Posts Tagged ‘Ryszard Kapuscinski’

Ryszard Kapuściński: Nobody Leaves

April 9, 2017

I’ve long been a fan of Kapuściński’s reportage and travel writing, and still am, even though his reputation has taken quite a serious knock in some quarters with the revelations in recent years of his somewhat cavalier and casual attitude to truth and accuracy, and his propensity for inventing; at times his writing does read a little like the magic realism of novelists like Marquez… I don’t necessarily see this as a flaw, as long as one is aware that it is happening: it seems to be part of his quest, his determination to create a full and clear impression of his subject-matter, to which he always displays a great sensitivity.

Context is important, too: although a citizen of the Polish People’s Republic, and a respected journalist with great freedom to travel, and benefitting from a light touch from the censor, he did nevertheless have to operate under certain constraints: perhaps his chosen approach allowed him to be published and read, rather than hide his manuscripts in the bottom drawer. Perhaps I’m making excuses for a writer whom I really like; I definitely think it’s easy for Westerners to be critical when they have never experienced similar condition themselves. It reminds me of the pontifications of those who criticised the late Gunter Grass for taking so long to come clean about his membership of the Waffen SS.

Kapuściński is best known in the West for his reporting from Africa in the 1960s and 1970s; The Shadow of the Sun is a beautiful book showing an understanding I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere. His book The Emperor, about the court of the emperor Haile Selassie, is fascinating, as is his account of the last Shah of Persia, Reza Pahlavi. Reflections gleaned from his travels around the Soviet Union, in Imperium, are enlightening, and his tribute to the man he regarded as the first reporter, Travels with Herodotus, is another good read.

Nobody Leaves is rather different, more magical, if anything, and this seems understandable as it’s about his own country in the 1950s and 60s – difficult times in many ways, although remembered by fewer and fewer people now. His style is more laconic, suffused with a touch of dry, wry humour; it reads like quite a lot of (translated) modern Polish fiction I’ve read. It’s an ideal style gradually to portray, in an accretive, impressionistic way, the dreams and hopes of those years, the terrible sense of loss and waste, now obliterated by the bright new capitalist future the country has embraced so wholeheartedly.

Kapuściński doesn’t intrude; he’s very much a reporter in the background, and so when, very occasionally, he foregrounds himself, or a question he has put to someone, there’s a deliberate reason for doing this, and an evident effect. The most painful and shocking piece, for me, was about two illiterate parents who sacrifice their lives and health to further their daughter’s education; their pride is unbounded when she becomes a teacher, but she rejects their sacrifices and her career to become a nun, and her order block contact between her and her dying parents. My father was a devout Catholic, but often scathing about the religious authorities in his homeland; now I understand why…

I suspect the pieces in this book meant more to Poles reading them half a century ago, but for me the man’s humaneness, his humanity, shine through. It’s well-translated and has a helpful introduction, too.

Jacek Hugo-Bader: White Fever

December 30, 2014

51+iMiGPN8L._AA160_White Fever is the nickname Russians give to the DTs that alcholics suffer from; there’s a ridiculous amount of that in this book…

The blurb on the cover compares Hugo-Bader to Ryszard Kapuscinski, an inevitable comparison, I suppose, but they are different: Bader is much more impressionistic, it seems to me, and rather less contextual. He writes well, it’s translated well and easy to read, though the subject-matter is grim and challenging.

It’s a deceptive book: I thought I was getting a travelogue through Siberia, but it’s not an A-Z account of a journey. Instead there are thematic chapters, impressions of people and places encountered on his journey.

I’ve read a lot about Siberia, and it remains vast and incomprehensible. The Soviet Union becomes an ever weirder place as time passes since its disappearance, leaving so many horrors behind it. Bader visits the area where Soviet nuclear testing took place and his accounts of the cavalier attitudes at the time, and the horrendous effects, are truly shocking. The effects on indigenous peoples of alcohol are appalling; having grown up on non-carb diets, they are unable to process alcohol and it wreaks havoc. Average consumption of alcohol in Russia is seventeen litres of pure alcohol equivalent per person per year.

Crime, corruption and violence are rife in lawless areas of the Far East: it resembles the US Wild West of the nineteenth century, and is certainly far worse than in the days of the Soviet Union. There are all sorts of shamans and weird religious cults as people strive to make some sense of their wrecked lives; here I was reminded of some of the religious fundamentalism of the US.

So then I found myself thinking about huge continental nations like the US and Russia that are almost empires in themselves, and wondering whether the inhabitants do actually see life and live it differently, if that makes sense. Certainly both places appear very different from the melting-pot of relatively small nations that make up Europe and that I’m familiar with, though we are just as capable of internecine horrors, as our twentieth-century history testifies… I have always been fascinated with the Soviet Union, which to me did begin as an attempt to create a different and better kind of society, though it was very quickly perverted; certainly the glee of the West at its collapse and our rush to help destroy all traces of it, is partly responsible for what is going on in Russia now.

It’s a fascinating and horrifying read; I’m astonished at the risks he took. The practicalities of attempting to drive in Siberia would put any sane person off. He observes closely and intelligently, refraining from judgement: allowing people to speak for themselves, they also judge themselves.

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