Ryszard Kapuscinski

(1932 - 2007)

Obituaries, here

Born in Pinsk, now in Belarus, in 1932, Kapuscinski is the pre-eminent writer among Polish reporters. After honing his skills on domestic stories, he traveled throughout the world and reported on several dozen wars, coups and revolutions in America, Asia, and especially in Africa, where he witnessed the liberation from colonialism. He has devoted several books to Africa, including his latest, the forthcoming Ebony.

After earning a reputation as an insightful reporter, Kapuscinski amazed his readers in the 1970s with a series of books of increasing literary craftsmanship in which the narrative technique, psychological portraits of the characters, wealth of stylization and metaphor, and the unusual imagery served as means of interpreting the perceived world. Kapuscinski's best-known book is just such a reportage-novel of the decline of Haile Selassie's anachronistic regime in Ethiopia - The Emperor, which has been translated into many languages.



Shah of Shahs, about the last Shah of Iran, and Imperium, about the last days of the Soviet Union, have enjoyed similar success. Kapuscinski is fascinated not only by exotic worlds and people, but also by books: he approaches foreign countries first through the gate of literature, spending many months reading before each trip. He knows how to listen to the people he meets, but he is also capable of "reading" the hidden sense of the scenes he encounters: the way that the Europeans move out of Angola, a discussion about alimony in the Tanganyikan parliament, the reconstruction of frescoes in the new Russia - he turns each of these vignettes into a metaphor of historical transformation. This tendency to process private adventures into a synthesis has made Kapuscinski an eminent thinker, and the three volumes of his Lapidarium are a fascinating record of the shaping of a reporter's observations into philosophical reflections on the world and people.




Bush po polsku. Historie przygodne (The Bush, Polish Style). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1962.

Czarne gwiazdy (Black Stars). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1963.

Kirghiz schodzi z konia (The Kirghiz Dismounts). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1968.

Gdyby cala Afryka... (If All Africa...). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1968.

Dlaczego zginal Karl von Spreti (Why Karl von Spreti Died). Warsaw: Ksiazka i Wiedza, 1970.

Chrystus z karabinem na ramieniu (Christ with a Rifle on His Shoulder). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1975.

Jeszcze dzien zycia (Another Day of Life). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1976.

Cesarz (The Emperor). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1978.

Wojna Futbolowa (The Soccer War). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1978.

Szachinszach (Shah of Shahs). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1982.

Zaproszenie do Gruzji (An Invitation to Georgia) (Published together with W. Kubicki's Slodkie morze Bajkal). Warsaw: MAW, 1983.

Notes (The Notebook) (poems). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1986.

Lapidarium. Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1990.

Imperium. Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1993.

Lapidarium II. Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1995.

Lapidarium III. Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1997.

Heban (Ebony). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1999.

Z Afryki (Out of Africa). Bielsko-Biala: Buffi, 2000.




Life is truly known only to those who suffer, lose, endure adversity and stumble from defeat to defeat.





One of the things that caught my attention as I wandered through the territory of the Imperium was the way that, even in abandoned and derelict little towns, even in almost empty bookstores, there were on sale, as a rule, maps of this country. On those maps, the rest of the world was somehow in the background, in the margins, in the shadows.

For Russians, a map is a kind of visual compensation, a special emotional sublimation, and also an object of unconcealed pride. It also serves to elucidate and excuse all shortcomings, mistakes, poverty and stagnation. Too big a country to be reformable! - explains an opponent of reform. Too big a country to be able to clean it up! - janitors shrug their shoulders from Brest to Vladivostok. Too big a country to be able to ship merchandise everywhere! - grumble the assistants in empty shops. (Imperium)







                ÉBANO Febre Africana, Campo das Letras, Porto, 2001



'The Shadow of the Sun': Africa, a Mosaic of Mystery and Sorrow


There is nobody else quite like Ryszard Kapuscinski, even though there are others who travel, observe and write about what they see. Mr. Kapuscinski is a Polish journalist whose long career has been spent in far-flung investigations of the underlying aspects of the human condition — in the Soviet Union, the Middle East, Iran and Africa. Perhaps Mr. Kapuscinski's Polishness is just a coincidence, but his burnished prose has always been marked by that special Middle European gift for unillusioned moral penetration — it being difficult, after the experiences of history, for any prescient Pole to entertain illusions about the piece of work known as man.

The penetrating intelligence of Mr. Kapuscinski's vision and his knack for a kind of crystallized descriptive writing have never been on better display than in his new book, "The Shadow of the Sun," which consists of densely eventful vignettes from his 40 years of experience in Africa. This book is a marvel of humane, sorrowful and lucid observation. It is not a full account of Africa or of Mr. Kapuscinski's activities there. Indeed, one experiences frustration at times with the spareness of these accounts, their incompleteness.

Mr. Kapuscinski rarely explains himself. He goes places for reasons that are never specifically disclosed. He avoids the Big Picture and focuses instead on the telling detail. He goes, for example, to the fabled desert city of Timbuktu because he wants to make contact with the nomadic and embattled Tuareg in what he calls "their impenetrable Sahara." But once he actually arrives in Timbuktu on an Air Mali flight from Mopti, all Mr. Kapuscinski tells us about is a plaque he sees to the 19th- century German traveler Heinrich Barth. That's it. No Tuareg. Nothing further about Timbuktu — except the sand color of its houses and its heat, which "curdles the blood, paralyzes the body, stuns."

And yet, one learns something here about the mysteriousness of things, the absence of clear answers and the sometimes colossal futility of human endeavor. And one, more generally, learns prodigiously about Africa in a book that wastes no words, contains no gestures devoid of meaning.

