There are funny moments in Neil MacFarquhar’s spoof of foreign correspondents holed up in Dhahran during the Kuwait War of 1991, but the greatest fun is working out who the characters might be:
Thea, exotic female love interest, cable television reporter climbing her way to stardom on a musical voice and thick black fringe (Who could that be?); Black, ageing Vietnam War hack in starched white shirts under combat jackets, rumoured to have set Vietnam villages on fire with his Zippo before reporting their destruction; Ryan, dopey South African photographer with ponytail, who makes home videos of colleagues; Lydia, snaggle-toothed correspondent for an American weekly, around so long that “years of terrible reporters’ hours etched deep shadows under her eyes”; The Big Foot, Adam Callahan, Pulitzer Prize winning jerk from the World Press Agency (standing in, undoubtedly, for the author’s former employers at the Associated Press), who arrives late to the story to take over the show; and Angus, cynical protagonist, Cairo based reporter for World Press, whose father’s tales of Kipling gave him his wanderlust.
Angus is tortured. He spends too much lonely time on the road, yearns for stability yet craves excitement. He wants to be a media star and move to a real paper (in MacFarquhar’s case, the New York Times). Somehow, he is troubled by that age-old question immortalised by Peggy Lee: “Is that all there is?” MacFarquhar’s strength is the way he brings characters to life. Composites they may be, but they resemble wartime figures I’ve met. He gives us creepy Saudi minders; the German hotel owner charging quadruple for crappy rooms; foreign editors in New York issuing ridiculous diktats; an idiotic American embassy Public Information Officer; the Brit hacks with beer guts; and eager beaver Americans.
MacFarquhar is no Turgenev. Some of the lines made me cringe: “It is just fucking unbelievable that my vagina is considered such a threat that I can’t travel anywhere without a chaperone or a permit explaining why I don’t have one,” Thea whines over Saudi reporting restrictions. I want to reach inside the book and sock her. Who on earth gets away with that? MacFarquhar makes far too much of how sexy she looks in her abaya. No one, not even Angelina Jolie, looks sexy in an abaya.
The Sand CafÃ© is a hilarious account of reporting at a pseudo-front. We identify with it, although perhaps too much. It will inevitably draw comparisons with Scoop. In a sense, it deserves to. MacFarquhar has done his road time. Rather than righteously shining a light on the darkest corners of the worlds’ injustice, he points his beam at the banal press corps. Well done, I say. It’s about time.
Reviewer: Janine di Giovanni whose The Place at The End of the World is published by Bloomsbury.