Beware leeches: An exploration of the lessons learned from eight years on the roadinto an ego-trip

Times Literary Supplment, January 7, 2015


Lutz Kleveman was twenty-six when he set off on what he calls his Wanderjahre, his eight years of wandering around the world from war zone to failed state, trouble spot to refugee camp, in search of adrenalin and to see what war – and hardship – did to people. In the process, he says, he grew up, became almost a stranger to himself and, like a snake, he shed his skin several times.

Kleveman was already a journalist, bi­lingual in English and German, and benefiting from the way the internet had opened a small door to freelancers, when he set off on his travels. A graduate of the London School of Economics, a former intern with CNN and German television, he had taught English in Budapest and written pieces for Condé Nast, when he found himself in Belgrade at the fall of Slobodan Milosevic. His father had died, and he had just inherited the family estate near Bremen. He made a pact with his mother: he would wander for ten years, then return to run it with her.

And so, turning down the offer of a place at a prestigious school of journalism, he set off, with the loose idea of picking one region at a time, exploring it thoroughly, filing stories to German and English papers, then moving on to the next. He went to West Africa and to the Balkans, to Afghanistan and Iraq, to North Korea and across Asia. He wrote about child soldiers, arms dealers, drug barons, rebel fighters, and he travelled alone, running around “like a headless stallion”, hating the idea of the “hack pack”. The good reporter, he believes, needs three qualities: curiosity, empathy and passion, of which empathy, in the sense of listening and understanding, is the most important. Beware the leeches, he writes, who squeeze out information and energy from people, only to forget them the next day.

Kleveman was never, he admits, an easy customer. Confrontational by nature, he preferred to challenge, to pick fights, rejecting what he calls the “pseudo-neutrality” of observation – shades of Martha Gellhorn’s “all that objectivity shit” – for “immersion journalism”, becoming a player rather than a bystander. Making people angry, he maintains, can yield unexpected revelations. One of the most memorable chapters in the book tells of his journey to South America where, having learnt enough Spanish to get around, he went in search of the favela drug gangs and wound up spending time with a group of boys in Rio de Janeiro, speeding around on their motor­cycles trying to avoid getting shot. Another records a brush with AIDS in the Ivory Coast. His last journey was a quest for opium, which he failed to find in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma, but finally tracked down in Laos; yet the experience was disappointing.

What he discovered in himself, however, he did not always like: a taste for being a voyeur, “sucking up” like a sponge the world around him, as if it “existed solely for my private pleasure”. With success as a journalist, he writes, he became even more impossible, arrogant, drinking too much. He seldom felt fear, saying that he was too naive, too unimaginative to judge the degree of the danger he often got himself into. At various points, he was arrested, beaten up, expelled.

Wanderjahre has a second theme. In the attics of his family home, Kleveman came across boxes of letters and papers – and a neatly folded swastika – relating to his grandfather, a Prussian monarchist who served in Hitler’s Wehrmacht. He decided to tell his story at the same time as his own, in the form of following the journey made by his grand­father as a prisoner of war of the Russians in the First World War across Siberia to Vladivostok. The papers in the boxes contained charming vignettes, such as the letter, written to his parents when he was a thirteen-year-old at cadet school. “I am now 168cm tall”, the boy wrote, “my chest measures 74–81cm and my weight is 108 pounds”. Chapters of family ­history alternate with those about his own adventures in the “mad world” of modern journalism.

This is a bold book and the juxtaposition of such very different stories, lived at such different tempos, one so hectic, the other so rooted in a stately past, is not altogether successful. The treasure trove in the attic was clearly somewhat dry, Kleveman’s ancestors not being of loquacious or intimate dispositions. At times, the book becomes a soliloquy on war, on human behaviour, on memory. And whether Lutz Kleveman will actually succeed in settling down to run the family estate in Germany, after eight years on the road, even he seems to doubt. This is a coming-of-age book, charting the emotional and intellectual growth of a young man, from raw stringer to seasoned reporter, full of questions both about himself and the times we live in. But his depiction of the modern world as a place of chaos and violence, inequality and destructiveness, is both infinitely convincing and utterly terrifying.