Mr. Kapuscinski begins in 1957 with his first visit to Africa, specifically to Ghana at that joyous, hopeful time when European imperialism was giving way to independent states. He interviews the young education minister Kofi Baako, who brims with good nature and enthusiasm and assures Mr. Kapuscinski in his belief that "an opposition is necessary."

But even then, Mr. Kapuscinski is interested less in mainstream political commentary than in the telling details, the way, for example, that the rulers' houses are ingeniously placed to catch the breeze. "Still air has no value," he remarks. "it has only to move, however, and then immediately acquires a price."

Mr. Kapuscinski never loses his affection for the people whose lives he witnesses or his awe at the magnificence of the African spectacle, its oceanic size and variety, the beauty of its landscapes, the heavy weight of its patience and its spirituality. But as the vignettes roll on one after the other, Africa, in Mr. Kapuscinski's version of it, becomes ever more afflicted, more of a disaster. We do not learn in this book what happened in Ghana after the first hopeful years, or what became of Mr. Baako, but in his fragmentary, episodic way, Mr. Kapuscinski shows a continent sliding into governmental gangsterism, dependence on foreign aid, murderous tyrannies and urban populations with nothing to do.

"We are here among people who do not contemplate transcendence and the existence of the soul, the meaning of life and the nature of being," Mr. Kapuscinski writes during a visit to a strangely deserted refugee settlement in southern Sudan. "We are in a world in which man, crawling on the earth, tries to dig a few grains of wheat out of the mud, just to survive another day."

Mr. Kapuscinski, whose Polish has been rendered into sparkling English by his translator, Klara Glowczewska, makes no effort to be comprehensive. There is nothing in these pages filled with accounts of tyrants — of Mobutu Sese Seku of Zaire, now known as Congo, for example; no account of the terrible Nigerian civil war or of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Mr. Kapuscinski does give us gripping capsule histories of the slaughters of Hutus by Tutsis and of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda. He writes with crisp gloominess about the civil war in Sudan and of the sanguinary years of Idi Amin in Uganda. He gives a hair- raising account of the tormented history of Liberia, an account that makes a mockery of internationalist good intentions.

"Liberia is the voluntary continuation of a slave society by slaves who did not wish to abolish an unjust order, but wanted to preserve it, develop it and exploit it for their own benefit," he writes of the country created in the 19th century by American campaigners against slavery. "Clearly, an enslaved mind, tainted by the experience of slavery, a mind born into slavery, fettered in infancy, cannot conceive or conjure a world in which all would be free."

Some of the passages in this book require a strong stomach, like Mr. Kapuscinski's description of the two- hour videotape of the death-by-torture of Liberia's former President Samuel Doe by one of his rivals and former associates, Prince Johnson. But the brilliance of Mr. Kapuscinski's capacity for unusual perception also lies in the smaller things he notes, like the revolution occasioned by the arrival of cheap, light plastic water jugs, which replaced the much heavier stone and earthenware jugs used earlier. The practical effect of this technological revolution is that children can now carry water, relieving "the exhausted African woman" of that duty. "How much more time she now has for herself, for her household!" Mr. Kapuscinski notes.

There is much more in the way of observation — often sardonic and powerful — on, for example, the helpfulness to the users of child-soldiers offered by the smaller sizes of today's weapons. Mr. Kapuscinski has written a startling, sobering, mesmerizing account of a few isolated parts of a larger vastness, giving us sharper, clearer images and understandings than many more conventional and more comprehensive books have managed.

New York Times, 11-5-2001


Afrique fractale

Putschs, massacres interethniques, famines mais aussi fêtes du quotidien. Une introduction au continent noir par le Polonais Kapuscinski, artiste du grand reportage.

Ce n'est pas facile d'écrire sur l'Afrique. Ryszard Kapuscinski en sait quelque chose, qui, depuis plus de quarante ans, arpente ce continent, où il a vécu longtemps comme correspondant de l'Agence de presse polonaise. Ce journaliste de 68 ans, dont Salman Rushdie a dit qu'il avait élevé le grand reportage au rang d'art, a ramené de ses tribulations plusieurs ouvrages, et notamment le Négus, sur l'empereur éthiopien Hailé Sélassié, devenu un classique du genre, tout comme le Shah, en 1980. Pas plus que les précédents, Ebène, aujourd'hui traduit, ne prétend être un essai définitif sur l'Afrique noire contemporaine mais plutôt, comme son sous-titre l'indique, une succession d'«aventures africaines». L'ensemble prend la forme de brefs chapitres, qui mènent d'Addis Abeba à Zanzibar et de Bamako à Kampala, et dont l'ordonnancement obéit moins à la chronologie (il y a très peu de dates) et à l'autobiographie (malgré quelques souvenirs personnels, une attaque de cobra, une succession de cambriolages, une crise de paludisme, une embuscade dans le désert) qu'à une volonté anthropologique de dégager des lignes de force, des tendances profondes. Ainsi agencées par un conteur-né, ces impressions d'Afrique dévoilent une mosaïque foisonnante, un collage à la mesure de l'extraordinaire diversité du continent, un «puzzle» fait de «minuscules cailloux, cubes, coquillages, bûchettes, paillettes et feuilles» et dont les «pièces changent de forme, de couleur pour former un spectacle étourdissant par sa mobilité, sa richesse, ses vibrations colorées».

