At 22, when he should have been saddling up to ride into success charted for him in his years as a mathematics student in Yale, Anjan Sundaram decided to leave for Congo “to try to be a journalist”. In Stringer, his account of the year and a half spent in the African country, there is little to explain why. All he tells us is that he left “in a sort of rage, a searing emotion”. The circumstances of his departure are sketchy and yet they set the tone of the travel- the mysterious anxiety he felt in America (“The world had become too beautiful. The beauty was starting to cave in on itself-revealing a core of crisis.”) follows him though his journey. The difficult goodbye he bids his professor lingers in the many bonds he forms while traveling- bonds he must break before he has had a chance to fully understand them.
Later in the book, Sundaram mentions a journalist’s secretary in New York who gave him a magazine interview of Ryszard Kapuscinski. “On his travels something surprised him; he never saw a writer,” says Sundaram of the Polish writer. “When Kapuscinski returned to Europe, he said, he found the writers in their homes, writing stories about the boy, the girl, the laughing, the intimacy, the marriage…”. Decades later, Sundaram left the intimate and the familiar to make a journey uncannily similar to Kapuscinski’s. With little resources and contacts, he arrived in Congo and took up a job as a stringer for AP. From outside he looked into the world of foreign correspondents quite unlike him- comfortable and confident in their plush, insulated digs, completely incongruous with Congo’s burgeoning turmoil. Sundaram had no place to retreat to once the day was done- he was forced to live with and amidst his subjects- like Kapuscinski would say, live the story.
Sundaram, not given to Kapuscinski’s surefooted bravado, took smaller, more hesitant steps towards inhabiting the forest of things he was to write about; led more often by his growing attachment and obligations to the Congolese family he was living with than his appetite for adventure. His voice is of an everyday traveller’s, neither authoritative, nor baroque. He is a relentless observer, taking in every last detail and committing it to memory (or a notebook, as the case maybe); stringing perfectly ordinary moments till larger, invisible pictures begin to emerge, marking a historical era as it turns.
But Stringer is not just the story of the ‘dark heart’ of a continent that has endlessly fascinated writers like Conrad, Kapuscinski and Naipaul. It is also the anatomy of journalism, laid bare. The backstory of the making, reception and politics of news. Much of what we read in the book is what Sundaram thinks and feels in the process of gathering news. The brief newspaper report that carried Sundaram’s interview with a militia man, General Mathieu, could never do justice to the fantastic story of how he managed to procure that interview and how he conducted it- letting his reader into the fine, often sub-conscious, mind game that goes on between the interviewer and interviewee.
As a stylist Sundaram moves deftly between exuberance and economy creating a space for his reader to experience life in Congo very immediately, even if it isn’t as easy to make sense of it.
The maze of pillage, poverty, violence, cannibalism, colonialism and disease is unfathomable. What remains with you are the people who take Sundaram through this maze. He does not see them as ‘the others’. His objective gaze does not preclude an easy kinship even with the most unlikely of characters. It is this easy kinship that lies at the heart of Sundaram’s portrait of Congo. Perhaps, it is a function of Sundaram’s own layered identity- as an Indian who grew up in the partly in the middle-east and studied in the USA, that he does not take the identity of others for granted. The people in this book are foremost people- not stereotypes who reinforce a conveniently grotesque narrative of Africa.
In this, the book is also a sign of the times. Unlike his predecessors, Sundaram is writing in an increasingly globalised world, where the power structures are slowly but steadily shifting, as is the preeminence of colonialism; where Internet and social networks are making accessible what was previously considered ‘dark’ and unknowable. In Sundaram’s portrait Congo is not a mysterious and awe-inspiring nether land. It is a difficult place but not more or less unique than other places. Sundaram manages to present Congo as part of the story of the world we live in. Where you might find generalisations in other accounts of Africa, you are likely to find impressionism in Sundaram’s.
The picture you see of Congo in this book bears the imprints of the author’s emotional responses. You travel with him to Bunia from Kinshasa, out to where the war is and struggle to understand its meaning, its nature, like he does. His “first understanding of the war would come at some distance from” the “instruments of violence”- in the displacement and restless transience that become palpable in the silence of the makeshift settlements in Bunia’s poor quarters. His eventual disillusionment with the way things shape up post the historic 2006 elections, feels personal, and therefore compassionate. He is disappointed as political machinations defeat hope, ideologues reveal themselves to be corrupt, and the people return to a life of misery and denial. But his true despair comes from being holed up in a factory as street battles between the electoral parties consume the city. Trying desperately to find someone who will help him leave the country, Sundaram becomes the inadvertent chronicler of a war everyone else has fled from. Once again, calling to mind, Kapuscinski and his proclivity to travel to and stay behind in places all other journalists were likely to ignore or abandon.
Sundaram does not reference or discuss any books or material he might have read on Congo. He does not respond, in this account, to the writers that have walked this path before him. You might find yourself wishing he had if you recall these earlier journeys, if only to understand the impulse of writers, artists and filmmakers to adapt, recreate and pay homage to the masters; to appreciate what it feels like to stand on the shoulder of giants and see a different view from theirs. New Journalism is no longer new, neither is New Literature; but with Stringer, Sundaram proves himself to be a worthy successor to both their legacies.
(This review was first published in The Dawn Herald)