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Among the Wretched

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."  

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.

Geoff Dyer is the author of But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence and Paris Trance: A Romance. He lives in London.

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