The Passenger | The Nation


The Passenger

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In Another Day of Life, Kapuscinski describes a general mobilization of young Angolan men and reflects that a child born in that year, 1975, would be 25 when the next millennium came. "Half of humanity will have slant eyes. Half of humanity will not understand what the other half is saying," he predicts. "The white race will enter the vestigial phase." He opens Shah of Shahs with a vision of protesting masses on the streets of Tehran: "On a million screens an infinite number of people are saying something to us, trying to convince us of something, gesturing, making faces, getting excited, smiling, nodding their heads, pointing their fingers, and we don't know what it's about." At the book's end, he returns to the image, no less confounded. "I am trying to understand them, but over and over again I stumble into a dark region and lose my way. They have a different attitude to life and death. They react differently to the sight of blood."

About the Author

Andrew Rice
Andrew Rice is the author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda (...

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After the Berlin wall fell, Kapuscinski went back to work, traversing the former Soviet Union for his final work of original reportage. Imperium may be his weakest book. Russia, of course, was a place every Pole knew all too well, but proximity seems to have wilted his descriptive powers. By this time, Kapuscinski had won worldwide fame as a literary stylist, and his flourishes had started to overwhelm his writing. The sentence fragments. The exclamation points! The trick of deploying adjectives in triplicate, once a poetic device reserved for special occasions, is put to use on every page, and it comes to feel forced, pretentious, tiresome. Kapuscinski seems to summon his old narrative vigor only when he visits the Caucasus, a region falling into ethnic conflict. At this moment, when the cold war's twin towers of Babel are collapsing, the Polish journalist declares that "three contagions" threaten the world: nationalism, racism and religious fundamentalism.

All three share one trait, a common denominator--an aggressive, all-powerful, total irrationality. Anyone stricken with one of these plagues is beyond reason. In his head burns a sacred pyre that awaits only its sacrificial victims. Every attempt at calm conversation will fail.... A mind touched by such a contagion is a closed mind, one-dimensional, monothematic, spinning round one subject only--its enemy. Thinking about our enemy sustains us, allows us to exist.

So he was right about the future. But he was wrong about many things, and of these, I believe the most important was his evident belief that the confusion he felt everywhere was an inborn and incurable human condition. It is possible to come to understand another place, but it takes sustained attention. You have to stop moving for a while. Kapuscinski never did. He once wrote that every time he tried to slow down, "a red light starts blinking on the map--the signal that at some point on this overcrowded, restless and quarrelsome globe, something is again happening." Particularly in his last two books, both semi-memoirs, Kapuscinski describes moments of great joy, but they are almost always experienced alone, or in the company of some passing companion who does not possess a name or a persona.

For all his efforts to know the world, Kapuscinski seems not to have known many people, at least in the literary sense. I can think of only a handful of memorable characters in all his books. The fawning attendants of Haile Selassie, in awe of the emperor's power. Carlotta, a daring, doomed soldier who escorts Kapuscinski to the front in Angola. Mahmud Azari, an Iranian translator who returns home from London in the last days of the Shah and ends up participating in the revolution, though not before being forced into superficial collaboration by some sinister men from the ruling party. As Colin Thubron pointed out recently in The New York Review of Books, Azari's experience of authoritarianism could be taken to stand for Kapuscinski's own. And it seems to me that, in fact, all of his characters--whether or not they really existed--could be seen the same way, as reflections of the author's personality. His true journey may have been an inward one.

But what a fascinating trip it was. In Travels With Herodotus, where his identification with his title character is nearly explicit, he writes:

We do not know in what guise Herodotus traveled. As a merchant (the proverbial occupation of people of the Levant)? Probably not, since he had no interest in prices, goods, markets. As a diplomat? That profession did not exist yet. As a spy? But for which state? As a tourist? No, tourists travel to rest, whereas Herodotus works hard on the road--he is a reporter, an anthropologist, an ethnographer, a historian.

At the end of the book, Kapuscinski pays a visit to Herodotus' hometown, which is now in Turkey. As usual, he is alone, and as he checks into his hotel, he notices that the boy at the front desk is suffering from "an acute case of periostitis, with a face so horribly swollen that I was afraid the pus would tear his cheek apart at any moment." As it happens, a barracks sentry in Another Day of Life suffers from the same condition, described almost identically, and while some might see this remarkable coincidence as one more opportunity to level the accusation of fictionalization, the sentimentalist in me would like to accept it as the author's allusive signal that his story has come full circle. Kapuscinski visits a museum, where he looks at some ancient objects that have been retrieved from the bottom of the sea. Then, in a concluding paragraph, set apart by a line break, he describes one final encounter:

I returned to the hotel. At reception, in place of the dolorous boy, stood a young black-eyed Turkish girl. When she saw me, she adjusted her facial expression so that the professional smile meant to invite and tempt tourists was tempered by tradition's injunction always to maintain a serious and indifferent mien toward a strange man.

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