Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Kapuscinski, More Magical Than Real

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Kapuscinski, More Magical Than Real

Article excerpt

When I was researching my book on Eritrea, I interviewed one of the capital's oldest Italian residents, a frail gentleman with cheekbones so sharp you could have cut paper on them. I asked him about Tiravolo, a district I'd read about, where Soviet generals lounged by the swimming pools of magnificent Italian villas during the cold war, surrounded by lush lawns and flower gardens.


He looked puzzled. "Tiravolo? But that's not a particularly luxurious part of town." The only pool that sprang to mind was the municipal one. Nor did the city boast many lush lawns--water was too precious to waste on mere decoration.

So where had I acquired such misleading impressions? From Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish writer and journalist, of course. Kapuscinski, who died last month, may have been many things--poet, weaver of spells, fearless war correspondent--but despite his background in news agency journalism, he was never (in his books, at least) a stickler for accuracy.

Any writer would give their eye teeth for a smidgen of the praise heaped upon Kapuscinski at his death, aged 74. The New York Times described him as a weaver of "shimmering allegories" and the Times hailed him as "a master of reportage", while the Paris Review saluted him as "one of our--the world's--greatest writers".

But there is an interesting nuance to this story. Africa, the continent with which Kapuscinski will always be associated, appears to have barely noticed his passing. Trawling through African newspapers and websites, I have not found a single mention of it. There's a reason. Kapuscinski may have prided himself on shunning the airconditioned 4x4 and five-star hotel, writing instead about the ordinary Africans he travelled and lived with. Yet his work remained a strictly foreign taste. The few African intellectuals familiar with it didn't much like it. A while ago, I was sent a splenetic round robin by African intellectuals who so hated his work, they were trying to organise an international campaign, with everyone on the mailing list encouraged to turn up at the venues on Kapuscinski's lecture tour and put hostile questions. I felt sorry for the man.

What had got them so incensed? Kapuscinski's sloppy way with the truth, for one thing. There were also the glaring omissions. While his publicists vaunted the 27 revolutions and coups he had covered (a claim so macho, I never took it seriously), he was shockingly silent on, or paid only lip-service to, many of the forces that have shaped African history: apartheid, Aids, the IMF and the World Bank, for example. …

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