Monday, January 28, 2019

Book Review: The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski

The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski
It's surprising that more people have not heard of Ryszard Kapuscinski. That's not to suggest that his books and essays are not well known. But he was such a skilled journalist and writer that he should be more widely read and celebrated.

Kapuscinski was a Polish journalist who arrived in Africa in the late 1950s to chronicle the political upheavals in numerous countries as colonialism started to unravel. Writing for Poland's state news agency, he would continue to visit Africa for extended periods and write about the invincible dysfunction in many of of the continent's most troubled locations for almost half a century. The Shadow of the Sun is a collection of his reportage and essays about Africa that span those nearly 50 years.

Translated from Polish, Kapuscinski's writing is at turns sparse, reflective and poetic. His detailed descriptions and shrewd insights highlight him as a keen observer capable of distilling the convoluted machinations of revolution and war into easy-to-follow accounts. The Shadow of the Sun is a great starting point for anyone wanting to learn about the culture and history of African countries. Or simply for anyone who enjoys beautifully written articles ('articles' is somehow too pedestrian a word--perhaps 'timeless accounts') about distant lands.

Because Kapuscinski was a journalist who wrote mainly about the politics of the places he visited, he isn't known as a travel writer. Yet his ability to vividly evoke a sense of place, bring characters to life, explain cultural habits and provide succinct, accurate historical background make his writing a must read for every novice travel writer. And, in fact, a number of the pieces in the book could qualify as travel writing, although some of them are preludes to subsequent pieces that focus on political strife.

Early on, Kapuscinski provides some unwitting advice to anyone who wants some quick insight into a place they are visiting:'
In the morning I bought the local newspaper, Ashanti Pioneer, and set out in search of its editorial offices. Experience teaches that one can learn more passing an hour in such an office than in a week of walking around to see various institutions and  notables. And so it was this time.
Readers who have traveled or lived in Africa, or in any third world country, will nod their heads in agreement at many of the observations. Here, Kapuscinski writes about a mini-bus driver and departure schedules:
"What do you mean, 'when'?" the astonished driver will reply. "It will leave when we find enough people to fill it up."
And in a related passage, he writes about punctuality in general:
In practical terms, this means that if you go to a village where a meeting is scheduled for the afternoon, but find no one at the appointed spot, asking, "When will the meeting take place?" makes no sense. You know the answer: "It will take place when people come."
Describing a bout of malaria:
The malaria attack is not merely painful, but like every pain also a mystical experience. We enter a realm about which a moment ago we knew nothing, though it now turns out that it had existed in us all the while, finally capturing and incorporating us: we discover within ourselves icy crevasses, chasms, and abysses, whose presence fills us with suffering and fear.
Probably the most prescient discussion about life in third world countries comes when  Kapuscinski relays the discussion he has with an Englishman in Ethiopia. The man talks about the culture of criticism that exists in Europe and laments the hypersensitivity of many people in Africa.
They consider all criticism to be a malevolent attack, a sign of discrimination, of racism, etc. Representatives of these cultures treat criticism as a personal insult, as a deliberate attempt to humiliate them, as a form of sadism even. If you tell them that the city is dirty, they treat this as if you said that they were dirty themselves, had dirty ears, or dirty nails. Instead of being self-critical, they are full of countless grudges, complexes, envies, peeves, manias. The effect of all this is that they are culturally, permanently, structurally incapable of progress, incapable of engendering within themselves the will to transform and evolve.
I've lived a good portion of my adult life in a third world country, and the above quoted passage perfectly sums up people's attitudes to criticism in this part of the world. Multiply that mentality times a thousand if an outsider dares to offer even mild criticism about his adopted home. I think this difference is also evident in humour. In Europe and North America, humour often revolves around mocking and ridiculing people with power. Here, humour is slapstick, men dressing up as women, and for the real connoisseurs, midgets.

Among Kapuscinski's detailed accounts of war and strife, the lengthy reportage on Rwanda and Liberia struck me as the most informative and memorable. Regarding the decades-old conflict in Rwanda that flared into holocaust numerous times, Kapuscinski evokes the physical setting, simply and eloquently describes the history and players and laments the hopelessness of it all.

The chapter about Liberia also provides some good history and describes the kind of surreal events that seem so commonplace in Africa. Kapuscinski reports on the fall of Liberian president, Samuel Doe in 1990. One of his former associates, Prince Johnson, puts together his own army and captures Doe. Johnson's followers videotape the macabre scene that plays out and Kapuscinski details the events that unfold in the video:
We see Johnson sitting and drinking beer. A woman stands next to him, fanning him and wiping the sweat from his brow. On the floor sits a bound Doe, dripping with blood. His face is so battered you barely see his eyes.
...
But Johnson just yells at Doe in a local creole dialect. It is impossible to understand most of what he says, except for one thing: he demands that Doe tell him his bank account number. Whenever a dictator is seized in Africa, the entire ensuing inquisition, the beatings, the tortures, will inevitably revolve around one thing: the number of his private bank account.
And sure enough, you can find the gruesome footage posted on YouTube (warning: not for the faint of heart).

A correspondent posted overseas in the same geographical region for many decades is almost a thing of the past. That's too bad, because the quality of insights and well-written accounts of people, their cultures and their political dramas that appear in The Shadow of the Sun is also becoming a relic of a bygone era.