What to read by foreign correspondents

JOURNALISTS WHO write about lands other than their own hold an enviable position. They are free from entanglements and allegiances that can interfere with the judgment of native journalists. They can often roam across territories, societies and cultures in a way that their local colleagues rarely do. In a dictatorship, it’s the correspondents working for the press in democracies abroad who can write freely. The job description “foreign correspondent” has undeniable glamour. The main pitfall is ignorance, an especially big danger when someone fails to learn the language of the country they’re covering. We have chosen five books by journalists who have seized on the advantages of the foreign correspondent’s position while avoiding the pitfalls. They show why some of the best writing about places is by journalists who do not wholly belong to them.

Hiroshima. By John Hersey. Vintage; 208 pages; $13. Penguin Modern Classics; £9.99

A tailor’s widow was standing by her kitchen window; a doctor was carrying a blood sample along a hospital corridor; a priest was reclining in his underwear. The people of Hiroshima were doing ordinary things when the atom bomb dropped on August 6th 1945. Perhaps 100,000 of them died. John Hersey talked to six who survived. What was intended as a four-part serial for the New Yorker was so gripping that the editor published the whole story at once, devoting the entire issue to it. The details were shocking, even to a world that had just emerged from the bloodiest war in history. Through the eyes of people who were there, who were under a blast none of them could recall hearing, Hersey describes the sudden destruction of a city, the fires that followed and the “strange, capricious disease which came later to be known as radiation sickness”. His prose is sparse and clinical. His narrative flows like a novel. “Hiroshima” is simply one of the greatest pieces of journalism ever written. And you can read it in an afternoon.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum. By Katherine Boo. Random House; 288 pages; $18. Portobello Books; £9.99

Some journalists view the world from the top down. Others—often the most observant ones—from the bottom up. Katherine Boo, who writes for the New Yorker and is married to an Indian academic, analyses the faultline between old India and new India. “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”, published in 2012, is set in Annawadi, a marshy slum at the end of the main runway of Mumbai’s international airport. Immigrants from all over the country face a daily grind of poverty, hunger, illness and corruption as they try to make a life in the big smoke. Taken together the stories of Sunil, a disabled orphan boy who becomes a garbage picker; Manju, who wants to become the first girl from Annawadi to go to university; and Fatima, a young woman who sets herself on fire and blames her neighbours are a parable of the globalised world—and a masterclass in narrative non-fiction.

In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo. By Michela Wrong. Harper Perennial; 368 pages; $14.99. HarperCollins; £10.99

Congo has long drawn intrepid foreign writers, from Joseph Conrad, creator of Kurtz, an ivory trader who becomes a potentate in the jungle, onwards. But few are as funny as Michela Wrong, who in the 1990s reported on the downfall of Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of what he called Zaire, and the start of the great Congo war. Ms Wrong takes the reader diligently through the history. But it is the reported details that make this book so joyous. She wanders through Mobutu’s abandoned palace in Goma, “making rude remarks about his taste in furniture”. She reflects on life at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kinshasa, populated by arms dealers, CIA agents and an “ageing Belgian beauty, still sporting the miniskirts of a 13-year-old, who relentlessly sunbathed her way through every crisis”. Instead of soaking readers in blood, she takes them on a tour, bringing out the excitement of Congo even as she explains the tragedy. Ms Wrong has written a book that makes other journalists weep with envy.

News of a Kidnapping. By Gabriel García Márquez. Translated by Edith Grossman. Vintage International; 304 pages; $17. Penguin Books; £9.99

By the time Gabriel García Márquez wrote “News of a Kidnapping”, in the mid-1990s, he had ceased to be a journalist and to live in Colombia, his native country. He had written “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, the novel that made him famous, three decades before and had lived abroad—in France, America, Spain and Mexico—since the 1950s. The abduction of his friend Maruja Pachón by Pablo Escobar’s cocaine-trafficking gang drew him back to Colombia and to journalism. His account is so vivid and filled with detail that it is easy to confuse with one of his novels. Especially harrowing is his reconstruction of the ordeal suffered by Ms Pachón and other victims, who were kept for days in a small, dark room. Márquez’s book pulls readers into Escobar’s world while retelling Colombia’s troubled history in gripping fashion. He has much to say about Latin American drug wars and cosy relations between politicians and pampered journalists based in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital. Márquez also has a lot to say about himself, specifically his evolution as a writer and his relationship to his homeland. Even after his long absence he wanted the world to understand Colombia’s struggles.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. By Barbara Demick. Random House; 336 pages; $18. Granta Books; £9.99

Few countries are trickier to report on than North Korea. Although outsiders can enter the “Hermit Kingdom”, they are mostly restricted to the capital, Pyongyang, a Potemkin city where the government tries to present an image of (relative) wealth and normality. Beyond is a black hole: citizens cannot connect to the internet; there are only state media.

Almost all information comes from North Koreans who have fled. Barbara Demick, who was the correspondent in South Korea for the Los Angeles Times, interviewed about 100 defectors for “Nothing to Envy”, whose title refers to the regime’s claim, incessantly repeated, that North Koreans have “nothing to envy in the world”. That is the opposite of the truth, as these testimonies, mostly from the northern city of Chongjin near the border with China, make plain. Some of Ms Demick’s protagonists resort to eating bark and acorns, or undigested kernels of maize picked from farm animals’ excrement. Among the book’s most moving passages are those about the moments when people realise how much they’re missing. For one that happened upon seeing an American-made nail clipper. A woman whose husband and son died of starvation had her epiphany when she came across an automatic rice cooker: officials had confiscated from her a much cruder model to stop her from using electricity. From the opposite side of a barbed-wired border, Ms Demick has revealed the reality lived by some 25m people who are normally hidden from view.

Also try:

Read about the life of Clare Hollingworth, the first person to tell the world that Hitler had invaded Poland. Some of our own foreign correspondents have written about their misadventures. Nick Pelham was held captive by Iran’s regime for seven weeks in 2019. The government of Ethiopia, by contrast, expelled Tom Gardner last year, because it objected to his reporting on the war in Tigray. Here we explain why the disgraceful Flashman would have made a good foreign correspondent.

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