Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Shadow of the Sun

Last fall I read Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist. It was his final book (he died in January, 2007) and I enjoyed it very much, having recently read Herodotus' Histories upon which he draws extensively. So it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to reading earlier works by Ryszard Kapuscinski. As an introduction to the mosaic of life that is known as "Africa" The Shadow of the Sun did not disappoint. The book consists of loosely connected essays on the travels and specific experiences of the author interspersed with brief historical commentaries. The looseness of the content is linked together through recurring themes such as the Sun of the title, the importance of minerals and elements, such as water in the Sahara, and the pervasive violence of both nature and man. The latter is evidenced by the presence of "Warlords" in several countries and the recurrence of tribal attacks of blacks on blacks leading at one extreme to examples of genocide as happened in Rwanda. The ubiquity of oppression of one group upon other(s), again both black, was striking and the existence of black on black apartheid (before it ever occurred in the Republic of South Africa) was both illuminating and disillusioning.
In a book as much about the plastic water container as the warlord and preferring the African shanty town to the Manhattan skyscraper as a monument to human achievement, what Kapuściński, the author of Shah of Shahs describes is not just Africa, which he claims does not exist except geographically, but more a distillation of life itself, through its religiosity, its trees, the frightening abundance of youth, sun that "curdles the blood" and terrorising, ruling armies that fall in a day. A couple of minor criticisms: the chronology in the book was uncertain at times, infuriatingly so; and, the book would have benefitted from a map for reference as the episodic quality of the content led the reader to and fro across the continent. Kapuscinski is an excellent writer and a literary journalist. He is also a brave man who went into places and faced situations that appeared quite dangerous. His readers benefit from his adventurous personality. This excursion into his world makes me even more interested in reading other examples from his oeuvre.

The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski. Klara Glowczewska, trans. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2001.

No comments: