At play in the bush of ghosts
Tropical baroque and African reality in the work of Ryszard KapuścińskiBy John Ryle • 27 July 2001 • TLS (“Tales of mythical Africa”) • The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński • Expanded with afterword • Posted 2016 • 4,700 words
A new style of reportage
In a career extending over four decades, Ryszard Kapuściński has published book-length accounts of his homeland, Poland, of his travels in Iran and the former Soviet Union, and a collection of reportage from third-world countries including Honduras, El Salvador, Chile and Bolivia. His principal subject, however, from early in his working life, has been Africa. Africa is where, in the late 1950s, in his mid-twenties, after a brief spell in India and Pakistan, he began his career as a foreign correspondent, working for the official Polish state news agency. In the 1960s, he covered the early years of independence and the first of the post-colonial civil wars that have ravaged the continent ever since. In the 1970s he revisited these conflicts in a sequence of works of reflective reportage, works in which he transformed himself from a journalist into an author of international repute.
In The Emperor: The downfall of an autocrat, his account of the final years of the reign of Haile Selassie I, which appeared in Polish in 1978, Kapuściński invented a new subgenre of political reportage. In a series of linked, interpolated testimonies from former Ethiopian court officials he created an arresting picture of the accelerating collapse of an authoritarian regime. This was a story that had special resonance for his audience in Poland, where dissent against communist autocracy was growing. The Emperor was also the book that established Kapuściński’s reputation in the West. When it appeared in English translation in 1983 it was an immediate critical success.
Next, in 1987, in Another Day of Life (first published in Polish in 1976), he chronicled the beginning of the civil war in Angola and the disintegration of civil institutions in the capital, Luanda. In The Soccer War (1990) he collected vignettes of insurrection and revolution in Ghana and the Congo, and Ethiopia and Somalia, juxtaposing them with accounts of conflicts in South America. Each of these books added to Kapuściński’s reputation, leading more than one critic to compare his work to that earlier chronicler of the tropics and human beings in extreme situations—his compatriot, Józef Korzeniowski, a.k.a. Joseph Conrad.
The Shadow of the Sun (the original Polish title translates as Ebony) is a more substantial collection of episodes from Kapuściński’s sojourns in Africa, starting in Ghana in the 1950s and ending in Tanzania in the recent past. Moving back and forth in time, and sometimes right out of time, it is a loose record of a life spent intermittently in countries south of the Sahara. There are accounts here of the revolution in Zanzibar, the 1966 military coup in Nigeria, the early days of civil war in Liberia and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda; there are reflections from unnamed places in the desert and from lodgings in the back streets of Lagos. There are classics of the Kapuściński style: on the one hand, the tableau vivant, where almost nothing happens (the intricate design of the interior of a bush taxi, the beneficial effect of plastic jerrycans on the lives of women in rural areas); and on the other, the hair-raising adventure, where he characteristically risks death by thirst or tropical disease (or snakebite, or act of war), combining reflections on the world outside Europe with unabashed authorial derring-do.
It is in the latter passages that doubts about the precision of Kapuścińki’s reportage begin to occur. The force of his writing depends to a considerable extent on an air of certainty, on the voice of experience, the authority of someone who, he tells us in Shah of Shahs, has survived twenty-seven coups and revolutions, who has driven through burning road-blocks and stayed behind in besieged cities, the only foreign correspondent who remained when the rest of the press-pack left. In most cases there are, tellingly, no other outside witnesses to the events that Kapuściński records. As he put it, somewhat immodestly, in The Soccer War, “I was driving along a road from where they say no white man can come back alive.” For such reasons his writing tends to be admired by those for whom Africa is a distant prospect: he makes the remote areas of the continent simultaneously more thrilling and more accessible to the western imagination. Kapuścińki’s writing is regarded less favourably, however, by readers in Africa itself, and by Africanist scholars and reporters who have come to doubt his adherence to fact.
