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A Poet Among Journalists
More than anything, one is struck by the light, writes
Ryszard Kapuscinski in The Shadow of the Sun, his new book
on Africa. Brightness everywhere...We discard overcoats, peel
off sweaters. Its the first gesture of initiation we, the
people of the North, perform upon arrival in Africa.
Kapuscinski, who was born in Poland in 1932, has spent his career
chronicling political shifts in the Third World. He began as a foreign
correspondent for the Polish Press Agency, which could afford to
send only one reporter to each continent. That was an advantage,
he recalled in an interview at Londons Institute for Contemporary
Art. It took me from place to place, from revolution to revolution.
But gradually, Kapuscinski realized that newspaper articles could
not do justice to a complex political situation. He began to write
books that used literary techniques to dissect rampages and revolutionsamong
them The Emperor, about the downfall of Ethiopian dictator
Haile Selassie, and Shah of Shahs, about Iran.
The Shadow of the Sun is the latest in a series of Kapuscinskis
books about Africa. In a succession of short, impressionistic chapters
it distills his experiences over four decades, building up a complex
portrait of a continent for which the author clearly feels both
affection and unease. Small, quotidian details shed light on larger
political issues, as in this excerpt about a marketplace, from a
chapter on Uganda under Idi Amin:
The fishermen threw their catch onto a table, and when the
onlookers saw it, they grew still and silent. The fish was fat,
enormous....Everyone knew that for a long time now Amins henchmen
had been dumping the bodies of their victims in the lake, and that
crocodiles and meat-eating fish must have been feasting on them.
The crowd remained quiet.
Such scenes are eerily familiar for one who grew up under the Nazi
occupation of Poland. Kapuscinski, who writes all his books in Warsaw,
is driven above all by a need to understand corruption. I
dont feel very comfortable in developed countries, he
has acknowledged. What Im interested in is a situation
and the structure of power....The country is the theater, but the
play is universal.