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The Passenger | The Nation

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The Passenger

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The Emperor, published in the United States in 1983, was the first of Kapuscinski's many books to be translated into English. It's difficult to exaggerate the wonder the book inspired. Here, from a drab corner of the Eastern bloc, was a journalist who wrote about dictatorship like a magical realist. The book's setup is simple: Kapuscinski travels to Ethiopia to cover the country's Marxist revolution. In the evenings, after work, he visits Selassie's fugitive courtiers, who confide impressions of their deposed ruler: his canniness, his vanity, his delusions. When the book was published, Kapuscinski rejected allegorical interpretations--which were especially popular among Polish intellectuals--but by the end of his life, he seems to have embraced them. "For within every great book," he writes in Travels With Herodotus, "there are several others."

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In a way, The Emperor is Kapuscinski's least characteristic work, in that for the most part, he leaves the narration to others, the courtiers he calls by anonymous initials. (Whether those initials belonged to real people, we shall see, is an open question.) More typical--and in many ways superior--is Another Day of Life, a book he published in Poland two years before The Emperor, though it was not translated until 1987. It is the story of his experiences in the Angolan capital of Luanda in 1975, as the Portuguese colonial army retreated and three armed factions did battle. Its first sentence reads: "This is a very personal book, about being alone and lost." Most of his books were written with considerable retrospective distance, but Kapuscinski published Another Day of Life immediately after the events he describes, and the prose bristles with the specificity of fresh recollection. The departing Portuguese, packing to leave, erect a "wooden city, the city of crates," which sails off on ships one day. Every town looks "like a ghastly, corroding movie set built on the outskirts of Hollywood and already abandoned by the film crew." Ragged army uniforms inspire a marvelous Kapuscinski sentence: "This is an indigent war, attired in cheap calico."

The Soccer War, a collection of magazine-length stories, and Shah of Shahs, about the Iranian Revolution, followed in quick succession, completing a period of remarkable creative output. These books are full of unforgettable images. On New Year's Eve 1979, Kapuscinski stands outside the captured US Embassy in Tehran, shivering as he peers into its lighted, empty rooms, thinking of the parties going on back home. In The Soccer War's title story, he stumbles through the blacked-out streets of the Honduran capital, looking for a telex machine so he can wire news of the outbreak of hostilities with El Salvador. Blind and lost, he knocks over a metal garbage can, which rolls down a sloped cobblestone street. "I lay on the pavement, hugging it, frightened, sweating," Kapuscinski writes. "I had committed an act of treason: the enemy, unable to find the city in this darkness and silence, could now locate it by the racket of the garbage can."

There are so many scenes like this that I struggle to choose the ones to quote: situations so vivid, so funny and frightening, so perfectly apt. So perfect, in fact, that one can't help but suspect they were creations of Kapuscinski's imagination. The verisimilitude question has been there since the beginning. In an otherwise ecstatic 1983 review of The Emperor for The New Yorker, John Updike wrote, "One wonders how much of the elegant style of Abyssinian testimony...was smuggled in by way of Mr. Kapuscinski's Polish." More recently, in a voluminous takedown published in the Times Literary Supplement, John Ryle claimed that the courtly patterns of speech The Emperor's anonymous narrators used--all those titles and honorifics--do not exist in Amharic. Ryle also pointed out many other misperceptions, exaggerations and inaccuracies in Kapuscinski's work, coining a derisive nickname for his style: "tropical baroque."

Did he really knock over that trash can? Kapuscinski might ask in reply, Did Samuel Johnson really kick a stone outside church one day, saying, "I refute it thus"? Just as Boswell invented the modern biography, Kapuscinski viewed himself as a writer working outside existing categories. "New Journalism was the beginning, in liquidating the border between fact and fiction," he said in a 1987 Granta interview. "But New Journalism was ultimately just journalism describing the strangeness of America. I think we have gone beyond all that. It is not a New Journalism, but a New Literature."

At the same time, Kapuscinski was resolutely vague about what, precisely, he'd invented. In Travels With Herodotus, he falls back on the old fabulist's defense, the mutability of memory, saying, "The past does not exist. There are only infinite renderings of it." I think this a failure on his part, and I think this failure matters. But I can't bring myself to dispense with what's true in Kapuscinski just because some things are falsified. Like many journalists of my generation, I traveled to Africa with copies of his books in my backpack, and rereading them now, I am struck by how many essential things he got right. I never went to Angola, but I once drove a pickup truck across Mozambique, a country evacuated by the Portuguese under similar circumstances, and I'll be damned if the crumbling towns along the road didn't look just like abandoned film sets. I've been to the bus station in Accra, and it really does bring to mind, as Kapuscinski writes in The Shadow of the Sun, the "caravan of a huge circus that has come to a brief stop." His reputation lies in his rendering of war, but I think he's at his best when he's describing the dull rhythms of daily life. In his hands, an interminable wait for the bus to depart becomes an epiphany, as he stares into the mute faces of his fellow passengers and ponders the African concept of time.

"What, in the meantime, is going on inside their heads?" he asks. "I do not know. Are they thinking? Dreaming? Reminiscing? Making plans? Meditating? Traveling in the world beyond? It is difficult to say."

Anyone who's ever sat through a long, unexplained delay can relate to the experience of feeling trapped inside one's own consciousness--I've felt the same thing on a stalled subway--but because Kapuscinski is a white man writing about Africans, such passages are subjected to special scrutiny. He's been called a racist, and certainly his fondness for generalization leads to some cringe-worthy pronouncements. "The Hindu is a relaxed being, while the Chinese is a tense and vigilant one." "Latins are obsessed with spies, intelligence conspiracies and plots." "Any group of Iranians immediately organizes itself according to hierarchical principles." "With Armenians one must typically expect to talk only about Armenians." I'm inclined to see these as forgivable misjudgments from a man who came of age in a time when notions of distinct national and racial identity had not yet been banished from polite conversation--but then again, that's easy for me to say, since Kapuscinski never wrote about Americans. I think the debate does touch something fundamental, though. Ultimately, Kapuscinski sees the world as composed of tribes, and for all his travels among them, he doesn't believe that they can ever really communicate with one another.

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