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« Europe vs. America | Main | Free Reads -- Steven Pinker »

September 12, 2002

Kapuscinski

Friedrich --

kapu2.jpg

I just finished making my way through Ryszard Kapuscinski's "The Shadow of the Sun." Have you read him? A Polish foreign correspondent with a knack for showing up just when things go insane. I'm a big fan of some of his books, which struck me as among the very best new things I've read in the last few decades, fiction or nonfiction.

"The Emperor" (about Haile Selaisse's Ethiopia), "The Soccer War" (about a war in Latin America that broke out over a soccer match), and "Shah of Shahs" (about the Shah of Iran) were all standouts -- intense, to the point, atmospheric. ("Imperium," about Russia, was awfully good too.)

The books are all more like hallucinations than conventional "reportage." I seem to remember that there's been some controversy about how literally accurate they are. I don't worry about that much myself; I doubt anyone's likely to be tempted to use them as reference books. You read them as nonfiction poetry, really.

"The Shadow of the Sun" struck me as the weakest book of his I've read. It covers 40ish years of visits and work in Africa, and it's like sitting next to a friend who's determined to take you through his travel photo album, picture after picture, one after another. Maybe he's traveled to amazing places and seen amazing things, and maybe some of the material and the sights are amazing too. But the recitation, whatever its virtues, drones on, and the attention wanders.

It's a surprise that Kapuscinski, so tough and shrewd in his better books, comes here to seem conventional, and a little hysterical, even silly. When he's on his game, he's focused on what strictly needs to be conveyed. Here, he keeps losing himself in his own responses. (A journalist friend tells me that many foreign correspondents are like that -- intense, overdramatic, urgent.)

Maybe it's just that Kapuscinski isn't at his best when writing about his own experiences. When he's got a real story to tell, one that's about someone else, he's superb, able to line his material up and make it flow. And a few of this book's chapters are keepers -- there's a good one about Idi Amin, and another about Liberia and Samuel Doe. For a few minutes the history, personalities and tribal rivalries all make cruel sense.

"The Shadow of the Sun" has its virtues, lord knows: it's atmosphere- and information-rich. But it's also pretty shapeless, and can be passed up without too many regrets.

But some of his other books? Whew: just amazing.

A good Guardian piece about Kapuscinski, here.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at September 12, 2002




Comments

Almost anyone is better when he writes about someone else. Authors writing about their own experience are like mothers talking about talking about their own children.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on September 16, 2002 12:17 PM






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