Eric Campbell’s Absurdistan (not to be confused with the novel of the same name by Gary Shteyngart) is a memoir spanning a decade of his chaotic and enlightening experiences as a foreign correspondent for the ABC. After failing to achieve better than second- or third-place in the race for several foreign positions, and despairing of ever leaving his dead-end current affairs post (where he may or may not have been covering caravan parks in Eastern Victoria), Campbell abandons his preparations for the Russian positions. To his surprise, he is selected and duly sent to Moscow.
Campbell’s light narrative touch engages from the beginning; his bemusement at the bureaucratic idiosyncrasies of travel in Russia is relayed effortlessly but does not trivialise his accounts of the severe humanitarian situation in various territories. For someone who has zero familiarity with the intricacies of international relations, Absurdistan also acts a crash course detailing major conflicts of the past decade. Campbell journeys through Russian, Belarus, China, Afghanistan and Iraq, sometimes with almost as little knowledge as I possess about situations he is supposed to be reporting.
As much as the broad brushstrokes of the political events permeating the areas Campbell covers are essential elements of this book, his knack for meeting and depicting members of the affected societies shapes the stories immeasurably. Whether civilian, military or official, these people tell more about the landscape than stock footage (you’ll never watch the world news the same ways again) ever could. From the leggy feminist chauvinist pigs in Belarus to the ruthlessly effective and paranoid Chinese officials who epitomise the frightening totalitarianism of the People’s Republic, Campbell has met, lived with and “insert verb here” with them all.
The occupation of journalism also puts its foot in the ring. Campbell’s technical and personal struggles are dealt with are dealt with sometimes cursorily, as necessitated by the exigencies of wartime. Campbell resists playing the disengaged superior Westerner as much as his job will allow. By describing the about-face of ex-Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, whose tears as he described the tragedy at Tienanmen Square disappeared when he was interviewed about Sino-Australian relations in the face of the growing economic strength of China, Campbell brings the hypocrisy of the West to bear. He is also subjected to the tyranny of Chinese propaganda; for the sake of his wife and unborn baby he submits to the officials’ expectations that he toe the party line and thus becomes part of China’s false face himself.
I admit my one gripe was Campbell’s propensity for cliffhanger-esque segues between the episodic chapters. His stories drip with dramatic goodness; they don’t need these cheap little flagposts. Still, Campbell seems a likeable, capable, if goofy guy. Absurdistan is a great, well-judged read by a man who loves his job, and can in fact still be seen on the ABC.