Darkness of Hearts: On Anjan Sundaram’s “Breakup”

By Tom ZoellnerApril 14, 2023

Darkness of Hearts: On Anjan Sundaram’s “Breakup”

Breakup: A Marriage in Wartime by Anjan Sundaram

OF ALL the “disaster nations” in the world, there may be none that are as simultaneously botched and forgotten as the Central African Republic—a benignly bureaucratic name for a slice of French postcolonial greed that has failed by almost every measure. Beset by revolution, plunder, and grinding poverty since gaining independence in 1960, the CAR, as it is known, is a place that seems to defy all attempts at modernization or stability despite its wealth in resources like rubber, lumber, and diamonds. French business interests carved up Ubangi-Shari into private concessions in the early part of the 20th century, treated those who lived there as virtual slaves, lobbied for military interventions to install puppet dictators, flew down to hunt elephants, and left almost no infrastructure behind except for police stations and some rotting railroad track.

Large portions of it are completely ungovernable and have been called, euphemistically, “autonomous regions.” I spent two weeks in the CAR during a time of relative peace to write about diamond smuggling and found the capital city heaped with plastic trash and swollen with refugees from the countryside. Most folks lived on an income of two dollars per day and ate nothing but cassava manioc, a rubbery staple crop. And yet, an informal economy thrived underneath the government’s thoroughgoing corruption. Market stalls did a lively business. No accounts were written down; everything was done on trust and relationships. Friends greeted each other by bumping foreheads together gently, a variation on the cheek kiss. A general stoicism reigned.

The situation deteriorated in 2012 when a rebel leader named Michel Djotodia launched yet another coup to topple a French-backed president but brought something new with him: a government that touched off a wildfire of religious strife in a region where people generally had not known such prejudice, even despite the presence of nearly 80 ethnic groups. The Muslim-aligned government conducted raids on Christian villages, sparking an armed resistance movement called Anti-balaka. A spattering of massacres across the remote countryside brought a brief burst of global press attention before the CAR went back into the well of forgetting.

Experienced Africa correspondent Anjan Sundaram went to the CAR in the early part of this misery after having become a new husband and father. He almost got killed twice, and the aftereffects ripped his marriage apart. He tells the story of both in his new memoir Breakup: A Marriage in Wartime.

A Yale graduate who grew up in Dubai, Sundaram had a career as a freelance journalist in various parts of Central Africa before marrying Canadian radio correspondent Nathalie Blaquiere and settling down with her in the small Acadian fishing town of Shippagan, New Brunswick, where winter temperatures can go below minus 40. The two had a daughter, but Sundaram was growing bored and restless. He answered the call from an old pal, Lewis Mudge, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, to document early reports of killing. With his wife’s assent, which grew increasingly reluctant as the days wore on, Sundaram flew to the CAR, received an ordre de mission from the government, hired a driver, and set off down atrocious roads in search of conflict.

Sundaram’s greatest gift as a writer is a flat prose style, so drained of emotional subtlety that it creates a mood of intense creepiness. One gets the impression of a tale told by a teller with hollow and empty eyes.

The oddly detached writing style serves the book well. It may be the best way to relate the maddening scale and stupidity of the backcountry killings. In a paragraph that consists of a single sentence, he writes: “The violence was absurd.” The sentence itself is absurd, unexpectedly juvenile. And yet, it works in the same fragmented modernist key as the prose of William Faulkner.

What narrative momentum this book does contain builds to extreme tension in the village of Bouca, the night before a promised massacre, where he and Mudge are surrounded by amateur soldiers commanded by a psychotic officer named Hassan, who seems to relish the idea of killing two foreigners along with local targets. They cut down the cell phone towers and load their weapons.

Sundaram does not dwell long on the likelihood that he will be killed in the morning. Instead, he describes what could be his last night on earth in noirishly tactile language that lets eerie images do the talking: shadows cast by leaves, blood in his toothpaste spit, a narrow bed in a Catholic church where a nun’s presence feels like a human shield against the soldiers lurking nearby:

To calm the children, the doctors perched a laptop on a low wall and played a science fiction movie. The children watched rapt, sitting cross-legged on the ground. The movie was about an extraterrestrial colony, another world, which made us forget the next morning. Angeline’s figure paced the church’s foyer. The camp became quiet at midnight. People slept in tents and under makeshift straw roofs.

Mudge and Sundaram save themselves and the people of Bouca when one of their satellite phone calls gets through to New York at midnight, and unseen diplomatic hands go to work. Somebody in Washington calls somebody in the CAR who tells Hassan to hold his fire or there will be consequences. If the book has an overarching moral point, it would be here. The industrialized world gets off its ass when the lives of two well-educated Western men are in jeopardy. The preventable massacre of hundreds of impoverished Central Africans? Yawn. What’s for lunch again?

One of Sundaram’s previous books, Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship (2016), took on the totalitarian government of Rwanda in a similarly creepy style, relating the disappearances of those who dared to criticize president-for-life Paul Kagame as in a deadpan horror movie with no dramatic music or conventional visual cues for the watcher. Evil becomes banal, just another feature of the landscape.

Sundaram brings the same disquieting lack of conventional feeling into the book’s final unraveling, that of his marriage back in Canada. Quarreling and sulking are described in near-robotic terms. We never get to understand why he and his wife divorce; perhaps such things are beyond explanation, even for those who experience it. His risky journey to the CAR had something to do with his growing estrangement from his wife, but the real reasons seem rooted in his isolation in a cold fishing town where he has no friends, except through her:

“I’m lonely,” I told her.

She said I could find my place in Shippagan.

My choices, decisions, how I lived and who I was: it had come to repulse her.

Readers expecting conventional wartime journalism won’t find it here, nor will they find any rigid examinations of the heart or a convincing autopsy of why an overseas correspondent’s marriage comes to an end (a common fate). What they’ll find instead is a unique snapshot of one of the world’s forgotten zones: a grainy photograph where not all of the color spectrum is present, lending an unnerving and memorable impression.


Tom Zoellner is the politics editor for Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Tom Zoellner is an editor-at-large at LARB and a professor of English at Chapman University. He is the author of eight nonfiction books, including The Heartless Stone, Uranium, The National Road, Rim to River, and Island on Fire, which won the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the Bancroft Prize in history.


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