At play in the bush of ghosts
Tropical baroque, African reality and the work of Ryszard Kapuściński
IN A CAREER EXTENDING over four decades, Ryszard Kapuściński has published accounts of his homeland, Poland, of 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. 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,
in 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
Korzeniowski, a.k.a. Joseph Conrad.
Yet native speakers of Amharic say that these honorifics correspond to no known expressions in their language. In particular 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 they cannot have been spoken as transcribed. Some of the ceremonial titles that Kapuściński gives his sources are invented too. In the absence of proper names this may be held to cast further doubt on the existence of these informants. What Kapuściński and his unnamed translators created in The Emperor was a brilliant device, Chinese whispers rather than transcription, an imaginary archaic language, with touches of comic opera, that bespeaks homage while conveying subversion. It falls short, though, of both scholarly and journalistic standards of verifiability, and 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.” But Haile Selassie was undoubtedly 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 even describes one of his informants bringing him the first volume of Haile Selassie’s autobiography, the English translation by the Ethiopianist scholar Edward Ullendorff. But the event is taking place in 1974, and Ullendorff’s translation did not appear until two years later, in 1976. So it cannot have happened in the way described.
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, on occasion, endorsed this interpretation. Yet there is no indication in the book that it is meant to be read as an allegory – or as a traveller’s tale or parable (in the same genre, say, as Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas or the mediaeval European stories of Prester John, the legendary Abyssinian king). Like Kapuściński’s other books, The Emperor is presented unambiguously as factual reportage – and it asserts its claim on the reader’s attention as such. The dearth of other sources on the subject – no member of the Imperial court of Ethiopia survived to write a memoir of Haile Selassie – means that the book would have considerable documentary importance if the information in it could only be trusted.
At the time of 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 correspond to the initials of 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.
Kapuścińksi’s return to Ethiopia in the 1990s to visit imprisoned members of the Derg occupies one of the later chapters of his new book. One might have hoped that this would be the occasion for him to consider the issues raised by his earlier work, but The Shadow of the Sun makes no mention of The Emperor at all, nor yet of the court proceedings where the death of Haile Selassie is currently under investigation. And Kapuścińksi’s account in his new book of his visit to the Central Prison in Addis Ababa raises further doubts about his factual accuracy.
“After Mengistu’s escape,” he writes, “his army dispersed and only the academics were left. They were seized without great difficulty and imprisoned in this crowded courtyard.” This characterisation of the inmates of the Central Prison is misleading (it contradicts, in fact, an earlier reference by Kapuściński to the “generals of the army and police” among those captured followers of Mengistu). I visited the prison myself around this time. A few of the prisoners were indeed former professors, but the officials of the former regime who were held there included many prominent military figures, as they still do: Fikre-Selassie Weg-Deres, an air force captain who was Mengistu’s Prime Minister; Teka Tulu, an army colonel who was his chief of Internal Security (since deceased); Sergeant Legesse Asfaw, known as the Butcher of Tigray; and the equally notorious Melaku Tefera, Butcher of Gondar. None of these people were, by any stretch of the imagination, academics. Nor had they been that easy to capture: Melaku Tefera, in particular, was the subject of hot pursuit across the desert to Djibouti, where he was nabbed by an Ethiopian army hit squad.
Kapuściński’s chapter on Ethiopia in The Shadow
of the Sun has other odd bits of misinformation. He describes visiting
the bookstore in the University of Addis Ababa. It is, he says, the country’s only
bookstore – and completely devoid of books. Really? There are at least a half-a-dozen
bookshops in Addis Ababa, all with books for sale, and have been since the
Derg era. (The books do not include The Emperor, however.
Kapuściński’s book has been published in more than a dozen languages,
but not in Amharic.) Not
content with this already quite erroneous assertion, Kapuściński continues
“It is this way in most African countries. Once, I remember, there was a good
bookshop in Kampala… Now – everywhere, nothing.” Here hyperbole becomes distinctly
misleading. There may not be
a branch of Borders or Barnes and Noble In Kampala, but there are numerous
bookshops there, and in Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam, Johannesburg, Cape Town
and dozens of other African cities, small and large.
KAPUŚCIŃSKI HAS HIMSELF been a trenchant critic of inaccuracy in news reporting. “The ignorance of special correspondents… is sometimes astonishing,” he said in a lecture some years ago. “During the August 1981 strikes in Gdansk, where the Solidarity union was born, half the journalists coming to Poland to cover the events could not even have identified Gdansk on the map.”
