. . . and Mozambique, and Congo, and points between: an eye-opening journey across the killing fields of southern Africa, where innocents “die in installments.”
“No one escapes his destiny,” an Angolan policeman remarks to Portuguese journalist Mendes toward the end of that 1997 odyssey. The remark, which could have come from the notebooks of Jean-Paul Sartre, is perfectly in keeping with Mendes’s gloomy view of humankind and its murderous tendencies, tempered by an earlier sojourn in Cambodia. Sometimes that destiny is mundane if terribly depressing: “Eat cornmeal or eat nothing. . . . Fantasize about fresh water. Salivate salt. . . . Defecate in front of others. Bathe in the river, swim during the crocodiles’ siesta, keep away from snakes, dry your body with your hands, extract the shudders from your bones, cover your skin with filthy clothes.” Sometimes it is more exquisitely awful: a slow death from AIDS, an incremental one from starvation, a piece-by-piece one from inadvertently walking over a landmine. Mendes doesn’t fancy himself a particularly intrepid traveler, but he manages to talk his way into (and out of) some unlikely and highly lethal venues, including a guerrilla stronghold where he is “penned up like some rare specimen in a zoo” and, unlikelier still, a nest of Italian Red Brigades members on the lam, whose jungle collective, “a Dadaist hurricane,” also numbers “a fugitive activist for Indian rights in Brazil (which role he still plays today) and a German architect (he now lives in Luanda).” The overall effect of all these strange places and actors, coupled with Mendes’s somber tone, is a sort of fever dream—or perhaps a scene out of Mad Max, a vision that Mendes invokes while watching a brushfire along a withered river. “Know why the plants have all become dwarfs,” he asks? “They drink from the rivers. This soil is made of gunpowder.”
Sartresque indeed, pensive, arch, and diffuse. Readers aren’t likely to envy Mendes his journey, which has yielded a memorable tale.