Il y a d'autres raisons à cette présentation morcelée, fractale, de l'Afrique subsaharienne. «Les gens qui écrivent sur l'Europe, remarque Ryszard Kapuscinski, ont la vie facile. L'écrivain n'a qu'à s'arrêter à Florence, où il situera par exemple l'action de son roman. L'histoire s'occupera du reste. [...] Quelle chance il a! Il lui suffit de marcher et de regarder. Le monde qui l'entoure glisse tout seul sous sa plume. [...] Monrovia (capitale du Liberia, NDLR) place le visiteur dans une situation tout à fait différente. Des petites maisons identiques, toutes de guingois et à l'abandon, s'étirent sur des kilomètres. On passe d'une rue à l'autre sans s'en apercevoir, si bien que seule la fatigue, qui se fait sentir très vite sous ce climat, nous informe que nous nous trouvons dans une autre partie de la ville.» De plus, les langues européennes ne suffisent pas à rendre compte d'un univers si différent, de sa perpétuelle démesure: «Chaque langue européenne est riche, mais sa richesse est au service de la description de sa propre culture, elle est là pour représenter son propre monde. Quand elle veut aborder le terrain d'une autre culture et la décrire, elle dévoile ses limites, son immaturité, son désarroi sémantique.» Ce phénomène est accentué par l'absence d'archives et de tradition historiographique. En Afrique, écrit l'auteur, «l'histoire surgit de but en blanc, tombe comme un deus ex machina, récolte sa moisson de sang, ravit ses victimes et disparaît. Ni vu ni connu!»

La position de l'observateur complique encore les choses. «Je suis un Blanc. En Pologne, en Europe, je n'y avais jamais pensé. Cette réflexion ne m'était jamais venue à l'esprit. Ici, en Afrique, elle devenait déterminante, capitale, et pour les gens simples, unique. Un Blanc. Le Blanc, c'est le colon, le pillard, l'occupant. J'ai envahi l'Afrique, j'ai envahi le Tanganyika, j'ai exterminé la tribu de celui qui se trouve en ce moment en face de moi, j'ai exterminé ses ancêtres.» Bien qu'il ne parvienne pas à se «sentir coupable» et qu'il essaye de «contre-attaquer», au risque d'exaspérer ses interlocuteurs —«Vous avez été colonisés? Mais pour nous, les Polonais, c'est pareil! Pendant cent trente ans, nous avons été la colonie de trois Etats étrangers, des Blancs par-dessus le marché!»—, Ryszard Kapuscinski, pendant longtemps, s'est senti mal en Afrique: «La couleur blanche de ma peau, en dépit des privilèges qu'elle m'offrait, me maintenait derrière les barreaux de l'apartheid.» D'autant que les mentalités locales, contrairement à d'autres, supportent mal la critique venue de l'extérieur, souvent assimilée à une «offense», et ne pratiquent guère l'autocritique. Seul moyen pour le journaliste de rompre ces barrières: ne pas habiter dans les quartiers blancs, voyager à la dure, se fondre le plus possible dans le paysage et vivre à l'africaine, au plus près des gens et des choses. Mais une telle attitude exige beaucoup de conviction et de ténacité. En ce sens, Ebène, qui constitue une excellente introduction aux réalités d'un continent souvent énigmatique pour le néophyte —il suffit pour s'en rendre compte de lire le chapitre sur le génocide rwandais, d'une magistrale clarté—, est aussi un voyage et une expérience intérieurs.

D'Ebène, surgit une Afrique aussi multiple qu'excessive, installée sur une autre échelle de valeurs et de temps. Des portraits de dictateurs aux guerres oubliées (notamment au Soudan), des stigmates de la décolonisation aux putschs militaires, des enfants-soldats aux massacres interethniques, des famines à l'apartheid, le tableau est sombre, un peu démoralisant. Ryszard Kapuscinski ne se veut cependant pas pessimiste: il consacre plusieurs chapitres à des sujets moins sinistres, davantage tournés vers la vie quotidienne, qui révèlent un aspect plus festif, plus insouciant, plus drôle du continent. Selon lui, le vrai problème de l'Afrique n'est pas la guerre —80 % du continent vit en paix— mais la pauvreté. Et il est convaincu que ce n'est pas en imitant l'Europe que l'Afrique se (re) construira, mais en inventant des réponses appropriées à des problèmes spécifiques, comme la faiblesse structurelle des Etats et le pouvoir sans frontière des multinationales et des seigneurs locaux de la guerre. Il souligne à ce sujet combien l'Europe est de plus en plus considérée par l'Afrique sans complexe d'infériorité, mais comme un continent lointain, exotique même. Cette naissance d'un espace africain, cette appropriation des cultures et des identités par les peuples eux-mêmes, constituent aux yeux de Ryszard Kapuscinski un renversement spectaculaire, suffisant en tout cas, face à toutes les tragédies en cours, pour entretenir l'espoir.


 Libération, 2-11-2000





Arts Extra: The Prince of Reportage


Ryszard Kapuscinski, chronicler of Third World, explores his time in Africa in a new book

May 3 -  The Polish journalist and author Ryszard Kapuscinski is sitting in a corner armchair in the stately, book-lined Midtown apartment of his editor and friend, Sonny Mehta. Mehta isn't home-no one is-but the "shy" Kapuscinski (his word) is filling up the still apartment with words.

THE FORMER POLISH PRESS AGENCY correspondent is talking about his staggering, ongoing career as chronicler of the Third World; his new book on Africa, "The Shadow of the Sun" (published by Knopf); Idi Amin ("I knew him, a very stupid man"); Julius Nyerere ("a great intellectual"); Herodotus ("a great reporter, the father of reportage-I'm doing a book on him"); the intrepid World Cup midfielder Zbigniew Boniek; the aphorisms of E.M. Cioran; Curzio Malaparte, the Italian correspondent; Zanzibar, and the great desert. Now he's talking about fear: "Fear is a feeling everyone has," he says enthusiastically, in a deliberate, accented English, that, for some reason, makes him self-conscious. "But the difference is some can dominate fear and others can't."

