A Poet Among Journalists

Ryszard Kapuscinski

“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. It’s 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 London’s 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 revolutions—among 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 Kapuscinski’s 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 Amin’s 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 don’t feel very comfortable in developed countries,” he has acknowledged. “What I’m interested in is a situation and the structure of power....The country is the theater, but the play is universal.”