Purple Diary

[March 13 2009]

Why you should read Ryszard Kapuscinski

I only discovered Ryszard Kapuściński (1932–2007) after reading his posthumously published Travels with Herodotus, whom he describes as “a consummate reporter: he wanders, looks, talks, listens, in order that he can later note down what he learned and saw, or simply to remember later,” and which accurately fits Kapuściński.

Named journalist of the century by his native Poland, Kapuściński was for decades his country’s only foreign correspondent, covering Asia, Africa, and Latin America. He was jailed 40 times and faced life-threatening situations with the equanimity of a person used to living with it. Since publishing Travels with Herodotus, the reporter, poet, and author has hit Macolm Gladwell’s now famous “tipping point,” when recognition rises to form a new cultural meme, to use Richard Dawkins’ term for a cultural unit of information. He wrote brilliantly on Africa (The Shadow of the Sun), the last days of the Soviet Union (Imperium), Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia (Emperor), and the five-day war, in 1969, between El Salvador and Honduras over a soccer match.

Maybe because he’d lived under Stalin’s maddening shadow, Brezhnev’s detente, and perestroika’s move toward openness, Kapuściński had the requisite talent and imagination to put into perspective the awkward opposition between European and American capitalism, whose supermarkets, as he notes in The Shadow of the Sun, brim with “every conceivable object that man has ever invented and produced, and subsequently transported, stowed, and piled up, all of which results in the customer not having to think about anything,” and the greater world beyond. In Africa, he writes, in comparison, “a single bowl, a handful of grain, a sip of water … a nothing becomes a deeply significant something because … imagination anoints and exalts it.” In all of his books the forces of symbolism and myth bang up against capitalist consumerism and its inculcated logic, framing his humanistic worldview. He’s been criticized for inaccuracies, but what he saw and felt, and the clarity of his prose, offer a necessary realism about the hungry margins of the world and their looming, unresolved, and perhaps irresolvable relationship to the over-sated center. Read him.

Text by Jeff Rian

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