        Meaning? "If you want to be there, in a place, if you have to be there, and you're so dedicated to really reaching your goal you don't think about the fear. And when you're in a dangerous situation, it always looks more dangerous from afar than from inside."

        Kapuscinski would know. While reporting on some 30 revolutions, he was a match flick away from incineration in Nigeria after being doused with benzene, sentenced to death in Congo and survived a shoot-out in the Honduran jungle. He had cerebral malaria that left him unconscious in a dilapidated hotel room for three days and a case of tuberculosis that nearly ended his foreign-reporting career prematurely. He went eyeball-to-eyeball, nearly, with a diabolical Egyptian cobra, got a flat in the Serengeti and was surrounded by lions and nearly capsized in a petulant Zanzibar Channel. Each time, Kapuscinski was saved by chance or the anonymous hand of humanity.

        "There was much more," he says, laughing, "but I don't want to just write about those adventures. It would be boring."

        So the most remarkable thing about the 69-year-old Kapuscinski-and there's a lot-is that he's even alive at all. His hair on the sides, which is all he has, is white but he looks fit and healthy. He's just revisited Latin America for what will be the second part of a trilogy of observations and recollections, followed by a volume on Asia, especially the Islamic world.

        "The Shadow of the Sun" is the first part and takes him back to the place he's most closely associated with: Africa. It's his sixth book translated into English, though he has 20 out in Poland (the country he always returns to, sometimes after years away). He's been translated into 30 languages and speaks six himself: French, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, English and his native Polish (the language he always writes in), with a working knowledge of Swahili and Arabic.

        His titles are iconic: "The Emperor" (on Haile Selassie), "The Shah of Shahs" (on the last Shah of Iran), "The Soccer War" (a series of short pieces from Latin America and Africa), "Another Day of Life," (his just-back-in-print sleeper about Portugal's withdrawal from Angola in 1975) and "Imperium" (on the fall of the Soviet Union). The Selassie and Iran books are his anomalous masterpieces, like nothing before or since. Both are slim, less than 200 pages, both in three parts. The emperor's fall is told through the sycophants who surrounded him, but it ends up being a larger meditation on the nature of authoritarian rule, Ethiopia serving as the backdrop. The Iranian revolution is reiterated through photographs scattered on his desk. And as if with a long telephoto lens, he focuses on the exact moment a revolution becomes a revolution: when the demonstrator no longer fears authority.

        Kapuscinski says he was attracted to these parts, these circumstances, from his own upbringing in Pinsk (now located in Belarus) during World War II. "I think partially it was my childhood. This was the poorest part of Europe, still is. My parents were schoolteachers but when the war came there was terrible hunger, poverty, the winter was coming, I had no shoes. I know what it means to have no shoes, I know what it means not to eat for several days, I know what it means when there's shooting. So in places like Africa I feel very much at home. I understand them, and I communicate with those situations. I'm empathetic."

        But it's more than empathy that makes Kapuscinski Kapuscinski. For one, it's his personality. He's not a Type A: he readily admits fear, gets sick and weak, gets lost (and asks for directions), gets beaten up, robbed, made the fool of, depressed. There's an ego there, for sure, and ambitions ("my ambition," he'll say now, "is to invent my own style of writing, my own genre of writing"), but somehow he's different from, say, some of the brawnier correspondents of today, who, you sense, are angling for a contract from Tina Brown or a handsome mid-six-figure book deal or (better yet) movie rights. Or a TV camera. Kapuscinski only envied the guy with the Zenith shortwave radio.

        Then there's his approach: he's insightful but never patronizing. He obviously has an affinity for the culture, but it's without sickening white guilt. He's an acute observer who finds the extraordinary in the quotidian.

        In his new book, in a piece of impressionism on Ghana, he writes: "I arrived in Kumasi with no particular goal. Having one is generally deemed a good thing, the benefit of something to strive toward. This can also blind you, however: you see only your goal, and nothing else, while this something else-wider, deeper-may be considerably more interesting and important."

        Kapuscinski finds that "something else" takes it, makes it a fable or collects them and makes a collage or brings a character to life.

        Later in the book, describing the bureau chief of Agence France Presse in Nairobi, he writes: "He knew everything." Kapuscinski didn't know everything, and didn't think he did and was open to discovery. He posed questions, even if he found some to be unanswerable.

        And there is lots that is unanswerable in Africa. He got there in the hopeful late 1950s, the end of colonial rule, Africa's Great Leap Forward, but over the decades saw parts of the continent disintegrate into warfare-often fought by children-and famine and disease.

        The short pieces in the book reflect this. Some are more dramatic than others, some are cautionary, some are searing primers (on Rwanda, Liberia, Sudan and Uganda under Amin), some are just odd and little (and beautiful) Kapuscinskian tales. Good 20th-century European that he is he eschews plot for the great or small episode.

        The book is not without repetition. He makes the point more than once that he could've moved to the more livable parts of town but always turned down those opportunities. "How else can I get to know this city? This continent?" (It's a point, too, he makes in "The Soccer War.") And the book seems to reflect a European (or is it universal?) awe/fascination with the physique of the black male: "a powerful, well-built young man named Traore"; Habyarimana, the Radovan Karadzic of the Hutus, "is massively built, powerful...."; "The driver ... was like the majority of his countrymen, tall and powerfully built."; "he was a brutal, greedy large man"; "with their strength, grace, and endurance, the indigenous move about naturally...."

        Still, it's as good as Kapuscinski has given us.

