The Devil Is a Black Dog: Stories from the Middle East and Beyond by Sándor Jászberenyi (tr. Matt Henderson Ellis). Scribe. $14.95, 208pp.
The Devil Is a Black Dog is a relentlessly masculine book: a white, straight, Western, male book by a photojournalist whose name, when Googled, returns a photo of the author brandishing a semi-automatic weapon. Tobacco, alcohol, violence, and Sudanese prostitutes are recurring presences in this collection of close to twenty short stories unfurling from North Africa to the Middle East to Eastern Europe. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the bulk of the laudatory reviews that this book has garnered have been authored by white, presumably straight, Western males. All of which will, understandably, turn people away from the book and this review. Understandable, perhaps, but also a shame.
It is a shame because The Devil Is a Black Dog is a rare specimen of acutely perceptive and enjoyably evocative contemporary writing about Africa and the Middle East. The book casts itself as fiction, but these stories are deeply grounded in the author’s own experience of the place in which it is set. So it is that Jászberenyi joins the cadre of writers—J. M. Ledgard, James Verini, and Alex Perry also come to mind—who have come back from hardship postings offering not just trophy war stories but genuine insights into challengingly unfamiliar lands and cultures.
Such writers remind us of the true role of a foreign correspondent (a role many of them, Jászberenyi included, play as their day job). A foreign correspondent is, to anyone who cares for the etymological connotations of the adjective, someone who sends missives from the “outside.” Such a person is not just geographically remote but also remote in the metaphysical sense that he or she corresponds from a different world, where different beliefs and ways of being predominate. In Jászberenyi’s words, the task is “to convey the private hell of others, as though you understand it, or as though it has anything to do with you.”
At his best Jászberenyi does just this. In stories like the title piece and “The Blake Precept” he limns the dim outlines of a belief superstructure unlike any that most readers will have experienced. He takes a reader into the mind of someone who sees these beliefs as truths. Superstition in “The Blake Precept” is only superstition until is it borne out, at which point it feels uncannily like cause and effect. The story is a fantastic illustration of the collision of Western and non-Western beliefs in the chaotic dustbowl of the Darfur tribal conflict, charting the interactions between French peacekeepers and local “ghostriders,” whose bodies would be occupied by the spirits of persons passed away. Jászberenyi’s narration of these interactions shows how concepts which might, in other circumstances, be dismissed as baseless superstition become uncannily compelling when received within the local context out of which they have arisen.
While there is occasionally breathtaking beauty in the places Jászberenyi visits in this book, more often than not the prose’s power is in the threatening landscapes and situations in which the reader is placed. Tellingly, the book opens with a hallucinatory account of the narrator being driven through Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, while suffering from the final stages of a crippling fever. There is also a bus through the badlands of Eastern Egypt near the border of Somalia; a heaving refugee camp; an interminable and senseless wait at a Gaza border crossing; the rainy season in Chad, for which even the civil war seems to stop and the following description of the force majeure of a sub-Saharan dust storm:
I was in Abéché, Chad. I was supposed to fly to N’Djamena, but two days before my departure the Haboob descended. It came savagely from above Darfur, and under the orders of the UN all flights were cancelled for safety reasons. The locals knew it was coming; their camels wouldn’t drink, instead they just stamped their hooves restlessly and shook themselves loose from their ropes. . . . Within moments, the streets were empty of people.
No book like this could have been written by someone who had not been steeped in the sheer physicality of these places. It should be noted, too, that the visceral force of these scenes is a credit to Matt Henderson Ellis, who has preserved the potency of the Hungarian original in its English translation.
Jászberenyi’s protagonist and narrator, whose distinctive voice connects many of these stories, projects an image of himself as the typical conflict reporter, chasing the unique insight into the human condition that is supposedly afforded in war zones. The narrator says, self-deprecatingly:
I never wanted to live a sensible life. I didn’t want to be a model citizen. . . . I have answers only when the circumstances are clear, like life and death; that’s when I feel best, when the questions are easy, uncomplicated by the reflexes of a dying civilization.
Yet this reflection is both humble and inaccurate. The narrator and the author, to the extent that we can distinguish the two, thrive in the penumbra of moral uncertainty where the answers are never clear despite the proximity of death. Brian Dabbs, the former editor of Egypt Independent and no doubt an acquaintance of Jászberenyi, puts it well on the back cover of the Australian edition:
The author forgoes the journalistic altruism and moral obligation that books on reporting in crisis regions typically, disingenuously emphasize. Instead, The Devil is a Black Dog is a truly authentic dive into the psyche, spirituality, and frailty of mankind.
This is perhaps the book’s greatest achievement, its ability to remain suspended in a state of moral uncertainty, to simply be, to tell the story without casting judgment, whilst encouraging the reader to be similarly restrained.
For all his whiteness and his machismo, Jászberenyi’s protagonist is prepared to live according to the terms of the society in which he finds himself. For most readers of Dispatches from Dark Places this should be a confronting look at the alternative—at the moral paradox of suspending one’s own values and judgment in order to understand and respect those of another society or culture. It is by no means an approach that deserves unconditional praise, but in a world in which debate too often devolves into polarizing and reductive statements of right and wrong, “us” and “them,” we could all do worse than to read more of Jászberenyi’s writing, to stay suspended for a little longer.
You can find Julian R Murphy’s reviews at The Millions, The Berlin Review of Books, and Words Without Borders.
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