’s mem­oir is worth read­ing as a por­trait of the jour­nal­ist as a (very lucky) young man. Win­nipeg­ger John K. Collins worked and trav­elled in West Africa in the 1960s.

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