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
Illustration by Geoffrey Grahn
FOR ALMOST 30 YEARS, RYSZARD KAPUSCINSKI was a roving foreign correspondent for the Polish Press agency. During that time he witnessed 27 revolutions and coups. While dutifully fulfilling his brief, he was also a kind of narcotic-free gonzo journalist, suddenly breaking contact with Warsaw and disappearing without a trace to throw himself "into the jungle, float down the Niger in a dugout, wander through the Sahara with nomads." In The Soccer War, he recalls how, in Nigeria in 1966, he was "driving along a road where they say no white man can come back alive. I was driving to see if a white man could because I had to experience everything for myself." At the first roadblock, he was beaten and allowed to drive on after he had paid a toll. At the second road block, he was beaten again, doused in benzene but, after handing over the rest of his money, allowed to drive on rather than being set alight. Which meant that by the time he came to the third roadblock, he was penniless and highly inflammable. Kapuscinski survived, sent in a hair-raising account of what happened, and received a telegram from his boss ordering him "to put an end to these exploits that could end in tragedy."
Fat chance. The early pages of The Shadow of the Sun, a compendium of further adventures in Africa, find him in Dar es Salaam, in 1962, where he hears that Uganda is about to gain independence. He and a friend, Leo, promptly set off for Kampala via the Serengeti with its teeming wildlife. They have no maps, they're lost, and they're confronted with an enormous herd -- "stretching almost to the horizon" -- of buffalo. They press on regardless. It gets hotter and hotter. "The burning air started to quiver and undulate." Kapuscinski begins to hallucinate. By the time they come to a hut in the middle of nowhere, Kapuscinski is "half dead." He slumps down on a bunk only to discover that his hand is dangling inches from an Egyptian cobra. He freezes. Leo approaches gingerly and slams down an enormous metal canister on the snake. Kapuscinski hurls himself on the canister as well, whereupon "the interior of the hut exploded. I never suspected there could be so much power within a single creature. Such terrifying monstrous, cosmic power." Eventually the cobra dies and they make it to Kampala. Kapuscinski is still delirious, not just from heat stroke, but -- it turns out -- malaria. Cerebral malaria. When he's just recovered from malaria, he goes down with TB . . . All in 20 pages!
Kapuscinski, it has to be said, trowels it on. On every other page of every book he is "drenched in sweat." Having risked life and limb to get into Zanzibar -- another coup, naturally -- he tries to sneak out in a boat, only to get caught in an imperfect storm that tips him from the precipice of a wave "into a roaring abyss, a rumbling darkness." Then the engine floods and cuts out. In the Sahara the sun beats down "with the force of a knife." Step out of the shade and "you will go up in flames." In Monrovia there are roaches "as big as small turtles." Is there a touch of exaggeration in all of this? Kapuscinski himself alerts us to the possibility by observing that he "could embellish" the stuff with the roaches but decides against it because it "would not be true."
The possibility, though, is always there. Experience is only the beginning -- and some writers need more of it than others. I think it was Camus who pointed out that it is possible to lead a life of great adventure without leaving your desk. At the other extreme, the adventure writer Joe Simpson can function as a writer only on condition that he remain roped to the cliff-face of personal experience. But what about someone who has the experience and is possessed of consummate intelligence and literary gifts? Then you have what Nietzsche considered "something very rare but a thing to take delight in: a man with a finely constituted intellect who has the character, the inclinations and also the experiences appropriate to such an intellect." Then you have Kapuscinski.
A great imaginative writer, he not only processes his material but goes beyond it. They may be rooted in his own experience, but his books are full of amazing digressions, little essays -- in Imperium -- on how to make cognac, on the history of the Armenian book, on anything and everything. And yet these digressions are always integral to the conception of the work. In his nomadic life he has described real places -- like the city of crates in Angola in the famous opening of Another Day of Life -- that are as fantastical as Calvino's Invisible Cities. In Ethiopia he meets "a man who was walking south. That is really the most important thing one can say about him. That he was walking north to south." It's as if Coetzee's Michael K has just wandered into the pages of a book by Ryszard K! Dozens of mininovels and their characters stray briefly into view and then move on: "All of Africa is in motion, on the road to somewhere, wandering."