The cover of Scott Peterson's book trumpets: "A journalist reports from the battlefields of Africa." To which the jaded reader might reply: "What, another one?" And hard on Peterson's heels is the former Reuters East Africa correspondent Christian Jennings, with his own tales from the "dark continent".
Not surprisingly, these writers cover some of the same bloodsoaked ground; indeed, Peterson has a walk-on part in Jennings's Across the Red River. Both men were in post-genocide Rwanda. Jennings's account also takes in neighbouring Burundi, while Peterson is concerned more with the disastrous farce of the US "peacekeeping" intervention in Somalia, and with the most thoroughly forgotten of all Africa's wars: namely, the bitter civil strife that has convulsed Sudan for almost half a century.
Jennings's Across the Red River is the less valuable of these two chronicles. For a start, he quickly reveals that his is a coarser stance than that of the more knowledgeable and sensitive Peterson - who traversed east Africa's war zones with Faulkner and Hemingway in his luggage. (Jennings packed The Day of the Jackal, which, he bizarrely informs us, he has read at least 30 times.)
Neither writer would claim to be a scholar of African affairs, but at least Peterson properly acknowledges the various historians, sociologists and others whose work he relies on when he moves beyond straight reportage. Jennings, by contrast, never reveals his sources.
No one will be surprised to hear that the heroic war correspondents and noble aid workers we see on our television screens indulge in intense bouts of alcoholic excess and sexual adventure. Some might consider Jennings's stories of such episodes to be admirable in their honesty. But the apparent self-deprecation is mixed with more than a hint of boasting; there is even one of those hideously cliched "How I nearly converted a beautiful lesbian to the joys of heterosex" mini-narratives. There is something distasteful about the egocentrism of an account that is ostensibly concerned with African despair and anguish.
Jennings's posturing is part of a familiar pattern. It seems to be accepted wisdom among writers, editors and publishers that the only way to engage a mass readership with distant tragedies is to centre the narrative in the experiences and emotions of the individual reporter. This observer is invariably an outsider, a white European male with an expense account, a hotel room to return to and a plane ticket home.
Fergal Keane, Philip Gourevitch, Jeremy Harding, Patrick Marnham and the great Ryszard Kapuscinski (who founded this tradition, if anyone did) are all brilliant reporters, but their many followers are merely formulaic, predictable and stale.
"There I stood . with my hangover and my bittersweet memories of that night with Louise," Jennings writes. How many variants of this for- mula can one read without succumbing to an emotional coarsening, to the sense of weary disgust that shades inevitably into indifference and thus directly contributes to the rich world's complicity in African tragedy?
The continuing popularity of such works contrasts disturbingly with the considerably small non-specialist readership for more analytical writing on African politics. It stands in even sharper opposition to the lack of widely accessible African viewpoints on the continent's crises. Modern Africa's multiple civil wars, as with its other and sometimes more hopeful developments, are represented to the world almost entirely by outsiders. But unless a broad north Atlantic audience - or mass-market European/American publishers - develops a taste for more serious analysis of African problems, as well as a willingness to listen to Africans' own ideas about these problems, we are stuck with this genre.
The reporter will jet in, observe another bunch of poor, alien people slaughtering one another in a variety of peculiarly horrible ways for no obvious good reason. He will struggle, with mixed success, to explain what it's all about. He will end up, inevitably, with empty, portentous words about "the African dilemma". Then he will go home and, after a few years, write a book about it all.
Peterson's Me Against My Brother is a superior version of an overfamiliar story, but is nevertheless one that we could have done without.