The former Associated Press stringer in Kinshasa details his year of living dangerously amid the chaos of post-Mobutu Congo.
Sundaram was working toward a doctorate in mathematics at Yale when, suddenly tired of abstraction, he began craving a taste of hard-edged reality. He got his wish. A New Haven bank employee with Congolese roots arranged for him to live with her relatives, a married couple and their infant daughter, in a modest house (by Congo standards) in the rough-and-tumble Victoire section of that country’s capital. Sundaram, who had turned down a job with Goldman Sachs for the opportunity, arrived with a few thousand dollars and the quixotic idea of becoming a freelance correspondent. After some misadventures, including the theft at gunpoint of his entire bankroll, the author managed to get a gig with AP, which was looking for someone to help cover the upcoming election in 2006 between Joseph Kabila, son of the assassinated rebel who deposed longtime strongman Mobutu in 1997, and his vice president, Jean-Pierre Bemba. Sundaram weaves back and forth between his strange personal odyssey and the country’s tortured history and politics, with his own experiences and sensations meriting most of the attention. Much of the time, while encountering ordinary Congolese and expatriate merchants, journalists and U.N. employees, he waited for something to happen. Finally, he went in search of news, taking arduous trips into the rain forest, where he found pygmies losing ground to greed and globalization, and to the east, where warlords and militias threatened local villages and U.N. forces.
Books by journalists usually keep the focus outward, but Sundaram has more of a novelist’s interior sensibility and a talent for describing anxiety and ennui. Readers may be tempted to compare him to Conrad and Naipaul, but he has a strong, unique style all his own.