Chinese whispers, allegories, parables
Questions about the reliability of Kapuściński’s reportage begin with The Emperor. His informants here are mainly former Ethiopian court servants labouring under anonymising initials, making them sound curiously like characters in an eighteenth-century English novel. Only one of those who assisted him is given a full name (that, we are told, is because he is safely dead). Yet the power of the book derives to a large extent from the fact that the story is told almost entirely through the transcribed speech of these unnamed witnesses. Their antiquated cadences have a mesmeric quality. With courtly unctuousness they speak of “His Venerable Majesty”, “His Most Virtuous Highness”, “His Benevolent Majesty, “His Sublime Majesty”, “His Charitable Majesty”, “His Exalted Majesty”, “His Indefatigable Majesty”, “His Masterful Highness”, “Our Omnipotent Ruler”. These expressions of fealty acquire an air of increasing irony as the excesses of the imperial court are borne in on the reader.
It is a subtle piece of reportorial rhetoric, yet native speakers of Amharic say that these honorifics correspond to no known expressions in their language. In particular, they say, they could not occur in the formal registers of speech that were employed at the court, where there were only one or two acceptable forms of address for the Emperor. So it seems these resonant phrases cannot have been spoken as transcribed and translated. Some of the ceremonial titles that Kapuściński gives his sources are invented too. In the absence of proper names these inventions may be held to cast further doubt on the actual existence of these informants. What Kapuściński created in The Emperor, with the help of his unnamed translators, was a brilliant device, Chinese whispers rather than transcription, an imaginary archaic language, with touches of comic opera, one that bespeaks homage while conveying subversion. It falls short, though, of both scholarly and journalistic standards of accuracy, or even of verisimilitude.
There are other implausibilities in The Emperor. We are told that Haile Selassie did not read books: “His Venerable Majesty was no reader. For him, neither the written nor the printed word existed; everything had to be relayed by word of mouth.” In reality, though, Haile Selassie was unusually well-read, both in Amharic and in French. He possessed a large library where he spent long periods of time, and provided copious written comments on manuscripts submitted to him. It seems unlikely that his own palace servants could have been unaware of this. (Haile Selassie’s reading habits are documented in The Mission, a memoir by Hans Lockot, the head of research at the National Library of Ethiopia during the Emperor’s reign.) Kapuściński himself describes one of his informants bringing him the first volume of Haile Selassie’s autobiography, in the English translation by the Ethiopianist scholar Edward Ullendorff. But the event, by Kapuściński’s account, is taking place in 1974, and Ullendorff’s translation did not appear until two years later, in 1976. So this cannot have happened as described either.
In answer to such criticisms it has been argued that The Emperor is not meant to be about Ethiopia at all, that it is an allegory of Communist power in Poland, or of autocratic regimes in general. Certainly, the book is informed and deepened by such parallels; and its reception among literati in the West was conditioned by an awareness of its doubly exotic origin—a book about a far-off country by an author who was himself rara avis, a master of the new journalism sprung miraculously from within the Soviet bloc. Some apologists for The Emperor have located it, specifically, in a Polish literary genre where dissent masquerades as descriptive prose, and Kapuściński has subsequently endorsed this interpretation.
Yet there is no indication in the book itself that it is meant to be read as an allegory, or as a traveller’s tale, or a parable, no suggestion that it might be in the same genre, say, as Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, or the mediaeval European stories of Prester John, the legendary Abyssinian king, which are classic wonder tales where Ethiopia, or Abyssinia, is a site of invention. Like Kapuściński’s other books, The Emperor is presented unambiguously as factual reportage and asserts its claim on the reader’s attention as such, and the dearth of other sources on the subject—the sixty highest-ranking members of the imperial Ethiopian court were put to death in 1974 after the deposition of Haile Selassie—means that the book would have considerable documentary importance if the information in it could be relied on.
At the time of first publication there was, of course, every reason for Kapuściński to maintain the confidentiality of any living sources he might have. Two regimes later, though, there seems no reason for their anonymity to be preserved, particularly since a number of court servants (none of whose names, it may be noted, correspond to the initials given for the sources in The Emperor) have been giving legal testimony in Addis Ababa as witnesses in the trial of the Derg, the regime, headed by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, that deposed and killed the Emperor in 1975.