Alan Cowell has crafted a black humor classic about the epic world of war correspondents reporting the truth of hard facts annealed in the heat of modern war. The reporting of hard facts is done inside a larger media world of internet journalism defined by the economics of cheap megabytes floating on a sea of internet lies and celebrity pretension.
The story is about Joe Shelby, a legendary war correspondent from Vietnam on, finishing out his career as an internet rewrite guy in Paris, and his epic love for the fearless combat photographer Faria Duclos. Their story is defined by many shared dangers and many infidelities to a great love that was not a relationship but something else. The narrator is Shelby's less colorful, more sane, editorial sidekick, who becomes part of the larger narrative as whatever truths that need telling get told as a career winds down and important things get said.
Halfway through the novel I read the fascinating account of the life and death of London Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin in February 2012 in Syria in the August 2012 issue of Vanity Fair. Colvin's is the true story of Faria Duclos and Joe Shelby rolled into one talented, yet very broken, true character, a reporter caught in the "addiction to the poison elixir of battle." Her last assignment in Syria was described by her cameraman, "Of all the trips we had done together, this one was complete insanity." What is the motivation here? The article stresses Colvin's deep commitment to reporting the truth.
That also turns out to be the central motivation ascribed to war correspondents in The Paris Correspondent, the central talisman of their nomadic existence. But what is the truth here? The war correspondents are not sending back well-articulated critiques of the wars they are covering. Other people, more comfortably perched, write the analyses, weigh it in the scales of "good" policy or "bad" policy. The war correspondents send back the jarring, blood-soaked facts of human conflict that upturn the bureaucratic narrative, the thought-out assumptions. Characteristic of Colvin was getting out to the world images of the death of a young Palestinian woman in Lebanon, ambushed by Shiite militia snipers, as she lay by a burned-out car, blood pouring out of her and "the handful of blood-soaked dirt she had clenched in her pain."
Simply put, The Paris Correspondent is the backstory to the life of Marie Colvin. The one resonates with the other in an almost perfect harmony between art and reality.
But another terrible fact is brought home to us in both the real-life story of Marie Colvin and the novel: men like Bashir Assad massacre women and children, with premeditation and no remorse, because the ugliest dimensions of brutality are effective tools of intimidation; brutality works because it is so ugly.
This streaming of hard-gained, painful facts from the world's war zones to the world public is something that can't be outsourced to bloggers. Only so much can be conveyed by youtube uploads. The public senses that only the real thing will do.
Cowel captures the backstory, the panache of the era, in his main character Joe Shelby, the archetypical war correspondent. The arc of experience from Vietnam through all the world's troubled spots up to the mini-Stalingrads in today's Syria is captured in the emotional narrative. There is also a thriller-type, who-dunnit story stuck in the novel to be "plot." Compared to the true story of Marie Colvin, the thriller plot is a weak construct. A fascinating aside is that the bad guy is a journalist whose style is to be something of an aggregator, a purveyor of other people's reporting.
But the charismatic Joe Shelby carries the book to a tender and satisfying, if somewhat surprising, ending.