Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth. So says Albert Camus, whose most famous book, The Outsider, has a Frenchman living in North Africa deal with death in a socially unacceptable manner. Not only does Meursault have trouble remembering what day his mother died in the book's famous opening sequence, but his later actions show a disregard for life in a way that horrifies those around him.
As Camus noted some years after publication: “The hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.”
This game of life is the focal point for the Hungarian journalist Sándor Jászberényi's absorbing collection of fictionalised war stories, many of them set in Africa. Blending reportage with literary technique, The Devil Is a Black Dog aims to get at the truth of war and its atrocities through fiction. This captivating debut achieves its aim as it bears witness to the machine of war, dehumanising civilizations across continents.
An acclaimed photojournalist and writer, Jászberényi has covered numerous conflicts in his career, including the Huthi uprising in Yemen, rebellions in Libya and Egypt, the Darfur crisis and the Gaza War, in addition to interviewing several armed Islamic groups. He currently lives in Cairo and works as a photojournalist for the Egypt Independent.
He brings a photographer's lens to his fiction. The Fever, the opening story of 19, sees a correspondent battle malaria in Africa, unsure where he has contracted it: "Everything is infectious in the tropics. If you live here, you know you can't avoid disease." In The Blake Precept, a haboob, an intense dust storm, leaves the narrator stranded in Chad, where he gains insight into local superstitions after a visit to a ghost rider.
The title story, one of the longest in this book of vignettes, vividly depicts rural Yemen: “There was no electricity in the town, just the blood-coloured moonlight that gathered at the end of alleyways.” Embedded in a hostile community, a foreign journalist helps the locals hunt a savage dog that is mauling women and children: “Its huge silhouette stood out against the moon, and we could see the gleam of its tusklike fangs.”
Jászberényi’s writing is spare, evocative and honest. There is a refreshing lack of moralising on the destruction and corruption witnessed across conflicts. Fact and detail trump opinion. The author looks instead for meaning in the suffering.
In The First, a journalist recalls, almost wistfully, the first time he saw an execution. Searching for local cuisine on his last day in Chad, he witnesses a bunch of soldiers opening fire in the street. "[They] dragged the corpses away by their hands, heads bumping against the red dirt." Elsewhere, a woman is stoned to death outside a mosque in Rafah. In Libya a young man dies a hero to his parents and tribe, fighting "like a true mujahid" while his grief-stricken twin will go to hell for "the most disgusting sin" of suicide.
With echoes of The Outsider, a war correspondent in The Desert Is Cold in the Morning returns to his hometown of Csorna, Budapest after the death of his father. The reporter is seemingly unaffected by the news, but his abuse of amphetamines and alcohol tell a different tale.
Turning reportage into literature is nothing new. Hemingway, Greene, Waugh and Orwell all offered classic examples of how the sparse and dispassionate language of journalism can be mixed with fictional elements to stunning effect.
In Jászberényi’s stories, the focus is on the actions of people living in war- torn landscapes, from those who perpetrate war to those who run or die, to those who are left behind – and to those, like Jászberényi himself, who feel the compulsion to document it all. What people will do in order to survive is a recurring theme. He is particularly good on what happens to foreign correspondents, the detachment from emotion necessary to carry out their role.
The Devil Is a Black Dog has strong parallels with Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life (2001). This narrative journalism collection focuses on the dismantling of colonial Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, decades before Jászberényi's contemporary conflicts (the Arab spring, Islamic terrorism, muhajadeens in Libya). But both books have similar backdrops: the heat and alien customs of the Middle East and Africa, corruption, poverty, disregard for life, displacement.
Commenting on why he wrote the book, Jászberényi says: “My experience is, unfortunately, that public consumption of the horrors of the world has become routine – every day we get our own dose from the media, and it comes to us independent of meaningful context.”
The Devil Is a Black Dog attempts to frame this context, to shake up what Camus's ill-fated Meursault called "the benign indifference of the universe".