Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo | Anjan Sundaram

When the centre cannot hold

Midway through Anjan Sundaram’s memoir of reporting from the Congo, he relates a charged encounter with a Canadian journalist in a hotel room. She asks him, “Why did you choose Congo?" “I paused. ‘My bank cashier was Congolese. I’m living with her brother-in-law.’ ‘And you just came?’ ‘One-way ticket.’"

There follows a flashback of sorts, to what Sundaram now sees as a decisive moment: His reading an interview with Ryszard Kapuscinski, the journalist best known for his reportage from coups and revolutions across developing countries. One sentence stands out: “Such important events, and not a single writer anywhere?"

This is one of two visions of the foreign correspondent’s calling, and the more obviously virtuous. It is a vision of journalism as covenant, to bear witness and tell the truth. It coexists in the pages of Stringer with another, less selfless, vision of the journalistic impulse, as thrill-seeking self-exile.

A passage early in the book has Sundaram explain his decision to abandon Yale, the US and a promising academic career in mathematics for the Congo and journalism. “I had left for Congo in a sort of rage, a searing emotion. The feeling was of being abandoned, of acute despair. The world had become too beautiful. The beauty was starting to cave in on itself—revealing a core of crisis. One had nothing to hold on to." The active “I" of the first sentence turns into the impersonal “The feeling" of the second and the equivocal “One" of the last. The strained syntax reflects an underlying discomfort about where the writer’s self belongs in this narrative, front and centre or consigned to the margins, a discomfort that Sundaram never quite resolves.

Stringer—A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo: Hamish Hamilton, 240 pages, ₹ 399.
Stringer—A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo: Hamish Hamilton, 240 pages, ₹ 399.

It might be a courtesy to ignore these accounts of himself that Sundaram feels compelled to give. In fact, it might be that the answer he gives to the Canadian journalist is the better one. It is the task of a lifetime’s reflection to understand impulses of this kind; human beings are opaque to themselves in just these ways. Any attempt to force an explanation is an invitation to self-deception. The writing’s the thing: What comes of his following his impulse?

Sundaram proves a stoical reporter. As a “stringer"—a reporter not on the permanent staff of a publication—he is perennially short of money, his working day beset with uncertainty. He roughs it in one of the harder neighbourhoods of Kinshasa. He courts danger in many forms—bullets, muggers, malaria, but also Congolese sirens desperate to emigrate, and smelly toilets. The latter elicit some memorable prose: “the toilet overflowed with a sonorous gurgle and a sucking noise, like the sound an elephant might make at a waterhole", and “There was no light in the toilet and I spat into the darkness, listening for the plop of liquid on liquid."

Some of this is worthy of V.S. Naipaul, to whom Sundaram will almost certainly be compared, and not without justice. But he is not quite there yet. He tells us of the Congolese capacity for joie and humour, and assures us that the Congo is not all warlords and long faces, but his prose is not up to the task of showing it. First-person pronouns are ubiquitous, but he gives of himself sparingly. We know he carries an Indian passport but are left to guess from his surname where in India he is from. We know that he can speak French (his reporting relies on it), but we are not told when and why he learnt it.

Perhaps readers have no right to such knowledge, but it does make a difference when he gives us autobiography where one would expect evidence and argument: “I grew up in a dictatorship—in Dubai—and I recognized in the Congolese elements from my own society: a certain acquiescence, a cloistering within small ambitions, of business and family hierarchy; a paucity of confidence in oneself, and an utter belief in the power of one man." Change the proper nouns and this might be a sentence from Naipaul. But Naipaul’s invocations of his Caribbean childhood come from a hard-won understanding born of the experience and reflection of years that earns him our trust. There is nothing equivalent in Sundaram’s paragraph on Dubai to earn him the authority to use it as a comparator.

The comparison with Naipaul reveals other stylistic shortcomings. For instance, the word “seems" appears many hundreds of times in the book, sometimes more than once in the same sentence. The word is indispensable for the young writer in a strange land where appearances are liable to deceive. But its overuse, almost a nervous tic, makes it a device of equivocation.

Sundaram’s narrative never quite finds a centre, a structural principle beyond the merely chronological and geographical, around which to organize his stories, perceptions and insights (contrast Naipaul’s deft use of the Presidential crocodiles to structure his travelogue of the Ivory Coast, The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro). The only centre we are left with is the writer himself, but even he shrinks from the role.

Sundaram’s diffidence makes his book an anthology of fine fragments, many of them humane and wise, all of them instructive. Stringer is a book of great promise, and the talent of its young author undeniable. One waits eagerly for his next, bound to be the work of a writer more at ease with himself, a more experienced reporter, a more practised craftsman.

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