Instead I learned a good deal about Mr. Sundaram. This aspiring journalist broke away from a potential US career path in academic mathematics or among the quants at Goldman Sachs, threw himself without financial backing into one of the poorest and most insecure human environs available, and lived through a series of wild misadventures to tell the tale. He's a vivid if somewhat florid writer. I was reminded of 19th century Western explorer narratives of tromping through darkest Africa -- all hardship and illness, bugs, disease and dangerous beasts, exotic natives, survived if not defeated by the author.
This is very much what Sundaram says he did not want to write about Congo. Reporting an encounter with Kinshasha street kids:
To give Sundaram his due, he describes the life of the poor but proud family with whom he boarded minutely; the terror amid boredom and massive theft that is the war also comes across; the violent and futile charade of Congolese electoral politics is here.
But in the end, this is a book about its author. Sundaram does not at all exude the smug self-referential confidence of 19th century Westerners in Africa, but I don't think I'm entirely off-based to characterize this book as a distanced, ironic 21st century contribution to same genre. Having failed to figure out much about Congo and what he was doing there, Sundaram tells his own quite dramatic story. Any insight into Congo is tangential. Maybe he is saying that's all any outsider can see? He might even be right.