Karl Miller

We live at a time when reporters go to foreign countries where there is trouble and come back to write books in which they say that it was hard to make out what was going on. When they say this, they are apt to be called writers, rather than reporters. Writers don’t know what is going on. But they can be very good at conveying what it was like to be there, and to be writing it down. An arch-priest of these mysteries is V.S. Naipaul, whose foreign countries figure as areas of darkness, where coups and crises are glimpsed but may remain inscrutable. Another is Ryszard Kapuściński, an expert in what his new book calls ‘confusion’, who has attended 27 revolutions in the Third World. These revolutions, he believably reports, have been confusions. There he sat in his writer’s hotel room, venturing out into a series of tight corners, filing his copy, then leaving for Warsaw to compose his short books – objects physically slight but charged with these confusions. They are wonderfully done, and they have caused a stir of approval in this country, while also raising doubts. In a recent New Left Review Benedict Anderson made sharp criticisms of the work of the journalist and poet James Fenton in which a comparison with that of Kapuściński was noted: you were left with the sense of two talented crisis-fancying literary tourists.

Kapuściński exercises a personal charm which must have helped him to establish friendly relations with the people he met, and to gather material, and which can seem to befriend the Western reader. Born in 1932, he retired as a foreign correspondent for the Polish Press Agency in 1981, by which time his three books had started to come out. They describe three falls: that of the Emperor Haile Selassie, that of the Shah and that of the colonial masters of Angola. No fall from power within the Eastern bloc of nations is mentioned in any of the books.

The Ethiopian book, published in Britain in 1983, showed him to be a writer interested in ‘autocrats’ – in absolute power and in the transformation of that power into its indistinguishable opposite. He says that it is ‘difficult to say when omnipotence becomes powerlessness’. Not that the stories of Haile Selassie and the Shah are any great advertisement for the omnipotence of omnipotence. Both rulers had reason to fear. Both of them, though, were rulers whom Western journalists used to admire: they were jewels in the crown of freedom, and yet endearingly autocratic. Kapuściński’s first two books will serve to deter any cult of the dear dead king in question. In The Emperor he writes: ‘For the starvelings it had to suffice that His Munificent Highness personally attached the greatest importance to their fate, which was a very special kind of attachment, of an order higher than the highest. It provided the subjects with a soothing and uplifting hope that whenever there appeared in their lives an oppressive mischance, some tormenting difficulty, His Most Unrivalled Highness would hearten them – by attaching the greatest importance to that mischance or difficulty.’ The Emperor has something of the technique of comic and fantastic exaggeration that we associate with Dickens, and something of the manner, too, of Dickens’s reader, Kafka:

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