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
He is lyrically succinct -- in the stupor of noon a village was "like a submarine at the bottom of the ocean: it was there, but it emitted no signals, soundless, motionless" -- and often hysterically funny. Terror turns to absurd slapstick, and vice versa. Either way, an endless capacity for astonishment holds sway. He is an unflinching witness and an exuberant stylist. And yet many fiction writers I've spoken with seem not to have heard of him. In this respect he is the victim of a received cultural prejudice that assumes fiction to be the loftiest preserve of literary and imaginative distinction. Personally I find books like Shah of Shahs -- about the Iranian Revolution -- or The Emperor -- about Haile Selassie and Ethiopia -- more novel than most novels. Kapuscinski's material generates an apparently ad hoc aesthetic that draws on the chaos threatening to engulf him. The outcome -- the formal outcome -- is perpetually uncertain, in the balance. There is perhaps a superficial resemblance to the author of The Songlines, but The Shadow of the Sun or Imperium shows Bruce Chatwin for what he was: the rich man's Kapuscinski!
KAPUSCINSKI IS STEEPED IN THE POLITICS OF everything he sees. His daring -- actual and literary -- is underwritten by an awareness of how politics complicates empathy, and of how sympathy implicates politics. There he is, a white man in Africa at the moment when countries are liberating themselves from the shackles of colonialism. But Kapuscinski is from a country that has been repeatedly ravaged by the imperial ambitions of its neighbors. He knows what it means "to have nothing, to wander into the unknown and wait for history to utter a kind word." This is one of the reasons he feels at home in Africa, among the wretched of the Earth. In other respects, he is utterly alien, making the attempt "to find a common language" more exacting. To Kapuscinski it is not Manhattan or La Defense in Paris "that represent the highest achievement of human imagination" but a "monstrous" African shantytown -- an "entire city erected without a single brick, metal rod, or square metre of glass!" The torpor of the wretched is matched by a quite phenomenal resourcefulness. Likewise, he never plays down the corruption or violence he has witnessed -- on the contrary, its prevalence makes the survival of kindness all the more remarkable. In return Kapuscinski always offers what he wanted from history: "a kind word."
This is never more evident than in Imperium when Kapuscinski has been at an airport for four days, waiting for a flight at Yakutsk. This "dreadful sort of idleness" makes him impatient, irritable. Then he falls to thinking about how "millions and millions of people the world over pass the time in just such a way." Drawing on memories of a lifetime's travel, he embarks on a worldwide survey -- from the Philippines to the Orinoco, from Karachi to Jamaica -- of all the people he has seen "not doing anything, only sitting idly and without motion." There is a lesson to be learned from this, and so, in a remarkable gesture of global solidarity, he declares: "Let us stop getting excited and thrashing about, let us stop tormenting the stewardesses with questions for which they have no answers, and, following the example of our brothers and sisters from the sleepy village of San Juan near Valdivia, from the settlements on the Gobi desert crushed by the heat, and from the littered outskirts of Shiraz, let us sit motionless, staring off into space, every hour sinking deeper and deeper into a state of mental numbness."
"There is more in men to admire than despise": This was the great truth dramatized by Camus in The Plague. Having narrowly escaped death in The Soccer War, Kapuscinski is more succinct: "There is so much crap in this world, and then suddenly, there is honesty and humanity." Few other writers have seen as much crap at first hand; none has responded with more humanity. He deserves a couple of Nobel prizes -- for literature and for peace.