Downfalls

Karl Miller

  • Another Day of Life by Ryszard Kapuściński
    Picador, 136 pp, £8.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 330 29844 5

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:

in the courtyard where the Emperor’s retinue awaited him, there were tens, no, I say it without exaggeration, hundreds eager to push their faces forward. Face rubbed against face, the taller ones squelching down the shorter ones, the darker ones overshadowing the lighter ones. Face despised face, the older ones moving in front of the younger ones, the weaker ones giving way to the stronger ones. Face hated face, the common ones clashing with the noble ones, the grasping ones against the weaklings. Face crushed face, but even the humiliated ones, the ones pushed away, the third-raters and the defeated ones, even those – from a certain distance imposed by the law of hierarchy, it’s true – still moved toward the front, showing here and there from behind the first-rate, titled ones, if only as fragments: an ear, a piece of temple, a cheek or a jaw ... just to be closer to the Emperor’s eye!

These are not the faces of a people set apart from others, or divided among themselves, by creed or colour: the country has more than one religion, but Kapuściński’s Ethiopians are neither Moslem nor Christian. This is the face of a universal servility.

The affinity with Kafka is in one respect problematical. It is not easy to know how far Kafka’s fictions can be thought to answer descriptively to the historical realities which he shared with others (let alone to those which his fictions are often thought to have predicted). And it is not easy to know how far Kapuściński’s book is a book about a bygone Ethiopia. Is it a book about Poland? It purports to be based on the recollections of courtiers and retainers hunted up after the fall: but I have heard it suggested that the author did not take to the Picador edition’s cover display of a picture of Haile Selassie, perhaps on the grounds of a misleading particularity. The reader who believes he is learning things about Imperial Ethiopia may be equally inclined to tell himself that this is a country of the mind, constructed on principles no different from those of the Samuel Johnson who devised, for the Abyssinia of Rasselas, just representations of general truths and a common humanity.

From Abyssinia Kapuściński passed to Persia. From Rasselas, as it were, to Ozymandias. Present in the second book as the occupant of an Iranian hotel room sifting through his papers, photographs and cassettes, Kapuściński recites the history of the region, which has thrust the Shah of Shahs into the sand in the posture of the statue of the ‘King of Kings’ in Shelley’s tyrannophobe poem. The Shah had made a showplace of his country with his colossal purchasing of weapons, and look what it had all come to: ‘If you drive from Shiraz to Isfahan even today you’ll see hundreds of helicopters parked off to the right of the highway. Sand is gradually covering the inert machines.’ Shortly after the point at which the recital ends, sand was to cover some more helicopters – those sent by President Carter to liberate the American hostages seized in Teheran, where Kapuściński catches a glimpse not of them but of their place of confinement.

At this palace, as at the other, servility shows its face and performs its tricks. Foreign statesmen revere an oil-rich omnipotence: ‘Now the whole world was at his feet. Before him were bowed heads, inclined necks and outstretched hands.’ Kapuściński speaks of the enlightened liberals who lost out when the Shah was expelled, but Bakhtiar is not particularised. Bani Sadr he does mention, with a hint of sympathy. He may or may not feel that in Iran one tyranny has been deposed by another. He says that these intelligent people were placed in a paradoxical situation after the fall: ‘A democracy cannot be imposed by force, the majority must favour it, yet the majority wanted what Khomeini wanted – an Islamic republic.’

This must mean that a liberal or elective democracy cannot be imposed by force, and it has the force of a generalisation. Kapuściński is a seeker of general truths who is sparing with his generalisations, and who likes certain kinds of particularity but not others. The kind he likes he calls ‘detail’, as opposed to ‘long shots’ – the equivalent, that is, of the long shots over-used by cameramen of the Iranian Revolution: ‘it is through details that everything can be shown’ – that the truth can be shown. But in The Emperor no detail is adduced that might bring out what differences there could be between a black courtier and a white: Kapuściński’s courtiers are about as black as Johnson’s Prince Rasselas, who is about as black as he is white.

In the second book, a photograph ‘shows the pulling down of a monument to one of the Shahs (father or son) in Teheran or some other Iranian city. It is hard to be sure about the year the photograph was taken, since the monuments of both Pahlavis were pulled down several times, whenever the occasion presented itself to the people.’ Here the confusions or uncertainties are the point of the passage: it doesn’t matter that the particulars of the caption are missing since this sort of thing was always happening. It matters less and less as we move into an enjoyable account derived from a vocational puller-down of statues of the Shah and his father. The Shah was equal to these demolitions: ‘If we pulled one down, he set up three.’ The wrecker explains that, one way or another, ‘it’s not easy to pull down monuments.’ Kapuściński then generalises. The Shah’s regime was a transplant that the system had rejected: ‘The rejection of a transplant – once it begins, the process is irreversible. All it takes is for society to accept the conviction that the imposed form of existence does more harm than good.’ I am not sure how much work these last words are doing, and if there is tautology here, it is compounded by what follows. Rejecting the Shah was

a great experience, an adventure of the heart. Look at the people who are taking part in a revolt. They are stimulated, excited, ready to make sacrifices. At that moment they are living in a monothematic world limited to one thought: to attain the goal they are fighting for. Everything will be subjugated to that goal ...

