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Suddenness of Mountains
by Donna Nurse

My first position in journalism was as an editorial assistant for CBC's National newsroom on Jarvis Street in Toronto. The best part of the job had little to do with my actual duties, which mainly entailed running copy as fast as I could from the fifth floor newsroom to the television studio several flights below. Much more stimulating was the experience of closely monitoring reports beamed in by satellite from journalists stationed abroad. I found myself developing a keen, neighbourly interest in the situations of people far removed from my own. I remember, during those years, hoping fervently that a referendum would free the Chilean people of their dictator Augusto Pinochet. I shared in the euphoria of black South Africans the day Nelson Mandela strode proudly out of jail, his wife Winnie at his side. For me foreign journalism went a long way towards creating the ideal of the global family.
Of course, Western journalists are also accused of producing quite opposite sentiments; of writing reports that grossly exaggerate the differences between cultures and people. News stories frequently depict those who are trapped in poverty or civil war solely as victims-a one-dimensional portrayal that works to obscure their humanity.
Oakland Ross, a former foreign correspondent for the Globe and Mail proves sensitive to such criticisms. In this, his latest book, he introduces us to the individuals he met over his decade reporting from many of the world's embattled locations, in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. A similar desire to move beyond the superficial image motivated his last book, Guerrilla Beach, a collection of short stories set in Latin America that won him a measure of acclaim. But his effort was hampered by his inability to relinquish professional objectivity. He seemed unable to allow himself to fully inhabit his characters. Ross appears infinitely more comfortable playing himself than the all-knowing narrator. Indeed A Fire On The Mountains succeeds so wonderfully, precisely because of his central mediating presence.
Whether in Uganda, visiting an HIV-positive woman, or in Cuba, listening to young people speak longingly of the West, Ross remains the central character of the essay. More important, he insists that we keep his particular perspective, that of a well-to-do white Canadian male, clearly in view.
And yet he seems exceptionally capable of transcending his own cultural circumstances. His writing demonstrates him to be one of those few people for whom the presence of national borders seems a quite arbitrary imposition. He exhibits a rare empathy for people regardless of background or social status. And this quality, in combination with his journalistic acumen, makes reading A Fire On The Mountains a moving, insight-giving experience.
For Ross, these essays contain moments of personal epiphany: incidents that allow him to suddenly comprehend more about himself or the world. He writes, in "Massacre at Palo Blanco", about how events in a Salvadoran village forced him to accept the existence of evil. Sometime during the years of civil war, authorities in Palo Blanco uncovered more than a dozen mutilated bodies buried in a shallow grave; men, women, and children, all belonging to a single family. The family had recently moved to the area to escape the escalating rebel violence in San Pedro Segundo. Ross charts the illogical chain of events that led a local paramilitary group to suspect them, erroneously, of supporting the rebels. He describes the perpetrators as a handful of sad-faced, unremarkable bullies; but unremarkable bullies harbouring guns and delusions of military grandeur. Like many of the essays, "Massacre At Palo Blanco" displays his need to understand how ordinary people marry, raise children, and generally carry on in the face of unfettered brutality.
And Ross frequently travelled far beyond the call of duty to simulate the sensation of living in perpetual fear. In "They'll Name A Road After Us", he heads into the hills of the Salvadoran province of Usatalan to live for a time amongst the rebels. "The Suddenness of Mountains" chronicles the events of a winter night in Santiago, Chile, during which he and a number of other journalists drove out after curfew. Inevitably, they met up with the ubiquitous carabineros who menaced them with submachine guns.
Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, Ross exhibits the adventurer's penchant for cramming as many near-death experiences as possible into a single lifetime. On occasion, though, his need to distance himself emotionally from the intensity of events forces him to slip into the aggravating, understated style of the gumshoe. He writes of his trip to Palo Blanco, "We drove fast and carelessly, the way you do in a rented car in a sub-tropical country, bristling with guns."