        Geography and the unforgiving climate, as the title suggests, is a leitmotif and he describes heat richly and differently somehow each time. In the Mauritanian Sahara: "The night chill had set in, a chill that descends abruptly and, after the burning hell of the sun-filled days, can be almost piercingly painful." In Monrovia: "Dusk too is stifling, sticky, slimy. And evening? The evening steams with a hot, smothering mist. And Night? Night envelops us like a wet burning sheet." In Timbuktu: "The heat curdles the blood, paralyzes the body, stuns."

        All along, and everywhere, even amid despair, there is grace and Kapuscinski takes us there. What's missing, intentionally (and thankfully), are specific political details. "I'm not a political writer," he says. "I don't like to talk about politics, and I'm not a specialist. My attitude, my approach, is cultural anthropology-and literature. I don't talk to political leaders, never. Besides politics is a big mess. It's not interesting, and everything is changing so quickly. It's a waste of time."

        Although he must realize that he's revered by writers, editors and readers the world over he says only: "To do this work you have to be very modest."

        He's hoping to convince Sonny Mehta to publish his aptly titled Lapidarium series of shorter observations and experiences from his travels. Then he'll be writing-and traveling, and writing and traveling some more, using his usual methods. "I feel very bad in five-star hotels," he says. "I feel awkward. I like to make things for myself, not to be served."

        And the danger? The fear? "I've become an optimist," he says. "I trust people."


By Michael J. Agovino                 

in Newsweek, May, 28, 2001




                                 MAIS UM DIA DE VIDA - ANGOLA 1975, Campo das Letras, Porto, 1998



IN the 1960's, as the wind of change swept across Africa, most of the old colonial powers set about divesting themselves of their colonies and granted them independence. All except Portugal. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, one of the last of the European dictators, refused to countenance such a heretical idea. As a result, in the colony of Angola, Portugal found itself embroiled in a protracted guerrilla war against two nationalistic liberation movements. The first was the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, pro-Marxist and led by Agostinho Neto. The other was pro-Western, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola, and was led by Holden Roberto. Then, in 1966, a faction broke away from the National Front and dubbed itself the Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or Unita. It was pro-Western too, but its main support came from South Africa. Its leader was Jonas Savimbi.

The 1974 revolution in Portugal initiated a sudden change in colonial policy. Early independence was swiftly granted to Angola. Plans to form a tripartite transitional government based on the cooperation of the rival factions inevitably failed. In 1975 Neto's Popular Movement was notionally in control, but it was waging war on two fronts against the armies of the other factions. And in the meantime all the Portuguese settlers fled. The country effectively fell apart.

This is the background to Ryszard Kapuscinski's short but completely compelling book, set in the months immediately preceding Angola's independence and the formal installation of Neto as the country's first president. I mention it here simply because knowledge of Angola's recent history is taken for granted in the book. A short summary would have been a real asset, as would a map, but never mind - in a work of this nature and quality (well aided by the translators, William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand), such shortcomings are easily overlooked.

In 1975 Mr. Kapuscinski, a celebrated Polish journalist, was in Luanda with the Popular Movement. From the north National Front columns were advancing on the capital city, and from the south came the South African Army and Unita. Luanda, once regarded as Africa's Rio de Janeiro, has been abandoned by its white population and has fallen into decrepitude and disrepair. From this base Mr. Kapuscinski journeys by road and air in search of the elusive front lines. He visits captured villages, he witnesses prisoners being interrogated, he makes a perilous journey through Unita territory to deliver supplies to a beleaguered garrison. He teams up with other foreign journalists, befriends Cuban soldiers, discusses Agostinho Neto's poetry with the President himself. But this book is not simply a conflation of old dispatches from one of the world's forgotten trouble spots. The whole tone of ''Another Day of Life'' is diverting and particular. Mr. Kapuscinski's attitude is not that of the typical war correspondent - or so it seems to me. We find none of that swaggering world-weariness or affected, tough misanthropy that characterizes most journalistic accounts from war zones.

In fact, this book seems informed by the novelist's eye rather than the journalist's. It might be the product of a Graham Greene or a V. S. Naipaul. It is fragmentary, anecdotal and impressionistic. For example, what he notices about Luanda, and what fascinates him, as the hostile columns advance up to the city's suburbs, is that in a vast open-air cinema in the north of the city the pornographic film ''Emmanuelle'' plays all day: ''The owner [ of the cinema ] fled to Lisbon but the projectionist remained behind, and so did a print of . . . 'Emmanuelle.' The projectionist shows it uninterrupted, over and over, gratis, free for everyone, and crowds of kids rush in, and soldiers who have got away from the front, and there's always a full house, a crush, and an uproar.''

This idiosyncratic eye, and the laconic, candid way its observations are recorded, are what make ''Another Day of Life'' so memorable. More important, the author pins down the nature of war in modern Africa, its particular terrors, lunacies and disasters. This may be a false distinction: a small, nasty war in Africa may be very like a small, nasty war in Southeast Asia or South America. But it seems to me (perhaps because the only war I've ever been on the fringe of was in Nigeria) that the chaos and sheer contingency that govern all conflicts seem amplified in Africa. Mr. Kapuscinski has captured this quite brilliantly. Throughout the book, in the decaying surreal city or the tense journeys through the bush, one senses just how fragile is our sense of order, our idea of a comprehensible world.

The book is full of subtle truths and oblique insights. The grand declaration, the impassioned protest, is shunned. Mr. Kapuscinski's aim is modest, governed by a belief that at one point - setting aside his reticence -he explicitly states: ''The world contemplates the great spectacle of combat and death, which is difficult for it to imagine in the end, because the image of war is not communicable - not by the pen, or the voice, or the camera. War is a reality only to those stuck in its bloody, dreadful, filthy insides. To others it is pages in a book, pictures on a screen, nothing more.''

