David G Brown travelled to the hellholes of the world and wrote about it

by Graham Reid / 01 June, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - David G Brown

David G Brown: awful, but sometimes amusing, accounts of journeys to the edge.

The overseas experience of Kiwi writer David G Brown – who died in Helsinki in 2015 – was one no-go-zone adventure after another.

We live in an age when guided tours and hermetically sealed luxury cruises have supplanted actual travel, but Tuakau-born David G Brown was a traveller who sought engagement with locals.

In the course of visits to exactly 100 countries, he found compassion and kindness, but also encountered the cruelty, menace and disorientation that fill the pages of this collection.

In writing about his brave, fear-filled and foolhardy journeys, he admits to becoming increasingly comfortable with discomfort, seeking to avoid the tedium of ordinary life (which he tried sometimes). He saw himself in Joseph Conrad’s characters: the outsiders, misfits and those in flight from something, often themselves.

In the 80s and 90s, he – with a partner or wife, but just as often alone – searched for that elusive self. He spent a year on a kibbutz in dusty, dry and remote Upper Galilee, within range of rockets launched from Lebanon. He volunteered to help the Sandinistas in Nicaragua by picking “coffee [to] free up the local men to go and shoot Americans”, but it was an uninspiring experience for the ragtag international brigade. They were cold and hungry, “people shat where they stood” and the sullen locals couldn’t have cared less about the well-intentioned revolutionary imports.

In another journey, he and companions go down the Amazon, eventually: “The boat would come, they said, but it didn’t. Not for two days, not for three. On the sixth day, it finally loomed out of rumour and mist.” It looked like a disassembled Mississippi paddle steamer put back together by blind people, he writes, and days follow of darkness, decay, mosquitos, “adrift in a world inured against time, movement or sound”.

His descriptions of lakes littered with plastic bags, mould-covered walls and the walking wounded in these forsaken places are so vivid the rotting humanity, acrid smoke and brown dust are palpable.

Brown’s account of Lima before the election in 1990 is electric with tension: armoured vehicles and roadblocks, the oppressive fog of fear in a country on the precipice of chaos and the knowledge that Shining Path guerrillas could come from the mountains with no purpose other than to kill.

He sometimes paints with a broad brush but his penetrating truths are in details and descriptions, such as when he stumbles on a body in the mud of Chittagong, Bangladesh, a city where “darkness descended on torn wings, fluttering above the hurricane lamps and candles in tins”.

He drags the reader to personal hellholes as different as Belarus and Jakarta, Syria and Rwanda, the blighted Congo and self-contained Finland. “I first consulted a therapist for depression in January, 2011,” he writes. “In other words it took me about 10 years to become fully Finnish.”

In these often awful but sometimes amusing accounts, the book earns its subtitle. Life, with all its impurities, venality, menace, pleasures, wonder and companionship, is where redemptive love lies.

Oh, and he hated Hamilton, too.

HELLHOLES OF THE WORLD: A LOVE STORY, by David G Brown (Archetype, $35)

This article was first published in the May 12, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

Germany considered changing the autobahn speed limit and people weren't happy
102497 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z World

Germany considered changing the autobahn speed lim…

by Cathrin Schaer

A Government-initiated working group suggested putting a speed limit of 130km/h on motorways to lower emissions and make roads safer. Big mistake.

Read more
Stan & Ollie pays tribute to Laurel and Hardy's brilliant buffoonery
102440 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Movies

Stan & Ollie pays tribute to Laurel and Hardy's br…

by James Robins

John C Reilly and Steve Coogan are lifelong devotees to comic duo Laurel and Hardy – and it shows.

Read more
Colin Hogg: Why my mates matter (and keep on ending up in my books)
102594 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Books

Colin Hogg: Why my mates matter (and keep on endin…

by Colin Hogg

With his second book about Sam Hunt proving a hit, Colin Hogg ponders why so much of his writing career has been inspired by his mates.

Read more
Vote for your favourite dish in the 2019 Peugeot People’s Choice Award
102345 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Top 50 Restaurants

Vote for your favourite dish in the 2019 Peugeot P…

by Metro

Vote for your favourite dish in the 2019 Peugeot People’s Choice Award and be in to win dinner for two.

Read more
Death of the gods: The woeful response to kauri dieback disease
102578 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Planet

Death of the gods: The woeful response to kauri di…

by Bob Harvey

The closer you get to a kauri, the more you realise you are looking at one of the wonders of the planet.

Read more
National’s failure to grasp climate change a major challenge for NZ
102598 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Planet

National’s failure to grasp climate change a major…

by Steve Abel

National's Bluegreen wing are set to hold their annual conference this weekend. Greenpeace’s Steve Abel will be there to challenge the party.

Read more
The native Mandarin speaker who's translating te reo on television
102606 2019-02-20 22:10:47Z Education

The native Mandarin speaker who's translating te r…

by Vomle Springford

Lidu Gong first started learning te reo in bed.

Read more
Win a double pass to Everybody Knows
102573 2019-02-20 13:19:44Z Win

Win a double pass to Everybody Knows

by The Listener

Starring Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, Everybody Knows is a gripping new thriller about the fissures and fault lines that can tear a family apart.

Read more