Book review: The Devil Is a Black Dog exhausts the idea of the war correspondent

Sandor Jaszberenyi’s short stories plumb the depths, as his troubled and macho narrators try to commit suicide by reportage from the world’s danger zones

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 December, 2015, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 December, 2015, 12:01pm

The Devil Is a Black Dog: Stories from the Middle East and Beyond

By Sandor Jaszberenyi

New Europe Books

‘I never wanted to live a sensible life … I didn’t want a sensible death either.” So the seriously ill narrator of “The Fever”, the first short story in this collection, informs us, as he languishes in a Sudanese village while the Koran is recited over him as an impromptu form of intensive care. The narrators of many of these stories bear a curious resemblance to the author, a Hungarian writer and photojournalist who has worked the dangerous parts of the Middle East and Africa.

The prose in “The Fever” is firmly in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway, while its subject matter echoes Rimbaud’s continent-crossing travels. Jaszberenyi cites these writers later on, as well as his fellow Magyar Robert Capa . Even for a nation that has produced a diaspora of adventurers, fabulists and chutzpah-lords, Capa still holds the record for pure front. The title story – about a hunt in Yemen for a monstrous black dog with a taste for human flesh that also seems to have supernatural invulnerability – is the strongest. So ludicrously Hemingwayesque is this story – deeply unpleasant happenings in a foreign country – that it goes beyond homage to become almost pastiche, but it’s so well done that Hemingway would surely have approved.

Again, “The Blake Precept” explores a familiar theme – the dangers of consulting a fortune-teller and dabbling with the occult – but it is gripping. Bored French Legionnaires in Chad visit a local “ghost-rider”, and pay him a dollar to make predictions they then deeply regret hearing.

The stereotypical war correspondent – step forward Graham Greene and Anthony Loyd – is a troubled macho figure struggling with inner demons who has frequent recourse to booze, prostitutes or drugs, and who can only function under fire. Jaszberenyi pushes this formula to new extremes. He is best at first-person narration; the weakest piece in the collection is “Something About the Job”, a third‑person account of a jaded photojournalist.

When you consider the autobiographical element to his work, Jaszberenyi makes Hemingway or Ryszard Kapuscinski seem fat and soft

The amorality, brutality and nihilism of Jaszberenyi’s world is relentless – even when the setting isn’t a war zone. When we meet Bootsi, a loyal, plucky dachshund who belonged to the narrator’s deceased father, we know the dog won’t be wagging its tail with joy. This was one of several stories where I saw the ending coming, but didn’t mind because the journey was so engrossing.

When you consider the autobiographical element to his work, Jaszberenyi makes Hemingway or Ryszard Kapuscinski seem fat and soft. Various militias are trying to kill his narrators, who also seem to be doing their best to kill themselves, in a sort of suicide by reportage. In the context of Hungarian literature, Jaszberenyi is a dangerous heretic, a cosh-wielding ruffian. Not since Jeno Rejto’s tales of the French Foreign Legion in the 1930s has the page been filled with so much testosterone-fuelled bare-knuckle action – and the sedentary, cafe-dwelling Rejto was making it up (ironically, he was later conscripted and died on the eastern front in 1943).

Whereas Peter Eszterhazy, Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Peter Nadas write long, intricate sentences full of learned allusions, piling up massive paragraphs, one on top of the other, Jászberényi, like his characters, gets straight to the action. The Devil Is a Black Dog is uneven: clearly not conceived as a whole, its subject matter can be repetitive, but Jaszberenyi , translated into English by Matt Henderson Ellis, captures the darkness masterfully. He has probably exhausted the topic of the war correspondent, and I can’t wait to see him produce a novel on a different subject.

The Guardian