The intriguing paradox here is that once you have acknowledged that eventual futility, that final gap between raw experience and artful reproduction (which most communicators don't), then your conditional, handicapped response to what you witness or live through allows you to get closer to the bizarre, ghastly reality than you might with more grandiose ambitions for ''telling it as it is.'' And Ryszard Kapuscinski shows us exactly how to do so. AUTOCRATS HE HAS KNOWN WARSAW

Since 1960, Ryszard Kapuscinski has lived in or passed through more than 100 countries, witnessing, among other things, 27 coups, revolutions and national upheavals. By his account, the capital he brought to these wanderings included not much money but ample reserves of empathy and Polishness. ''Empathy is perhaps the most important quality for a foreign correspondent. If you have it, other deficiencies are forgivable; if you don't, nothing much can help,'' said the 54-year-old writer, whose work has been translated into 21 languages. In a recent conversation in Warsaw, the writer said he was nurtured in empathy during his childhood in Pinsk, now part of the Soviet Union. ''It was a world of all types of people, Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Armenians, gypsies - living not necessarily in harmony but at least in proximity. You learned to feel, to sense how others lived. When I came to places like Nigeria, Angola, Iran, Brazil or Algeria, I found it easy to talk to ordinary people, to find out what was important in their lives. Everywhere was at least a little like Pinsk.''

He has written 11 books and each, he says, has its distinct structure. For example, ''The Emperor,'' the book that first brought Mr. Kapuscinski international attention, was an account of the decline and collapse of the reign of Haile Selassie, written from the perspective of palace retainers, including minor princes and such attendants as the keeper of the royal lap dogs. Mr. Kapuscinski believes that part of the book's popularity was based on the assumption of readers everywhere that the allegorical description of a crumbling autocrat actually described the totalitarian figures they knew best and hated most. Mr. Kapuscinski is in a special position for a Polish writer. A member of Solidarity before it was disbanded, he has seen all his books officially issued even as he has written for underground publications. He refuses to say whether he had any still-reigning autocrats in mind when writing ''The Emperor'' or ''Shah of Shahs,'' his work about the fall of the Shah of Iran. He has, however, noted in passing that cryptic communication is a virtually inborn Polish trait. 

MICHAEL T. KAUFMAN                  

   New York Times, 15-12-1987





The Decline and Fall of the Russian Empire

It is not quite right to call Ryszard Kapuscinski a cult figure. His books are translated into 19 languages. His adoring book-jacket blurbs come from big names. His reviews are enviable. Still, he is one of those writers whose works are hard to find in chain bookstores but are objects of devotion in the home libraries of journalists and writers, who know from their own researches that his places and people are true, and who know that what he does is much harder than it looks.

For many years the pre-eminent foreign correspondent of the Polish Press Agency, Mr. Kapuscinski writes contemplative travelogues of wars, coups and societies in various states of upheaval. He is a kind of mosaicist, piecing together vignettes and encounters and trip notes and snippets of history until they add up to something rich. The book best known in the United States, "The Soccer War," is a sampler of dispatches from the third world, but even his two quasi-biographies, of the Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie ("The Emperor") and the Shah of Iran ("Shah of Shahs"), are artful salades composees of oral history and observation rather than conventional portraits. This kind of reporting succeeds because Mr. Kapuscinski is an enchanting guide, combining boundless stamina, felicitous writing, childish curiosity and the literate authority of a true intellectual. In addition, his dispatches from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, and especially his profiles of tyrants, were spiced by the subversive implications they contained for his own, then-sequestered society.

"Imperium," capably translated by Klara Glow czewska, compiles his journalistic travels into Russia and its colonies from 1958 until the early 1990's. The format is the same as in his earlier books -- the musings of a literate wanderer -- but the result is inevitably different.

Foreign correspondents often fantasize about going home to investigate their own countries with the distance and perspective of well-informed outsiders. It almost never works, because home is too much in us, and because the reporter knows he is now writing about his reader. For Mr. Kapuscinski and his first audience, the Poles, the Imperium, the former Soviet empire, is home, or awfully close. His opening chapter is a boyhood recollection of the Russians overrunning his hometown, Pinsk, then in eastern Poland, in 1939. He describes the boxcars of suspected wrong-thinkers singled out for deportation, the drunken Bolsheviks bombarding the city's great church with their cannon. It is a moving story, but it is also fair warning that what follows is not the detached reporting of his earlier works.

Because Mr. Kapuscinski is such a keen observer, there are treasures in this book. His visit to Vorkuta, the arctic mining and gulag city, is a triumphant combination of bleak history and black comedy. His account of feckless coal miners trying to organize themselves, but failing because only the bosses know how to run meetings, is a wonderful miniature of Russia's pratfalls in the theater of new democracy.

He mines wisdom from the excruciating dailiness of Soviet life: how the spirit of the Russian village survives in urban apartment blocks, how the art of asking questions atrophies in a totalitarian state. He renders perfectly the bedlam of the Yerevan airport; the uniquely Soviet absurdity of a mosque converted to a billiard parlor; the mutual incomprehension of the new Russian democrats and their Western counterparts. He sums up the militarized Soviet economy with a sardonic conceit: Why is it impossible to buy a hoe in Smolensk? Because the entire metallurgy industry is busy making barbed wire for the borders and concentration camps.

Perhaps because he believes Russia is inexorably mired in its history, he writes rather more of the past than the present. He tours the Stations of the Terror -- catacombs for secret prayer in Moldova, mass graves in Ukraine, gulag sites in Vorkuta and Magadan. He cites extensive passages from indigenous memoirs, all of which he seems to have read. His history is often vividly told. In Mr. Kapuscinski's version, the story of the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, built by the czars in 45 years and demolished by Stalin in four months, is a chilling evocation of Bolshevik despotism. But one finishes this book feeling the author has communed more with the spirits of the dead than with the living.

