Anjan Sundaram says he decided to abandon his higher studies in mathematics to pack his bags for Congo and dive headlong into journalism, after he was disillusioned with the tenuous links between reality and modern mathematics, with its ever increasing number of dimensions that aimed to substitute life with sublime laws. In a sense, this has a subtle effect on the tenor of his writing as we will see.
Greed and plunder have been the recurring motifs of Congo’s history. A Belgian king committed genocide during the automobile revolution to pillage Congo for rubber needed to make tyres, then the Belgian state initiated a war over Congo’s copper to wire the world for electricity, and the nation’s recent conflicts had to do with tin needed for making electronic circuitry. The latest object of the world’s greed was a metal called tantalum, used in the manufacture of cellphones.
Sundaram gets a taste of this when street kids relieve him of his cellphone on his arrival in Kinshasa. A few days later, he is robbed of all the cash he had with him at gunpoint in a taxi, on his way to deposit it in a bank. This makes it imperative to find some kind of paying journalistic assignment more urgent. A local journalist, Mossi, sets up an interview with an Indian drug manufacturer, Satwant Singh, and the author is set on his precarious journalistic career. Eventually, he manages to enrol himself as a stringer for Associated Press, getting paid only if his reports are published. He sets off on different journeys in search of different stories — from mass killing in the Uranium mine province of Katanga to life in a Pygmy settlement, to finally the election involving Joseph Kabila and Jean-Pierre Bemba, accompanied by street battles that forced Sundaram to take shelter in the factory owned by an Indian.
Along the way, Sundaram comes face to face with everyday life in the country — street boys and girls finding pleasure in marijuana and sex, Indian businessmen throwing parties, his local hostess Nana’s cousin Frida offering to be his part-time lover, chance encounter with a European journalist, Natalie, and the travails of Nana and her husband Jose, as they try to take care of their child Bebe Rhema and run the family.
Sundaram does not attempt at giving a commentary on the nation’s political or social life. He merely reports what he is going through and what he sees. He does, however, provide background information needed to see the big picture. He writes about Mobutu’s dictatorial excesses when he crosses one of his infamous palaces and we learn how he initiated his African ‘authenticity campaign’, naming the country Zaire (to be renamed Democratic Republic of Congo, once Father Kabila deposed Mobutu), made everyone drop their European names and abandon European clothes in favour of Mao-style tunic, abacost. He gives us a sense of Patrice Lumumba’s vision contrasted with Mobutu’s megalomania. He mentions the province Equateur, the site of Belgians’ worst massacres and genocidal killings, and the jungle where Conrad placed his Mr Kurtz. Most tellingly, he paints the spirit of optimism that lurks in the heart of the African people, as they move from unending cycles of revolutions followed by coup d’états.
The landscape, ravaged by pillage, decay and violence come alive with Sundaram’s visceral prose. The control and power of Sundaram’s language would put many novelists to shame. Just to sample at random: ‘I lay on the couch and closed my eyes, listening to the rain, the hush of the tap, the hum of the hairdryer.’ ‘I looked at the room’s wallpaper, shriveled, as though too much glue had been applied underneath.’ ‘There was no light in the toilet and I spat into the darkness, listening for the plop of liquid on liquid.’ At times, he pulls out some searing observations to complement his concrete imagery: ‘I had always felt alien watching pools at night — they had an eerie glow and reminded me of hotel drownings’.
Sundaram’s writing has been compared to Naipaul’s, but I think that is inaccurate. Naipaul would never let himself be robbed of his cellphone and all the cash he had. Naipual writes from a distance, putting himself on a pedestal, trying to pass judgments on a society and people he clearly considers his inferior. Sundaram’s aim is to be in the thick of things, alert to every sensation, observing every detail and reporting his experience. His goal is to ‘ immerse in the world and explore it’. It can leave you impatient at times, as you wait for something to happen or some analyses to be offered. But that’s not how Sundaram wants to do it.
At one point, in bed with Natalie, Sundaram mentions reading Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish poet-journalist, whose report on African wars gave birth to the term ‘magic journalism’. One suspects it is Kapuscinski rather than Naipaul that Sundaram is trying to emulate, creating his own flavour of journalistic writing, melding reportage with poetry and mathematical precision.