Proving, once again, the extraordinary lengths a bookseller will go to in order to put a good book in your hands.
BY ELLEN HARDY
Sometimes, a book must be content with the dubious accolade that its shortcomings serve as a reminder of what one loves about a genre more generally. Finishing Roxana Saberi’s Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran, I immediately began to meditate on why it left me cold. It’s a vital project; Saberi’s account of her one hundred days’ imprisonment by Ahmadinejad’s regime in early 2009 on fatuous charges of espionage is a riveting account of the Kafkaesque posturing she was forced to undergo, a disarmingly honest tale of courage, and a delicately balanced description of the variety and challenges of daily Iranian lives. But it doesn’t tick any of my literary reportage boxes, though Saberi, a Japanese-Iranian-American and former Miss Dakota with Masters degrees from Northwestern and Cambridge, England, seems an ideal candidate to shake things up a little.
We can speculate on why – the rush to cash in while Iran still dominated the headlines? A clash between a journalist’s dispassionate eye and the need to tell her heartrending story? Perhaps we expect too much. More usefully, and enjoyably, we can turn to explore some of literature’s finest reportage, the stuff that thrills and inspires even as it documents humanity’s grittiest realities and history’s most critical events. Let’s consider these five for the sweaty, dust- and blood-spattered crown of reportage:
To go deeper than the headlines surrounding the thirty-five-year prison sentence given to notorious Cambodian Khmer Rouge leader Comrade Duch in July, turn to Affonço’s memoir. She spent almost four years in the regime’s camps, having turned down the opportunity to escape to France in order to keep her family together, convinced by her passionately Communist husband. How she survived and what she lost – including watching her daughter die from starvation – will stay with you forever.
Reporting out of Lebanon since 1976, Fisk lived and breathed every gruesome twist and turn of Lebanon’s convoluted civil war. To be sure, at the end of 700-odd pages, you’ll feel like you did too, but it’s a peerless testament to the single-minded devotion of a top war journalist to delivering as much of the truth as possible, and to the dreadful dance of history and power struggles in the region. Though more or less peaceful today, Lebanon has a worthy biographer should it wish to remind itself: ‘never again’.
Dallaire is no journalist, and the urgent, painful drive to recount what he saw and experienced during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide rings out even truer as a result. Commander of the UN force charged with keeping the peace as events unfolded, his first response to his posting was ‘Rwanda? Isn’t that in Africa somewhere?’ He returned to Canada disillusioned and suicidal, haunted by the butchery and rape of Hutus and Tutsis that claimed around 800,000 lives in the space of approximately 100 days. Dallaire spares us no detail of the horrific events, nor of the obtuse, elephantine bureaucracy that left him almost powerless to help.
Auschwitz survivor Levi’s last literary will and testament; he committed suicide in 1987, shortly after completing it. His writings on the concentration camps are world-famous, and If This is a Man usually the first choice. But ‘The Drowned and the Saved’ is of crucial importance, not just for the well-known clarity and lyricism of his writing, but also for the unnerving contemplation of the role of memory for the witness, and how it can never be taken for granted. His contribution goes far beyond that of a survivor; he is relentlessly critical of the act of witnessing itself.
5. Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuściński
A timely reminder that reportage doesn’t have to be unrelentingly blood-soaked, and how a damn good book can make all the difference to your work. Famously, Polish international correspondent Kapuściński survived 40 revolutions and four death sentences; but for all that, he was as concerned to celebrate the countries and the people he encountered through literary endeavour as he was with the balder side of reporting. This alternative autobiography uses Herodotus’s The Histories as a frame for the story of Kapuściński’s work; a delight.