About the Russians, he writes with the condescension of a European intellectual for the benighted Eastern peasants. Mr. Kapuscinski's Russians, except for a few dissident intellectuals held up as a rebuke to the nation, are willfully ignorant, joyless, expansionist in their instincts, servile in their acceptance of tyranny. Mr. Kapuscinski seems to agree with the Marquis de Custine, an earlier peripatetic in the Imperium, who wrote in 1839: "Men have adored the light, the Russians worship the eclipse: when will their eyes be opened?"

In contrast, he dotes on the colonized minorities. He is thrilled about the prospects of independent Ukraine (an optimism many Ukrainians have lost, as reflected in their recent election of a president who promises greater economic solidarity with Russia), and he waxes romantic about the historical consciousness of the Armenians -- although their virulent hatred of the Azerbaijanis finally drives him to a disclaimer on the folly of extreme nationalism. He seems to relish the prospect that Russia, having lost its outer colonies, will itself be pried to pieces by its Bashkirs, Yakuts and other minorities.

"Imperium" is full of infuriating loose ends. "Television gave to perestroika a dimension that no other event in the history of the Imperium had ever had," he observes, correctly. Then he drops the subject. He describes a journey back to his childhood home in Pinsk, now in the independent state of Belarus. After announcing his arrival, he tells us nothing about the place.

The book peters out with a chapter summing up the Gorbachev era. It is a disheartening muddle of historical synopsis, trite academic generalizations and term-paper notes -- the two theaters of perestroika, the three stages of social revolution, the three processes that "will come to predominate in Russian life." "And the future?" he writes, as the reader winces. "A difficult question." I like to think this chapter was the idea of a misguided editor who hoped to package the book as more than the sum of its parts, without realizing that a Kapuscinski book is already that. 'YOU HAVE TO GO OUTSIDE MOSCOW'

Ryszard Kapuscinski is drawn to situations that repel other people: ethnic wars, the dissolution of nations, border conflicts between hostile cultures. "The border is the main problem of the end of our century," he said in a telephone interview. "Without abolishing borders we will never be able to solve the problems of our culture."

Mr. Kapuscinski is spending a year in Berlin on a cultural grant before returning to his home in Warsaw, although he is never anywhere for very long. He said he was compelled to begin the travels (of nearly 40,000 miles) that became "Imperium" when he realized that the Soviet Union was teetering and that the Western press would report on it exclusively from the capital. "To know something about the Soviet Union you have to go outside Moscow," he explained. "You must show what has happened on two levels: the level of Moscow and the level of the common Russian life. My book is all about this tension, this conflict, this contradiction."

The 62-year-old writer recognizes that something is lost when even the most repressive nations implode. "People in the West think that if the culture of Central Europe disappeared, that would be O.K. But it would be as if Venice were destroyed. You'd never be able to reconstruct it."

TOBIN HARSHAW              

New York Times, 25-9-1994




                    THE SOCCER WAR


Dispatches From a Secret Continent

Ryszard Kapuscinski is celebrated for two books on the third world, "The Emperor," which described the last days of the court of the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and "Shah of Shahs," about the downfall of the Pahlevi regime in Iran. "The Soccer War" is part of the raw material from which his earlier books were made, a collection of essays and notes based on his 22 years as a reporter working for the Polish Press Agency.

In "The Soccer War," as translated by William Brand, Mr. Kapuscinski has lost none of his ability to produce a startling fact. In a bar in Accra, Nigeria, he met a whore, a Nankani girl from the north of Ghana, whose face was tattooed. "The custom," he writes, "dates from when the southern tribes conquered the northern ones and sold them to the whites as slaves, and so the northerners disfigured their foreheads, cheeks and noses to make themselves unsalable goods. In the Nankani language the words for ugly and free mean the same thing." Among many explanations for the African custom of facial scarification I have never come across this one before, but the symbolism is memorable, and if it is not true it clearly should be.

A question about "The Emperor" asked by some of those who had covered the same story at the same time was, "Is this reportage or is it fiction?" The answer suggested by writers as distinguished as John Updike and Salman Rushdie was "Does it matter?" The writing was so vivid, the anecdotes so rich, that "The Emperor" seemed to establish a sort of third truth of its own somewhere between fact and fiction. In Mr. Kapuscin ski's writing Ethiopia became a magical country, and readers had the impression that something essential about Ethiopian society had been revealed, something that helped to explain what more pedantic accounts could never have begun to suggest.

The problem with this approach is that one cannot begin to judge the merits of a story until one knows whether it was observed or invented. Different criteria apply. The reader is lost until he knows which ones to use. The highly imaginative use of facts is a legitimate craft but it demands a strict discipline. Pure invention has no place in it. Mr. Kapuscinski tends not to violate the truth but to transpose it, while continuing to present it as factual. "The Soccer War" contains an anecdote from the Ogaden region of Somalia: "In earlier days the most ingenious forms of torture included stripping a white person naked and leaving him alone with the sun." Again a powerful symbol of African resistance to white incursion, but -- the question must be asked -- when were these "earlier days"? Who was carrying out this torture, and against which white people? The Ogaden has never been a heavily colonized region. And the torture would of course be equally effective in a desert if carried out on a black man. Now and again Mr. Kapuscinski has the story so much to himself that he seems to be describing a secret continent, almost another planet -- legitimate ground for the writer of fiction but not for the reporter.

Perhaps Mr. Kapuscinski's tendency to rework facts stems from the tensions he experienced when reporting for an Eastern European news agency during the years of the cold war. His daily dispatches were routinely censored before publication. He describes one incident when he ran into trouble with a functionary at the Polish Foreign Ministry and was consequently suspended for contradicting the party line on future developments in the Congo. What right had he to do that? He had merely spent months in the place. But most of the time his choice of the third world was a good one because the party line was the line he wanted to follow anyway -- anticolonial and pro-third world. He was generally free to write truthfully and be published.