The lecture continues: “They knew even less about Rwanda at the time of the massacres in 1994. Most of them were setting foot in Africa for the first time…. Almost all of them were ignorant of the causes and reasons behind the conflict.”
Kapuściński’s earlier book about Angola, Another Day of Life is, in part, a response to this kind of ignorance, providing an extended commentary on the malaise of the foreign correspondent who knows that his or her newspaper dispatches are not scratching the surface, that they misrepresent local reality. (The chapter on Rwanda in The Shadow of the Sun is, it may be noted, one of the better sections of the book, capturing the oppressive, vindictive feeling that prevailed in the country well before the 1994 genocide and accurately summarising the political system of the kingdom of Rwanda and the colonial administration that succeeded it.) Here, as elsewhere, Kapuściński prides himself on his personal contact with ordinary people. “I avoided official routes, palaces, important personages and big politics,” he writes in the early pages of The Shadow of the Sun, “Instead I preferred to hitch rides on passing trucks, wander with nomads through the desert, be the guest of peasants from the tropical savannah.”
Yet he gets elementary
facts about the lives of such people wrong. In his chapter on Sudan, for
example, we are told that the Dinka and the Nuer - tropical swamp and savannah
dwellers who comprise half the population of Southern Sudan – “subsist
almost exclusively on milk”.
“Killing cattle,” he continues, “is forbidden, and women cannot
touch them.” All these
assertions are incorrect.
Girls and women routinely milk cows among the Dinka and Nuer, boys
and men occasionally. None of
them lives on milk, except in unusual circumstances; they live on grain
and fish, according to the season – and on meat from their cattle and
other livestock. The
sacrifice and consumption of cattle, far from being forbidden, is a
central feature of their traditional religion. Earlier in the book Kapuściński
says the same thing about the Tutsi – that their cattle are not killed and
women cannot touch them. But
it’s not true of the Tutsi either.
There are a host of other errors in The Shadow of the Sun, small but cumulative in effect. The Bari are not, as Kapuściński states, a Ugandan people, but Sudanese. Bandits in the Somali-Kenya-Ethiopia borderlands are called shifta, not “shifts”. There are no people called the Lugabra. There is nowhere called Haragwe. And the Kakwa of Uganda, Idi Amin’s people, do not live in a region “without roads… and cultivable land”. (The last inaccuracy would be less remarkable if Kapuściński did not tell us that he once considered writing a book about Amin and has amassed a small library about him.)
HOW MUCH DOES ALL this matter? It is surely a matter of concern if the lives and beliefs of Nilotic societies three or four million strong are casually misrepresented. And it clearly important for the descendants of Haile Selassie and the members of his court, and for those trying to write the recent history of Ethiopia, to know whether or not the unique testimonies that Kapuściński appears to have obtained with such resourcefulness are truthful and genuine.
When The Emperor was made into a stage play in London in the 1980s, adapted by Jonathan Miller, the Royal Court Theatre was picketed by protesting Ethiopian exiles, some of them former members of the court. It cut no ice with them to be told that the play was intended as an allegory, that it was not really about their country at all. And why should it? There is a double standard at work in such excuses, a eurocentric bias: if someone published a book of scandalous revelations about the last years of the Gierek regime in communist Poland, using questionable information that had been obtained in obscure circumstances from anonymous and untraceable members of the Polish Internal Security Police, no one would allow that it was a reasonable defence of the book to say that it did not matter whether it was true or not because it was really intended, not as a book about Poland, but as an allegorical account of events in imperial Ethiopia.
The Shadow of the Sun also contains a startling number of generalizations about “Africa” and “Africans”. Such generalizations are dubious by definition: Africa is just too big and various a continent, with too many cultures and histories and too many contrasting natural environments for any but the vaguest commonplace to apply to all of them. The physical and cultural distance between Chad and Cape Town, or Kinshasa and the Ogaden, is as great as that between Manhattan and the Andes, or Osaka and the Hindu Kush. Initially Kapuściński seems to recognise this: in a prefatory note he announces “in reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist”. Yet a few pages later he is coming up with the first of an increasingly unlikely string of assertions about the continent and its inhabitants.
