Sunday, 9 November 2008

Ryszard Kapuscinski's Another Day of Life chronicles Angola's independence war in the spring of 1975. It's a short book that has the weariness of lost dreams about it.

South Africa's intervention constiutes the crisis. Leading up to this point, the war had the character of a camping expedition, although here you're risking your life and not just burnt sausages.

Kapuscinski talks about the dreadful smell of rotten garbage, the fear of the Portuguese colonists unlucky enough to have remained after the majority of their compatriots had escaped, and the agony of fear felt by participants at the front.

Unlike some journalists, who flew in for a few days on a privately chartered jet and then left unscathed, Kapuscinski was determined to participate. This is his strength but also his curse because he must weather storms unknown to the fly-by-night correspondent.

He gets out alive at a point when he feels his luck has reached breaking point. There is a desperation in this last communique to Poland. It's the sound of a beggar, a desperate man.

Published in 1986 in English, the book was written immediately after hostilities completed. It was published in 1976. This brevity shows a certain tinge of anxiety, too. But the vividness of his scenarios ensures they don't fade from memory.

A case in point is the anxious scene of a party approaching, and reaching, a checkpoint on one of Angola's long, dusty country roads. Both parties - those approaching and those manning the obstacles placed in the highway - are beset by fear. The guards have guns but often no radio.

For this reason, the petitioners must stay calm and alert. The guards must enforce their curfew but must not indiscriminately shoot everyone who comes near. Individual utterances are important. Kapuscinski tells us what to do and what not to do, in this fraught situation.

Do not display too much confidence, he tells us. But on the other hand, do not let fear take over. You may die but you have some discretion in the matter.

This is his life. It's a contingent, partial and event-driven life.

Whether finding water in a Luanda hotel or keeping silent in the back of an air transport, Kapuscinski keeps his head. This is why he is able, on his return, to return to the typewriter and fashion a piece of elusive and lovely literary journalism from the primary materials stored in his sensitive memory.

A wonderful read, highly recommended.

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