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