Reading the books of Ryszard Kapuscinski, it sometimes seemed to me that he had he had slept on a dirt floor in a hut in every dusty village in the forgotten corners of the world. He brought us with him to peer at the world’s unknown “little” wars. There are many who, in the last few decades, have taken up this sort of reporting, people like Jon Lee Anderson, William Langewiesche, and Mark Bowden, but none possess the sympathetic eye of Kapuscinski.
In his book Imperium, Kapuscinski chronicles the invasion of Poland by the Soviets in 1939, which he witnessed as a boy, and one can see how being one of history’s forgotten people shaped his view of the world. Kapuscinski’s writing is notable as much for what is there as for what it lacks, namely a Western perspective and the presumption and detachment that comes with it, which even the best Western reporters are rarely able to avoid. Living much of his life behind the Iron Curtain, he could write about oppressed people from the point of view of the oppressed, but from enough distance to eschew any of the ideologies involved. He had a gentle eye for details and always satisfied by being just as incredulous, weary, and terrified as I would have been had I somehow found myself in the astonishing situations he sometimes ended up in. No tough guy swagger for Kapuscinki.
And those moments, they were incredible: Kapuscinski, out of bribe money watching his driver plow though flaming roadblocks in the Yoruba country of Nigeria in The Soccer War; arriving in Monrovia, Liberia, where his vaccination records, passport, and return ticket are promptly snatched from his hands the moment he steps off the plane in The Shadow of the Sun; stuck for days in a stifling, crowded airport in Yakutsk with little hope of getting a plane out of there in Imperium.
But Kapuscinski does not assume he is the only one with a story to tell. For entire books – Shah of Shahs about the abuses of the Shah of Iran and The Emperor about the mad Ethiopian king Haile Selassie – he turns his pen over to the people who were there. Those two books fit into the now familiar genre of “oral history,” and they provide an invaluable look into the lives of the oppressed.
Kapuscinski’s singular point of view is perhaps best summed up by what he wrote in a section of The Soccer War about his time in Ghana: “The so-called exotic has never fascinated me, even though I came to spend more than a dozen years in a world that is exotic by definition. I did not write about hunting crocodiles or head-hunters, although I admit they are interesting subjects. I discovered instead a different reality, one that attracted me more than expeditions to the villages of witch doctors or wild animal reserves.”
Kapuscinski brought that different reality to his readers, and in doing so helped shed light on the forgotten corners of the world.
Kapuscinski died on Tuesday, the PAP news agency said. He was 74. The AP obit.
- New work from Kapuscinski
- My review of Shah of Shahs
- A bit on Imperium (scroll down)
- A bit on The Shadow of the Sun (scroll down)
- Excerpt from Imperium
- Excerpt from Shah of Shahs
- Excerpt from The Emperor
- Excerpt from The Soccer War
- Excerpt from The Shadow of the Sun
- Excerpt from Another Day of Life
- Wikipedia bio
- Kapuscinski’s writing in Granta
- Bill Buford interviews Kapuscinski