“The European and the african,” he writes, “have an entirely different concept of time”. “Africans believe that a mysterious energy circulates through the world,” an energy that gives them “the strength to set time into motion.” Africans, he continues, “eat only once a day, in the evening”. “Africans are collectivist by nature … all decisions… are made collectively.” “Half the people in African towns don’t have defined occupations.” “In Africa, drivers avoid travelling at night – darkness unnerves them… they may flatly refuse to drive after sunset.” Finally, and perhaps most oddly, “in Africa a cousin on your mother’s side is more important than a husband.” Some of these things may be true of some people in some parts of Africa, sometimes. But none of them is anything like a general truth about Africa – any more than comparable statements about Asia or the Americas would be.
There is a tellingly archaic note in these obiter dicta, scattered like talismans through the text of Shadows of the Sun. In their insistence on a collective otherness they evoke an earlier era of European writing about the continent. It is here that the comparison with Joseph Conrad – Kapuściński’s strong precursor – comes into its own. In this post-Conradian version of Africa Kapuściński is both character and author, a contemporary equivalent of one of Conrad’s voyager-narrators, following a similar trajectory into the interior of the continent, to a place where, to use his earlier phrase, “they say no white man can come back alive”. Thus, in a typical episode of The Shadow of the Sun, he travels to a distant, dangerous location, falls ill and confronts death. And he is witness to dreadful events, from which he emerges with a deeper understanding of the further reaches of human nature.
It is a narrative pattern familiar from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Accordingly, at the centre of Kapuściński’s new book, we find a motif of horror: a long and gory account of the notorious video recording made of the death by torture of Samuel Doe, the former head of state of Liberia. This is an episode that has more than an echo of the climax of Conrad’s original story, in which Marlow, the narrator, confronts evidence of the ivory-trader Kurtz’s complicity in ritual murder and cannibalism. The row of severed heads Marlow sees outside Kurtz’s compound is mirrored, consciously or unconsciously, in Kapuściński’s lingering description of Sergeant Doe’s severed ears.
The baroque note in Kapuściński’s prose confirms the movement away from fact towards the realm of fantasy and symbol. The African universe, for him, is a place of absolutes and extremes, extremes of poverty, of climate, of violence and danger. Its inhabitants are prisoners of their environment. Thus he writes of Somalia, “Daytime hours during the dry season… are a hell almost impossible to bear. Everything is burning. Even the shade is hot, even the wind is ablaze. The human being… does not exist – or he matters only as part of this or that bloodline.” And then of Central Africa, “One cannot compare the tropical forest with any European forest or with any equatorial jungle” (odd, given that tropical forests and equatorial jungles are the same thing).
In this mode of writing – the tropical baroque style – nothing can be ordinary or familiar. Everything is stretched and exaggerated, the opposite of home. As Kapuściński has himself written elsewhere of South American baroque. “If there is a jungle it has to be enormous… if there are mountains they have to be gigantic... if there is a plain it has to be endless…. Fact is mixed with fantasy… truth with myth, realism with rhetoric.” The direction of his blurrings and inventions and exaggerations becomes clearer in the light of this inadvertent self-criticism. Africa is a continent without bookshops, he avers. Its rulers are illiterate. Its inhabitants are prisoners of their environment, or of their bloodline. They are afraid of the dark. They live on milk. (Who knows? They may have heads beneath their shoulders too.) Thus Europeans can never really understand them; they can only marvel at them.
With the last suggestion we are approaching the true nature of Kapuściński’s enterprise. It is an outgrowth of the one historical experience that the inhabitants of this hugely various continent do have in common with each other: the experience of colonization (or military occupation) by European powers. Despite Kapuściński’s vigorously anti-colonialist stance, his writing about Africa is a variety of latter-day literary colonialism, a kind of gonzo orientalism, a highly selective imposition of form, conducted in the name of humane concern, that sacrifices truth and accuracy, and homogenises and misrepresents Africans even as it aspires to speak for them.
SUCH CRITICISMS DO NOT rob Kapuściński’s writing of its bright allure, its illuminating moments, its often lively sympathy for the people of the countries he writes about, but they warn us not to take it seriously as a guide to reality. In the last chapter of The Shadow of the Sun there is a culminating generalization that embodies his ambiguous attitude to factual reportage, and corresponding attraction to the realm of poetry and fiction. “The kind of history known in Europe as scholarly and objective,” Kapuściński writes, “can never arise here because the African past has no documents or records, and each generation, listening to the version being transmitted to it, changed it and continues to change it….”
“As a result,” he continues, “history, free of the
weight of archives, of the constraints of dates and data, achieves here
its purest, crystalline form – that of myth.”