War correspondents aren’t like the rest of us: they can’t be.
War correspondents aren’t like the rest of us: they can’t be. Most of the writers I know sit at home all day eating biscuits and staring out of the window. But war correspondents are out there, risking life, limb and sanity, seeing things we can only imagine; and as well as a journalist’s skills, they need a writer’s soul, to turn what they see into something people simply have to read. No wonder we’re so fascinated by them. Part of me would love to do a job like that. Fortunately the other 99 per cent of me, including the brain, knows better and keeps me indoors, safe from harm.
Janine di Giovanni has spent 20 years reporting wars for the Times, Vanity Fair and others, and while I think we are all grown up enough now not to be surprised by a woman doing the job, there’s no doubt that a female perspective does offer something different. She seems less interested in tactics, strategy or geopolitics than in people being maimed and killed and finding themselves in a hell rarely of their own making. ‘I hate the sound of an AK-47. It’s only the bad guys, the non-conventional armies, that use them. If you hear one, you are already too close.’
In among the carnage of the siege of Sarajevo, she meets Bruno, a charismatic French cameraman, complicated, brave, clearly bonkers, and they fall in love. But he won’t leave his girlfriend — ‘French men never do’, her best friend tells her — so they split up and lose touch. If a film were made out of this, we would now have the ‘passing of time’ sequence, in which both principals walk through different war zones looking impossibly sad. Coincidence eventually brings them back together, as we knew it would:
Many years and a dozen wars between us passed. There were endless phone-calls, three miscarriages, much of what the French call malentendu, break-ups, a breakdown, and a lot of alcohol. There was depression, death, suicide of friends, addiction, and more times than I like to think when both of us nearly died.
It’s all incredibly dramatic: we get the impression of a couple as addicted to their own narrative as to the wars they immerse themselves in. Bruno has a habit of saying ‘I want to be alone,’ and then tracking Janine down to Mogadishu or Grozny and saying ‘I can’t lose you.’ Unlike most people, Janine actually can ‘go to Africa to forget’. Bruno, we hear, ‘was proud that he owned almost nothing but a motorcycle’. By this stage, barely a fifth of the way into the book, you might be forgiven for concluding that these are two of the most annoying people who have ever lived.
But the tone shifts, and their problems start when they decide to settle down in Paris, get married, have a baby, live a normal life. ‘I was not afraid when I was in the middle of chaos,’ writes Janine. ‘It was real life with its vast responsibilities and wells of insecurities that frightened me.’ While heavily pregnant, she manages to dislocate a rib in a coughing fit. ‘I could feel it moving under my tight skin … the pain [was] worse than anything I had ever felt.’ Bruno sorts everything out. ‘My God, I thought, he’s still addicted to adrenaline.’
After the birth, she goes into a bit of a decline. ‘What if I drop him? Accidentally drop him out of the window?’ Their son Luca is healthy, placid, beautiful, and his parents are falling apart. Both of them start having nightmares, Bruno’s back gives way after 20 years of carrying cameras, he is drinking too much, and their relationship slowly unravels. The sense of impending doom becomes almost claustrophobic. ‘I felt something ominous creeping into our lives.’ ‘I continued to live my life as a mother … but with premonitions of catastrophe.’ ‘I began to feel afraid.’
What becomes clear is that Janine di Giovanni is reporting on domestic life as though it were another war zone. Through her eyes the ordinary and prosaic become strikingly odd, even menacing. Her account of childbirth is genuinely disturbing, although not without its humorous moments, for you offend French nurses at your peril. (Every time she asks for a cup of tea, they look astounded and say no.) But you do finally warm to her and her troubled Bruno, victims of war as much as any of the people she has written about, in this raw, perceptive and ultimately rather enthralling book.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 16, 2011Tags: Book review, Correspondent, Memoir, Non-fiction, War