Guardian Book Review
2 June 2001
Journeys into the interior
Geoff Dyer follows the vivid African adventures of the daring Ryszard Kapuscinski in The Shadow of the Sun
Suppose we were to launch a spacecraft with the intention of establishing literary contact with the residents of some remote part of the galaxy. If we had room for only one contemporary writer, whom would we send? I'd vote for Ryszard Kapuscinski, because he has given the truest, least partial, most comprehensive and vivid account of what life is like on our planet.
For almost 30 years he was a roving foreign correspondent for the Polish Press Agency. During that time he witnessed 27 revolutions and coups. Though dutifully fulfilling his brief, he was also a kind of narcotics-free gonzo journalist, suddenly breaking contact with Warsaw and disappearing without trace to throw himself "into the jungle, float down the Niger in a dugout, wander through the Sahara with nomads". 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." This compulsion led to a rebuke from his boss, who ordered 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. "It's all improbable, incredible. As if one were witnessing the birth of the world, that precise moment when the earth and sky already exist, as do water, plants, and wild animals, but not yet Adam and Eve." 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 - from malaria. Cerebral malaria. He's just about recovered from that when he goes down with TB . . . And all in 20 pages!
Kapuscinski, it has to be said, trowels it on. On every other page, he is "drenched in sweat". 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, deciding 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. Camus pointed out that it is possible to lead a life of great adventure without leaving your desk. At the other extreme, mountaineer Joe Simpson can function as a writer only on the condition that he remain roped to the cliff face of personal experience. Occasionally, though, 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.
It is often unclear whether he is recycling dispatches sent 40 years ago or is only now writing up this amazing hoard of experience. Chronology is deliberately uncertain, the sequence fragmented. Rival tenses jostle for dominance within the same page; his prose has both the unsteady immediacy of the moment and a measure of historical reflection. What was happening in one part of the continent in the 1960s affords a glimpse of what will happen elsewhere years later, in Liberia or Rwanda.
People have likened New Yorker writer and Guardian First Book Award winner Philip Gourevitch to Kapuscinski. Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families is an outstanding book of reportage, but Kapuscinski's work is of a different order of achievement. A great imaginative writer, he goes way beyond the material he is pro cessing. They may be rooted in his own experience, but his books are also full of amazing digressions, little essays - 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 fantastic 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 is as if J M Coetzee's Michael K has just wandered into The Shadow of the Sun . Characters from a dozen mini-novels 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 gives way 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 several fiction writers I've spoken with seem not even to have heard of him. In this respect he is the victim of a received cultural prejudice that assumes fiction to be the loftiest perch of literary distinction in prose. Because it is translated non-fiction, The Shadow of the Sun is ineligible for a number of literary prizes.
There is perhaps a superficial resemblance to The Songlines , but The Shadow of the Sun 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 neighbours. 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.
Though thoroughly democratised he is inevitably alien, which makes the attempt "to find a common language" more urgent. To Kapuscinski it is not Manhattan and La Défense in Paris "that represent the highest achievement of human imagination", but a "monstrous" African shanty town - 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".
"There is more in men to admire than despise": this was the great truth dramatised by Camus in The Plague . Having narrowly escaped death in The Soccer War , Kapuscinski was more succinct: "There is so much crap in this world, and then suddenly, there is honesty and humanity." Here he puts it more simply and subtly. Summing up his dealings with a man serving as his driver, Kapuscinski eventually achieves the human - rather than strictly economic - relation he craves, one rich in "tenderness, warmth and goodwill". He is not being naive or sentimental: the goodwill was genuine, heartfelt - but it could only be bought. Does this inhibit him from seeing the spirit of Africa? The answer is revealed, magnificently, on the very last page of the book.
Book ID 496
Kapuscinski, Ryszard, trans Glowczewsk, Klara The Shadow of the Sun, 2001
Page Number: 043
Tall grasses, thick fleecy shrubs, spreading umbrella trees. It's this all the way to Kilimanjaro and the two little towns nearby, Moshi and Arusha. In Arusha we turned west, toward Lake Victoria. Two hundred kilometers on, the problems started. We drove onto the enormous plains of the Serengeti, the largest concentration of wild animals on earth. Everywhere you look, huge herds of zebras, antelopes, buffalo, giraffes. And all of them are grazing, frisking, frollicking, galloping. Right by the side of the road, motionless lions; a bit farther, a group of elephants; and farther still on the horizon, a leopard running in huge bounds. It's all improbable, incredible. As if one were witnessing the birth of the world, that precise moment when the earth and sky already exist, as do water, plants, and wild animals, but not yet Adam and Eve. It is this world barely born, the world without mankind and hence also without sin, that one can imagine seeing here.
Kapuscinski, Ryszard, trans Glowczewsk, Klara The Shadow of the Sun, 2001
Page Number: 317
The kind of history known as scholarly and objective can never arise here, because the African past has no documents or records, and each generation, listening to the version being transmitted to it, changed it and continues to change it, transforms it, modifies it and embellishes it. But as a result, history, free of the weight of archives, of the constraints of dates and data, achieves here its purest, crystalline form - that of myth.
In these myths, instead of dates and mechanical measures of Time - days, months, years - other designations appear, like "long ago", "very long ago", "so very long ago that no-one remembers." Within these Time frames everything can still be placed and arranged in a temporal hierachy, only that within it Time will will not evolve in a linear fashion, but will mimic the circular, uniform revolutions of our planet. In this view of Time, the notion of development does not exist; it is replaced by the notion of the abiding. Africa is eternal abiding.