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
“[A]s I see it,” Ryszard Kapus´cin´ski writes in Another Day of Life, “it‘s wrong to write about people without living through at least a little of what they are living through.” This simple but hazardous notion, which could stand as the Polish journalist’s credo, has resulted in some spectacular writing, and has landed Kapus´cin´ski in no small measure of trouble. All told, he has lived through quite a bit, and is lucky, very lucky, to have lived to the age of 69.
Active since 1958 as a foreign correspondent for the Polish Press Agency, Kapus´cin´ski has established himself as the great prose-poet of international disorder. His chosen field of expertise is the chronicling of strife in Third World hot spots. The capsule biography found in his books states, with considerable pride, that Kapus´cin´ski has covered 27 coups and revolutions, and has been sentenced to death four times.
He is a reporter who is not unaware of the romance of his profession, and simultaneously not unconscious of its sheer folly. After all, is it not mad for a man to stand in the middle of a fire? Yes, but intoxicating, too. And so, over the years, Kapus´cin´ski has become a connoisseur of extraordinary conflagrations, an investigator of grand infernos, and the closer he is to getting singed -- no, incinerated -- the happier he appears to be.
Maybe the defining piece in his canon is “The Burning Roadblocks,” a chapter from his 1986 book, The Soccer War. In it, he describes his full-tilt solo drive through a flaming obstacle course manned by Molotov cocktail--hurling rebels during Nigeria‘s 1966 civil war. It’s an astonishing report, at once hallucinatory, terrifying and exhilarating. Some might think, on reading this account, that Kapus´cin´ski is merely insane, or at the least junked out on adrenalin; but, as one discovers through a deepening familiarity with his work, being there is what it‘s all about for this fearless journalist.
Two current books offer a deep sampling of the writer’s immediate, intense prose. Vintage International has returned to print Another Day of Life, his 1976 book about the 1975 civil war in Angola, while Knopf has just published The Shadow of the Sun, a flawed but rewarding compilation of short pieces about Kapus´cin´ski‘s tumultuous four decades in Africa.
Another Day of Life begins with a typical confession: “All those who could were fleeing Angola. I was bent on going there.” Catching the last military plane from Lisbon, Kapus´cin´ski arrived in the West African nation’s capitol of Luanda in late ‘75, as a conflict exploded in the former Portuguese colony between poet-politician Agostinho Neto’s Marxist-backed forces and tribal factions supported by South Africa and neighboring Zaire.
In the hands of a lesser reporter, especially one working for the press arm of a socialist government, an account of the Angolan war could have become little more than an ideologue‘s paean to the courage and resiliency of undermanned and outgunned leftist forces. However, though Kapus´cin´ski is occasionally guilty of indulging in some purplish descriptions of Neto’s MPLA guerrillas (especially in a rhapsodic portrait of a doomed female commando named Carlotta), his work is usually clear-eyed and devoid of tub thumping. Politics, it must be stressed, is one of the writer‘s lesser concerns, though his sympathies are obvious; it is not surprising that he doesn’t lay out the underlying political roots of the Angolan war until the last chapter of the book. He views the instability and volatility of successive regimes with detached objectivity. His principal topic is not causes, but effects -- not why something happens, but how it feels when it happens.
Kapus´cin´ski unspools the growing chaos in Angola through a telling array of impressionistic detail. (Past comparisons of his work to that of novelists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez are on the money, for his technique draws more from metaphorical intensity than from the gray boilerplating of most reporting.) Though highly inventive by any journalistic standard, Another Day of Life is his most conventional early book; he would mate similarly keen observation with more radical storytelling techniques in his later, more complex works. His irresistible The Emperor (1978), the story of the 1974 fall of Ethiopia‘s Haile Selassie, is told in the ironically deployed voices of Selassie’s courtiers, while Shah of Shahs (1982) uses a refracted “multimedia” style -- descriptions of photos, notebook entries, cassette transcriptions -- to delineate Iran‘s Islamic revolution of 1980.
Still, Another Day of Life is distinguished by a magnificent opening chapter, in which Kapus´cin´ski deftly recounts the mounting fear and privation in Luanda as fighting escalates and the day of the nation’s official independence approaches. He writes with characteristic dark humor of the “wooden city” that flourishes as fleeing citizens begin to store their belongings in crates that tower above the town‘s streets and yards. (The crates of the rich are elegant, expensive and “as big as vacation cottages,” he notes dryly, while those of the poor are humble, ugly and jerrybuilt.) From his vantage point in the derelict Hotel Tivoli, as a diamond merchant’s wife dies of cancer and a cleaning woman putters compulsively while society collapses outside, Kapus´cin´ski watches balefully as waves of humanity abandon the city, leaving it to roving packs of dogs.
“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.