Some novels throw into sharp relief just how much you don't know and obviously fiction is not a completely reliable source for upgrading or verifying those things unknown.
I might have been none the wiser as I opened Not Untrue and Not Unkind by Ed O'Loughlin for the second time of asking had I not recently embarked on a reading of two books on contemporary Africa in order to be stealing a march on next month's Endsleigh Salon bookish theme.
But I was also reading Africa because the Kayaker returns to Uganda in a few week's time to paddle the White Nile again and there's nothing like someones else's preparations for visiting these places to arouse that interest from the relative safety of the armchair, while they dash around getting malaria tablets and looking up the symptoms of bilharzia.
The books I had just started reading because they happened to be on my shelves were Africa, Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden and The Strategy of Antelopes - Rwanda After the Genocide by Jean Hatzfeld. Both by journalists with vast experience of the continent, its people, its politics and its unrest and a fount of knowledge on the history, whilst both demonstrating an unerring affinity with their role as journalists and a deep love and respect for a continent I know I misunderstand.
I think I might be Richard Dowden's ideal reader, the one with 'no sense of ordinary Africa' and little working knowledge beyond what I read in the media about the real Africa beyond 'the sick starving child and men with guns'.
I was the blank slate wiped and waiting to be rewritten and Richard Dowden got there first. He had already alerted me to the impact of the media and the ambiguous and often harmful input of the aid agencies,
'The aid industry too has an interest in maintaining the image of Africans as hopeless victims of endless wars and persistent famines.However well-intentioned their motives may once have been, aid agencies have helped create the single, distressing image of Africa.'
and he'd also elaborated in detail on the difficulties of reporting from war zones, in this case Rwanda during the genocide,
'I wait for the rush of adrenalin that comes with hitting the keys when you start a big story. Nothing happens, I feel numb. I light a cigarette and start again. Then have another cigarette, and then a beer. Time is ticking away. Nothing is happening. Images but no focus. No words. The mechanism in my brain that changes images into words is jammed. I begin to panic. The deadline is near...'I do not want to tell you what I saw today..I stare at the words and realize this is the story...'
So when I read of very similar moments in Not Untrue Not Unkind it was clear this was also a book steeped in factual experience and I might have been expecting too much.
Ed O'Loughlin was indeed an African correspondent for some years and the novel follows the press pack and their frenzied trail around the beleagured war zones of Africa in an effort to scoop the news-worthy story first.
Narrated by a washed up and obviously damaged newspaper editor in a northern UK city, whose Africa days are over but who may never leave behind the consequences or the traumatic memories of that time, an emotional miasma seems to fog Owen Simmons's life and therefore his narration of this book.
Africa and those around him mediated through the eyes of a damaged man seemingly devoid of real emotional responses and the other members of the press core therefore assume a sort of remoteness and emotional sterility too, whilst those same eyes largely ignore the beauty of this war-torn country.
The focus is on successive atrocities, often very confusing and chaotic; was it Rwanda, Congo, Sierra Leone, or all of them, I was easily confused and with Owen's inability to offer me any lasting sense of place through his jaded eyes no one has any redeeming or likeable features either. Perhaps this was the plan, a means of demonstrating to me just how compassion fatigue, with its continual exposure to violence and atrocity, numbs the soul and depletes any flame of inner humanity to the barest flicker.
The flickers of humanity are there but they seem few and far between.
If that was all the intention it certainly did the trick, but also had the rather numbing effect of distancing me from the whole too, this is what I call an arm's-length read, I just never came close to feeling much even when successive atrocities and escalating violence seemed set to outdo each other in revulsion, but then I thought perhaps that's what I was supposed to feel, to know what it's like to disengage from my surroundings in order to protect what I have left?
Boundaries in place as a sort of foil to post-traumatic stress?
Who can know?
I'm not quite sure what I've just read because if that was the intention then this book is extremely clever but I also have a feeling that perhaps I'm looking too hard for positive and redeeming features in a book that ultimately didn't quite live up to my early expectations?
I feel detached and generally unenthused by it and it's unusual for me to bring news of that here but this is the Booker after all and might this be the book required to fill the 'gritty war and violence' slot on the long list?
Because unless James Scudamore's Heliopolis goes there, this is the only one.
Of course this book might also just have come along at exactly the wrong moment for me and I may be able to lay the blame for that squarely at the feet of Richard Dowden and Jean Hatzfeld who had already demonstrated that the perception of Africa as revealed in Not Untrue and Not Unkind might be becoming predictable, cliched and urgently needs amending.
Back where I started, novels might not be the best way forward for me right now in my search for the real Africa from my armchair.
Perhaps it's right to leave the final words to the inestimable Chinua Achebe whose Foreword to Richard Dowden's book sets out a clear agenda, which in fairness and with apologies to Ed O'Loughlin may not have been his first or even last intention with this novel.
The unfortunate thing is that it became mine as I read and it remained sadly unfulfilled.
'The triumph of the written word is often attained when the writer achieves union and trust with the reader who then becomes ready to be drawn deep into unfamiliar territory, walking in borrowed literary shoes so to speak, towards a deeper understanding of foreign peoples, cultures and situations.'