Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Review: Imperium, Ryszard Kapuscinski (1994)

Most of the writing by Kapuscinski that I've read to this point has been about Africa, a continent full of countries so foreign to the author that his mind might be thought of, as it were, as a kind of blank slate. The difference with the current case is marked. As a Pole, Kapuscinski comes to the table with preconceptions and biases - the first piece in this collection involves scenes from the point of view of the young Ryszard coping with the Soviet take-over of his city - and so the temperature of the book is markedly different from the outset. In fact, it's nearly a failure early on: the contrast between stories about the authoritarian Russian and the imperfect, nascent Azerbaijiani, for example, is not really instructive or all that interesting. In a sense, then, Kapuscinski's clarity of vision is almost his downfall. It would be nice to say that "anything by Kapuscinski is worth reading" but in fact it's not the case. He can be boring. At the start of this book, in the section headed 'First Encounters (1939 - 1967)', he is.

It's in the book's second section ('From A Bird's-Eye View (1989 - 1991)') that things start to look up for the reader. We welcome back the Kapuscinski who is able to set aside - if only temporarily - his long-held views and who is, consequently, able to be at least somewhat objective. By the end of the book, we are in a mood to welcome the summation, the analysis that has been able to emerge from Kapuscinski's extraordinary brain - one so deeply educated and experienced - over the years he's been a Russia-watcher. Most of his conclusions have, in fact, played out in reality in the intervening years.

After finishing this book, I went to the bookstore and placed an order for his The Soccer Wars, and I also plan now to read his other books. I have a real appetite for Kapuscinski's honest, hard-graft, feet-on-the-ground journalism with its subtelties and side-glances into eternity. I was initially disappointed with Imperium, but found that it grew on me as I began to engage with his more mature writing. It seems that at some point the idea for the book gelled in his mind and he decided to spend a significant portion of his time examining the newly-emerged Russian nation. Perhaps not with innocent eyes, but certainly with a bit more compassion and understanding than we initially find in this book.

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