By Fergal Keane
Fergal Keane is blessed with a magical pen, under which flowers can blossom, as the Chinese would say. I think he is one of the few journalists who write like a poet. In fact, I think Keane does write poetry. The limpid prose and his unflinching honesty made this book, dealing with difficult subjects of trauma and addiction, so compelling.
The book, part memoir and part war reporting, explores his own demons and the ethics of war reporting. Some war correspondents, himself included, are addicted to the dark glamour of war reporting for its thrill and heroism.
Keane, a veteran journalist with the BBC, is renowned for his dispatches from war-torn zones in South Africa, Rwanda, the Middle East, Iraq and Ukraine. He is particularly good at bringing out the human aspects of the conflicts with novelist attention to detail. He reported the downing of MH 17, noticing the bodies from the Malaysian jet scattered in the sunflower field in Ukraine and a toddler on the roadside, covered by a flimsy sheet.
“I felt guilty that I was acclaimed. But not enough to reject the awards. I needed them. They were my substitute for self-worth,” he confesses.
Among the war-torn regions, one has to mention Rwanda where the author was shocked by the scale and brutality of the genocide: more than half a million Tutsis were killed, often hacked to death, by Hutus.
In 2008, twenty years after first witnessing the horror, he agreed to testify at a Rwanda genocide trial. The ghost from the past caught up with him and pushed him over the edge. He sought help and was diagnosed as a sufferer of PDST – post-trauma stress disorder.
He dives into his family history for the roots of his twin addiction – to alcohol and war reporting. His father was a talented actor, but alcoholic and sometimes violent. His father cast a long shadow in his childhood.
Unlike his father, Keane did manage to stay away from the booze. A few years ago, when he came over for dinner with his adopted Chinese daughter, he brought a pack of non-alcoholic beer. (A couple of bottles are still gathering dust in my kitchen.)
The other addiction proved to be harder to quit. “If I feel self-loathing I start to need to escape to war, the ultimate land of forgetting.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Keane in China some twenty years ago: I served as his fixer while he came to Beijing for a reporting trip. But this was not the case he gave me a free copy and I returned the fabour by promoting the book. I bought my own audio edition. I decided to write this little review because it touched me.
If I had read the book, I am sure it would have been a rewarding experience, but listening to it was very special. Keane read the book himself. Listening to his silvery voice, with an Irish touch, I felt like he was telling me the story from the bottom of his heart. An intimate experience.
Hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.