However, his background in Communist Eastern Europe may not have provided him with the best understanding of colonialism and, as this book shows, his analysis was sometimes dated and clumsy. One of the major pieces in this book is "Algeria Hides Its Face," about the overthrow of President Ahmed Ben Bella by the army commander Col. Houari Boumedienne in 1965. When Mr. Kapuscinski is describing the excitable chatter of Ben Bella or the moment when the President is awakened in the middle of the night to find his most trusted lieutenant looking at him down the barrel of a gun, he is on form. His picture of Boumedienne attending a reception shortly after the coup is revealing: "After receiving the guests he sat in a chair against the wall and stared silently at an empty corner of the room. I do not know if he exchanged a single sentence with anyone."

But when he gives us a background summary of the political divisions in Algeria he is less convincing. He overrates the support enjoyed by the revolutionary National Liberation Front and fails to explain Algerian opposition to the liberation movement. Unfortunately, "The Soccer War" contains quite a lot of this unperceptive analysis of African and Latin American politics.

The best parts of the book are the author's memories of being arrested by undisciplined troops in the Congo in 1961 and the book's title piece, an account of the famous occasion in 1970 when El Salvador and Honduras went to war in the wake of a World Cup football clash. This is a wonderful story, and Mr. Kapus cinski makes the most of its farcical Lilliputian side: "Advancing Salvadoran tanks had already penetrated deep into Honduran territory. The Salvadorans were moving to order; push through to the Atlantic, then to Europe and then the world!" In that war Mr. Kapuscin ski was the only person reporting from the Honduran side for two days. He may even have conjured it into existence as his agency reports from the central post office in Tegucigalpa seeped through the world information network, and a border clash turned into an event that left 6,000 dead and 50,000 refugees in only 100 hours.

Mr. Kapuscinski was soon in the front line (not for the first time; he is evidently a recklessly brave man), his face pressed into the boots of a Honduran soldier as they crawled together through the undergrowth hoping to avoid any contact with the enemy. The soldier was delighted to meet a Polish journalist carrying a piece of paper from the Honduran high command that ordered all subordinates to assist the bearer. "We will go [ to the rear ] together, senor ," the soldier said. " Senor will say that he has commanded me to accompany him." And they did go, but there was a death scene on the way. Mr. Kapuscinski is a specialist in death scenes. This one lasts a page and a half; an anonymous soldier's end is described in pathetic detail. One does not finish reading the passage with the sense that either the dead man's life or one's own has been greatly dignified, but one does believe that is how it was.

The author has more success with a description of the public execution of a Salvadoran guerrilla in the football stadium in San Miguel. At Victoriano Gomez's execution, which was a national event, the television reporters shouted at him to walk back to the middle of the stadium so they could get a better picture. His mother was present to watch him die. Mr. Kapuscinski's account is powerful and touching: "The government decided to promote his death. . . . before a standing-room-only crowd, in close-up. Let the whole nation watch. Let them watch, and let them think." Then he simply repeats those words: "Let them watch. Let them think."

The book contains some careless statements, such as: "The only chance small countries from the Third World have of evoking a lively international interest is when they decide to shed blood. This is a sad truth, but so it is." Yet in "The Emperor" Mr. Kapuscinski argued that a dynasty was overthrown because of international interest aroused by a famine. "The Soccer War" is not as impressive as "The Emperor," but it is recognizably from the same pen. Perhaps its main interest is that it tells us as much about the author and his writing as his first book revealed about Haile Selassie. A TROPICAL DEPRESSION

Here are two friends sitting at the bar for several hours, drinking beer. Through the windows they can see the waves of the Atlantic, palms, girls on the beach. None of it means anything to them. They are sunk in depression; they have wall eyes, pained spirits, atrophied bodies. . . . Suddenly one of them picks up his mug and slams the other one across the head. Screams, blood and the thump of a body hitting the floor. What was it? Exactly nothing. Or rather, the following occurred: the depression torments you and you try to free yourself of it. But the requisite strength is not born in a moment. It takes time to accumulate it in sufficient quantity to overcome the depression. You drink beer and wait. . . . And there is a further pathological deviation evoked by the action of the tropics. Namely, in the period leading up to the blessed moment in which you will be able to overcome the depression calmly and with dignity, a surplus of strength arises in you -- no one knows from where -- a surplus that blows up and assaults the brain in a wave of blood, and in order to vent that surplus you have to crack your innocent friend across the skull. This is the depressive explosion -- a phenomenon known to all habitues of the tropics. If you are the witness of such a scene, you need not step in -- there is no further reason to do so: that one blow frees a person of the surplus and he is now a normal, conscious individual, free of the depression. -- From "The Soccer War."

Patrick Marnham          

New York Times, 14-4-1991



London Review of Books

Vol. 34 No. 15 · 2 August 2012
pages 10-12 | 3835 words


How It Felt to Be There

Neal Ascherson


Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life by Artur Domosławski, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones Verso, 456 pp, £25.00, September, ISBN 978 1 84467 858 7


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The Shah of Shahs



Moorhead Kennedy

The Shah of Shahs



Xan Smiley

The Emperor



HERBERT MITGANG                  

The Emperor

Der Standard



In jedem Fremden wohnt ein Gott



Cornelia Niedermeier

Ryszard Kapuscinski referiert in Wien



Ryszard Kapuscinski

'War is proof that man has failed'





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O Império

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Der erste Globalist

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Reviews of "Travels with Herodotus", here