Alternately, and less often, his representation of life-threatening occurrences spins out of control. This results in such woefully overwritten passages as this one describing the omnipresence of death, in "Sunrise In Morazan":
"Each time someone was killed, someone you knew, the news would come careening down like a thunderbolt, like the last thing you had ever expected, like a bomb exploding out of the blue. You were never prepared for it, Death always seemed like an interloper, like the crank in the crowd who wades out onto the field in the middle of the game and turns out to have a gun."
Without the luxury of Western press passes, and the relative sanctuary of a hotel room, ordinary Salvadorans had to depend upon their own ingenuity to ward off danger; like the single woman in "Those Crazy Years" who offers passing soldiers glasses of water and hunks of bread in what Ross calls "a pre-emptive strike". Journalists who hope to survive employ the same tactics they observe in the people: "not a cringing cowardice", but an intelligent, well-calculated deference.
Ross's ingrained sense of detachment undoubtedly helped him defer to the military power at hand. Yet it is this same attitude that enabled him to interact with a diverse array of people, even those brandishing the most notorious reputations. Ross possesses the necessary, if admittedly dubious, quality of seeing an individual as more than the sum of his heinous acts. It allows him, in "Lunch With The General", to capture the malevolence and the absurdity of Mexico City's chief of police in one succinct portrait.
Ross reveals a quite visceral attachment to his years in Latin America. These essays thrusts us into the heart of each crisis. But in his exhilaration he sometimes forgets to provide the kind of context which might increase the relevance for the reader. The essays set in Africa, on the other hand, display a particularly pleasing unity, as Ross steps back to situate events within a social and historical framework. "The Sage of Africa" recounts the history of the Ivory Coast under three decades of rule by His Excellency Félix Dia Houphouet-Boigny. Ross explains the Ivory Coast's deterioration from the country with the healthiest economy in black Africa to a severely depressed one.
Part of his solicitude in presenting African concerns stems from his belief that Western journalists have been particularly negligent in their coverage of the continent. He writes about Uganda in "Africa on $41.21 a Month", "...journalists have failed to portray the longstanding equanimity that is far more a part of the African social fabric than the occasional spasms of anger or violence that receive most of the international attention."
For the most part, Ross's tack is to demystify. So for instance when he talks about the decrepit state of many of Africa's major cities, he also makes an effort to paint the bigger picture.
In "The Last Elephants in Uganda" he writes that "the crumbling apartment towers, the rusting electrical pylons, the washed-out macadam roads, the gutted remains of buses...are not really signs of African collapse at all. They are signs of European collapse in Africa."
He offers similar context when he talks about how famine is self-perpetuating. "If [hungry people] have stocks of seeds for planting, they will eat them. If they have livestock, they will either sell it for cash or slaughter it for food. Now they will be left with nothing for the following year. This is how famine transforms itself into chronic famine."
This information may be common knowledge for the social historian, but for the lay reader or the average news-watcher, such facts are illuminating.
Entering into each of Ross's essays is as satisfying as embarking upon a well-planned journey. That's largely because of his deep appreciation for natural beauty and because of his ability to translate this into language. Instances of weak editing (and there are a few) do little to detract from stirringly beautiful passages such as this description of the Andes found in "The Suddenness of Mountains": "They're unearthly. In the austral winter, they float above Santiago like a range of jagged and frozen moons," and this description of the country overlooking Corinto in El Salvador: "In the valley below, the pink blossoms of makilihaut trees dabbed the rusty landscape, like dried rose petals scattered across a crumpled sheet of brown construction paper."
A Fire On The Mountains would be worth reading on the strength of its descriptive power alone. But it is equally wonderful for accomplishing what would have seemed an arduous task. Ross overwhelmingly succeeds at challenging, even toppling, misconceptions about the lives of people in the third world. He wreaks havoc on images of the poor as a "faceless, undifferentiated" mass. This is the kind of writing that, without rhetoric or fanfare, alters our experience of the world.

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