Start your review of The Shadow of the Sun Write a review May 14, Dolors rated it it was amazing Recommends it for: Those who want to meet the real Africa Recommended to Dolors by: Peekay Shelves: read-before , best-ever , read-in Ryszard Kapuscinski sits under the branchy shade of a solitary acacia and stares at the incommensurable moonlike landscape unfolding in front of him. Plains covered with parched, thorny shrubs and vast extensions of sandy ground seem ablaze in a shimmering haze that refracts on the journalists eyes forcing him to squint. Water and shade, such fluid, inconstant things, and the two most valuable treasures in Africa, this half-historian, half-journalist recalls while revisiting the thirty years he Ryszard Kapuscinski sits under the branchy shade of a solitary acacia and stares at the incommensurable moonlike landscape unfolding in front of him. A place where its people are one with its arid terrain, blinding light and spicy smells.
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If we had room for only one contemporary writer, whom would we send? For almost 30 years he was a roving foreign correspondent for the Polish Press Agency. During that time he witnessed 27 revolutions and coups. Though dutifully fulfilling his brief, he was also a kind of narcotics-free gonzo journalist, suddenly breaking contact with Warsaw and disappearing without trace to throw himself "into the jungle, float down the Niger in a dugout, wander through the Sahara with nomads".
In Nigeria in he was "driving along a road where they say no white man can come back alive. I was driving to see if a white man could because I had to experience everything for myself. Fat chance. The early pages of The Shadow of the Sun , a compendium of further adventures in Africa, find him in Dar es Salaam in , where he hears that Uganda is about to gain independence. He and a friend, Leo, promptly set off for Kampala via the Serengeti, with its teeming wildlife.
As if one were witnessing the birth of the world, that precise moment when the earth and sky already exist, as do water, plants, and wild animals, but not yet Adam and Eve. They press on regardless. It gets hotter and hotter. By the time they come to a hut in the middle of nowhere, Kapuscinski is "half dead".
He slumps down on a bunk, only to discover that his hand is dangling inches from an Egyptian cobra. He freezes. Leo approaches gingerly and slams down an enormous metal canister on the snake. Kapuscinski hurls himself on the canister as well, whereupon "the interior of the hut exploded.
I never suspected there could be so much power within a single creature. Such terrifying monstrous, cosmic power. Kapuscinski is still delirious, not just from heat- stroke but - it turns out - from malaria. Cerebral malaria. And all in 20 pages! Kapuscinski, it has to be said, trowels it on. On every other page, he is "drenched in sweat". In the Sahara, the sun beats down "with the force of a knife". Step out of the shade and "you will go up in flames".
In Monrovia there are roaches "as big as small turtles". Is there a touch of exaggeration in all of this? Kapuscinski himself alerts us to the possibility by observing that he "could embellish" the stuff with the roaches, deciding against it because it "would not be true".
The possibility, though, is always there. Experience is only the beginning - and some writers need more of it than others. Camus pointed out that it is possible to lead a life of great adventure without leaving your desk. At the other extreme, mountaineer Joe Simpson can function as a writer only on the condition that he remain roped to the cliff face of personal experience.
Occasionally, though, you have what Nietzsche considered "something very rare but a thing to take delight in: a man with a finely constituted intellect who has the character, the inclinations and also the experiences appropriate to such an intellect".
Then you have Kapuscinski. It is often unclear whether he is recycling dispatches sent 40 years ago or is only now writing up this amazing hoard of experience. Chronology is deliberately uncertain, the sequence fragmented. Rival tenses jostle for dominance within the same page; his prose has both the unsteady immediacy of the moment and a measure of historical reflection.
What was happening in one part of the continent in the s affords a glimpse of what will happen elsewhere years later, in Liberia or Rwanda. A great imaginative writer, he goes way beyond the material he is pro cessing. They may be rooted in his own experience, but his books are also full of amazing digressions, little essays - on how to make cognac, on the history of the Armenian book, on anything and everything.
And yet these digressions are always integral to the conception of the work. In Ethiopia he meets "a man who was walking south. That is really the most important thing one can say about him. That he was walking north to south. Characters from a dozen mini-novels stray briefly into view and then move on: "All of Africa is in motion, on the road to somewhere, wandering.
Terror turns gives way to absurd slapstick, and vice versa. Either way, an endless capacity for astonishment holds sway. He is an unflinching witness and an exuberant stylist. In this respect he is the victim of a received cultural prejudice that assumes fiction to be the loftiest perch of literary distinction in prose.
Because it is translated non-fiction, The Shadow of the Sun is ineligible for a number of literary prizes. Kapuscinski is steeped in the politics of everything he sees. His daring - actual and literary - is underwritten by an awareness of how politics complicates empathy, and of how sympathy implicates politics.
There he is, a white man in Africa at the moment when countries are liberating themselves from the shackles of colonialism. But Kapuscinski is from a country that has been repeatedly ravaged by the imperial ambitions of its neighbours. He knows what it means "to have nothing, to wander into the unknown and wait for history to utter a kind word".
This is one of the reasons he feels at home in Africa, among the wretched of the earth. Though thoroughly democratised he is inevitably alien, which makes the attempt "to find a common language" more urgent. The torpor of the wretched is matched by a quite phenomenal resourcefulness.
Likewise, he never plays down the corruption or violence he has witnessed - on the contrary, its prevalence makes the survival of kindness all the more remarkable. In return Kapuscinski always offers what he wanted from history: "a kind word".
Having narrowly escaped death in The Soccer War , Kapuscinski was more succinct: "There is so much crap in this world, and then suddenly, there is honesty and humanity. Summing up his dealings with a man serving as his driver, Kapuscinski eventually achieves the human - rather than strictly economic - relation he craves, one rich in "tenderness, warmth and goodwill". He is not being naive or sentimental: the goodwill was genuine, heartfelt - but it could only be bought.
Does this inhibit him from seeing the spirit of Africa? The answer is revealed, magnificently, on the very last page of the book.
Journeys into the interior
The Shadow of the Sun