By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
“After the exodus of the dogs,” he writes, “the city fell into rigor mortis. So I decided to go to the front.” His descriptions of fighting in Angola‘s rough equatorial terrain are similarly fine, as is his nervous report of the burgeoning unease in Luanda as its residents await a strike by South African troops. Another Day of Life ends on a rightly uncertain note: As Kapus´cin´ski points out in a brief, newly appended passage, war rages in Angola to this day, though the Portuguese and the South Africans fled long ago. One reads the book not for any conclusive analysis of the conflict, but for Kapus´cin´ski’s pointed observations of human nature in extremis.
The Shadow of the Sun, Kapus´cin´ski‘s sprawling new collection, is a loosely structured anthology of pieces -- several of which were previously published in The New Yorker -- recounting the writer’s journalistic adventures in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. Among his earlier books, it most resembles The Soccer War, but it lacks even the rudimentary framing devices of that book and instead serves as what the author calls “the record of a 40-year marriage” with Africa. Unfortunately, it feels like some photos are missing from the wedding album.
Kapus´cin´ski shows limited enthusiasm for retelling the more heavily reported stories that have emanated from Africa in recent years. “A Lecture on Rwanda,” a chapter on the 1994 genocide there, is every bit as stiff and uninvolved as its title suggests it might be; it seems embarrassingly cool next to Philip Gourevitch‘s impassioned 1998 report We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Though a reference to AIDS appears in the book’s jacket copy, Kapus´cin´ski mentions the disease, which now ravages as much as 15 percent of the adults in several nations in the south of the continent, precisely once. Beaten paths don‘t appear to interest this writer who lives in, and for, what he refers to as “the bush,” and that’s a critical shortcoming in these cases.
That said, there is some masterful writing here, with Kapus´cin´ski‘s customary surrealistic brush strokes. The book’s longest and most indelible piece is “The Cooling Hell,” a nightmarish account of the lunacy that has reigned in Liberia since the late strongman Samuel Doe‘s 1980 military coup. The reporter offers a vivid picture of despot-to-be Charles Taylor and his murderous rival Prince Johnson, but it’s the details worthy of Buñuel -- a hotel room crawling with thousands of enormous cockroaches; legions of Taylor‘s mutilated, drug-addicted boy-soldiers begging in the streets -- that one remembers.
Kapus´cin´ski is most interested here in locating the essence of Africa through its hostile climate, harsh terrain and deeply depressed, almost Paleolithic economic conditions. Life is virtually impossible, he implies, in a place where even water, so essential, is a scarce and priceless commodity amid blinding, baking heat and festering disease. (No one describes thirst and dehydration like Kapus´cin´ski, and a chapter about a mid-desert truck breakdown is terrifying.)
The Shadow of the Sun is finally a painterly work, and one carries away inexplicable and unforgettable images from the book: of an army of lame beggars clustered at the foot of a three-story stone temple carved into an Ethiopian mountainside; an enormous, mysterious, impassable hole paralyzing miles of traffic into the market city of Onitsha; a cluster of white rooster feathers that banishes thieves from an apartment in Lagos.
There is necromancy in this writing. Despite its frustrating blind spots, The Shadow of the Sun is often a potent exposition of visionary journalism, written from the very heart of things by a man with a magical eye.