Agnès Bun’s collection of vignettes echoes Theodor Adorno’s famous comment that “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” All debates surrounding the quote aside, how does one manage to express anything at all when faced with the extremes of human suffering? I guess one way would be poetic language, because it oozes out of the pages of this short but powerful book.
Originally published in Asian Cha. Reprinted with permission.
A journalist with Agence France-Presse, Bun covers areas of conflict, such as Ukraine, as well as those devastated by natural disasters, such as the Philippines, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, with the stories named for their location. Part adventure book, part professional observation, part personal reflection on witnessing such horrific events, There’s No Poetry in a Typhoon serves to humanize both the observer, whose job is to present statistics to viewers and readers, as well as the observed: for example, their names, looks, hopes, dreams, and so on. It’s a refreshing angle on things that most people would either overlook because they happened too far away, or in a poor country that many could not locate on a map. It is particularly needed in an age where numbers desensitize people from the very real suffering those people are going through.
My favorite section of the book is perhaps the one on Ukraine, purely because it has all of those elements. The story opens with a soldier kissing Bun on the cheek and then confessing he couldn’t wait to let his mother know that he kissed a Frenchwoman. A few minutes later, “his fellow soldiers were perched on a tank, firing shots in the air to disperse residents.” The scene, like many others in the book, is almost a surreal depiction of how quickly the tide can turn, especially in conflict zones. This is not a singular event by any means; the serenity of Slavyansk, a city that had fallen to pro-Russian rebels, where Bun and her colleagues interviewed people that “warmed their hearts”, contrasts with the violence in the vicinity of their hotel, where a boy was murdered.
In some ways, perhaps, the book also meditates on the ethical considerations of mass media: what exactly should be shown to a wider audience? This is expanded upon in detail in the Philippines segment. Returning to the incident of the boy getting killed a few yards from her hotel, Bun says it was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Understandably so, given the nature of the conflict. However, this transitions to a scene where Bun and her colleagues are twice caught in crossfire. I especially enjoyed the description of Roman, their local driver, who kept his composure during the assault. His death a few months later in a car accident reminds Bun of the “ordinary bravery which manifests itself every day without ever making headlines”. It does not perhaps make headlines, but it sure makes for a good story.
Despite its length, There’s No Poetry in a Typhoon is a powerful book. It poses important questions, and it sets out to give names and faces to the people facing disasters, natural or otherwise. However, I suspect the book is most important to Bun herself. My short discussion of the one section in the book is grossly simplified, and it is insufficient to describe the depth of the language and the scenarios depicted. To be honest, the book is hard to read at times. But if it is difficult reading for me, as I sip tea in the comfort of my home, how must it feel for someone who has actually seen the sort of things contained in it? One could argue that turning real-life experiences into literature tends to fall into a certain romanticization or even melodrama but, in this case, it works. And a cynic might argue the flowery language that translates nicely into English elicits strong feelings, but that doesn’t really change the fact that the things Bun witnessed actually took place. How do you cope with that? Seeing so much misery and death over and over again?
This book, as Emil Cioran would have put it, is a form of therapy.