Humanitarian action may well conjure up a romantic world of adventure, but plotting it into fiction is not an easy task, for it’s often not as exotic as it seems, and good writing is not created from noble intentions. In her debut novel, Giselda Gargano has avoided these pitfalls. From her background as an ex-staff member of the communications department of a humanitarian organisation, she has built an enriching story, both ambitious and sensitive in scope, in which the concepts of “boundaries” and “conflicts”, serving as the underlying thread, are understood not only in a traditional sense but in a more intimate one as well. As the story unfolds through very human perspectives, it takes a close-up look at the boundaries that one may or may not cross, along with the clashes of perspectives and egos.
The book’s four main characters are archetypal, yet not caricatured. There is the Serbian nurse in Africa who exorcises her demons summoned from the Bosnian war, a well-bred surgeon who seeks to alleviate his boredom and fear of death, a nurse who defies authority, and a soldier who personifies the often-problematic proximity between humanitarian workers and armed forces – even when the latter act as peacekeepers. But the author has had the brilliant idea of having the plot revolve not only on work in the field, but also at the organisation’s headquarters, and more particularly in the communications department. In so doing, she draws a boundary, often a real one, between those who carry out humanitarian action and those who talk about it, and depicts the confrontations behind closed doors that are just as brutal at times as those that can be played out at a security checkpoint.
From these interwoven destinies that crisscross and rally around the humanitarian cause, Giselda Gargano has come up with a breathtaking story that harks back, through flashbacks, to the Sarajevo of the 1990s and the Democratic Republic of Congo of the 2000s. Her cast of characters, be they involved in an over-mediatised humanitarian-political crisis or an untold tragedy of child soldiers, helps us to better comprehend the journeys and mental mindsets of people committed to humanitarian action. One that can lend itself to self-discovery, or else loss of self.
Translated from the French by Alan Johnson