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Saturday, 3 July 2010

Review: The Shadow of the Sun, Ryszard Kapuscinski (2001)

A journalist with this much unrequited curiosity, physical courage, and literary talent deserves to be read. This is especially true if the things he or she wrote about happened a generation or so ago. Quite simply, there is nowhere else to go apart from the history books to get as deep an appreciation of African society, and possibly not even there.

We are, in many ways, at the author's mercy. This makes it especially important that the journalist be honest and truthful with us. This is the way we have been brought up to understand non-fiction: as a record of what actually happened. But the new biography of Kapuscinski, by Polish journalist Artur Domoslawski, published this year, says that Kapuscinski cannot be trusted - in our terms, at least.

This is a shame, because this is a rare and fascinating - if not brilliant - book. Were Domoslawski less sceptical, it would certainly become a touchstone of investigative journalism, travel journalism, and ethnographic journalism. But with serious caveats now - finally - in place, we must reach for the salt whenever we come to a passage that seems too extraordinary to be true. Chances are, it's not.

This reservation aside, the average reader will learn a lot about the history of many African countries by reading this book. You also learn some essential truths about African society and how it is formed. These lessons tend also to be a valuable guide to understanding what is happening in Africa today.

Kapuscinski's most illuminating insight is possibly the observation that, in Africa, the individual does not exist. The landscape, he says, is simply too harsh for a person, alone, to survive. A person really only exists as part of a larger collection of souls, such as a family or clan. This is why, he says, when a person achieves prominence or success there is always a string of near- and far-relatives arriving to benefit from it. Nepotism, cronyism and graft follow.

The African's culture, also, deserves to be recognised for what it is. It strikes me that it resembles the Aboriginal culture, in this way: that misfortune is to be blamed on an Other (be it a nearby tribe or a witch) and that an African only fully senses his or her existence once an event has been described. If you get sick, says Kapuscinski, it is because a witch or sorcerer in another tribe has put a spell on you. Natural causes are discounted in favour of the exercise of the spirit world. And the talk around the fire at the end of the day, he says, are key to an African's existence.

I picture Kapuscinski as a man with a slight stoop trudging from place to place under the burning sun of noon, dressed in a white shirt and brown trousers, a notebook in his pocket and a typewriter nestled in a travelling case that he holds in his sweaty grip. The hours, days, weeks, months and years he spent chronicling the African continent - driving, flying and walking from place to place, always in his white shirt, brown trousers - were well-spent. It's just a pity that he didn't stick to just the facts, but felt the need to rewrite history. Surely the facts, as they are expertly and sensitively described in this book, were extraordinary enough for any reader.

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