Kapuściński’s way with words entails adding, repeating, piling up, for the space of a slim volume. But the ‘and’s’ and ‘or’s’ rarely irritate, and go unnoticed in the great set-pieces which mean so much to all three books – like that palimpsest of faces in Addis Ababa.

In 1975, the year after the fall of Haile Selassie, and four years before the fall of the Shah, the witness of revolutions turned up in Angola for the abandonment of their colony by the Portuguese: the subject of this new book. Agostinho Neto, politician and poet, the leader of the MPLA, is about to preside over the new state, but two enemy armies are converging on the capital, Luanda: the FNLA under Holden Roberto and Unita under Jonas Savimbi. All three sides have different sets of international sponsor, and Kapuściński is to find out that the South Africans have invaded in the south of the country, having fallen in love with Savimbi. As in the earlier books, the bravura set-piece dominates, and the most memorable concerns the crates in which the Portuguese have packed up their belongings, and which were eventually shipped out of Africa – Kapuściński was to stumble on a few of them in Portugal, sunk, as it were, in the sand. He writes of them as they stay for waftage: ‘Some crates were as big as vacation cottages, because a hierarchy of crate status had suddenly come into being. The richer the people, the bigger the crates they erected. Crates belonging to millionaires were impressive: beamed and lined with sailcloth, they had solid, elegant walls made of the most expensive grades of tropical wood, with the rings and knots cut and polished like antiques.’ The passage takes off thereafter in ecstatic inventory. At the start of the book there are false notes, those of a Hemingway war correspondent: ‘Every knock at the door could mean the end for me. I tried not to think about it, which is the only thing to do in such a situation.’ But matters are mended with the arrival of the crates – antiques that epitomised an antique land, brief monuments to the old Angola.

Benguela, in the south, is one of Kapuściński’s ghost towns. A deserted European quarter is twinned with an African settlement out in a desert ‘white and glimmering like a salt spill, without a blade of grass’. These Africans have not touched the possessions of the Portuguese: ‘the degree of consciousness that drives one to demand justice or do something about obtaining it hasn’t yet been reached.’ Perhaps it hadn’t. From Benguela, Kapuściński and a film crew travel to a scene of carnage, guided by Carlotta, a heroine of the MPLA. When the Europeans decide to return, their guide decides to stay, and is immediately killed. ‘We are all culpable in Carlotta’s death, since we agreed to let her stay behind; we could have ordered her to return.’ A colonial ‘could’.

Kapuściński is soon in a still hairier place, further south, where he is told of the South African intervention. This is a scoop, and he fights his way back through wildernesses, road-blocks, threats of ambush, to inform Warsaw. The last Portuguese leave Luanda. Independence is declared, and Neto’s position at the head of the hard-pressed MPLA improves. By now Kapuściński is on his ‘last legs’ and he telexes Warsaw to say that he wants to leave and that it is ‘more or less clear’ that ‘the Angolans will win.’ This is a cryptic message. Does he mean Neto’s, and Castro’s, Angolans? On the following page we read that ‘things were going badly’ for Neto. And we know that, 12 years later, the war continues, that the suffering of the Angolans is hideous, and that foreign countries are almost entirely indifferent to it.

An autocrat falls in the first two books: but the only one in the third is the author-autocrat of the hotel room who sallies into the bush, as if on impulse, to visit the mysterious, moveable ‘front’. At the same time, he is a shrewd observer who writes compellingly about the people and the landscapes he encounters. A benevolent despot.

The same description would not, in my view, be grossly inapplicable to the present ruler of Poland – which has, as it happens, a smaller population than the Ethiopia of chronic famine. General Jaruzelski bears no obvious resemblance to the Third World autocrats discussed in the first two books. But it can scarcely be in doubt that these books have in them home truths, and an ironic indirection or duplicity, which richly relate to Jaruzelski’s predecessors. Their writing appears to have coincided with the rise of Solidarity. They are books which bring together all three of the worlds we inhabit, and which may even thrive on the transparency of the impression they give that tyrannies, that sycophancy, conspiracy and repression, courts and courtiers, are all on the royal right, and in the bush, and running into the sand.

According to the Guardian, the New Year’s Honours list in Britain contained a knighthood for ‘Professor Albert Maillard, the Oxford historian’. Two of the several names owned by another recipient had strayed into someone’s word-processor to create a further deserving don, the knowing reference to whom must have ruined the new year for more than one studious reader. I feel that Albert Maillard, if he existed, would have no time for Kapuściński’s impressionism, for his absence of dates, figures and state papers: but it will be evident to many that Kapuściński is an artist who is his own kind of historian, and that the history of modern Angola will be much the poorer if it excludes his accounts, if it excludes the confusions and uncertainties which he experiences and interprets. There will be no shortage of state papers, but there will be a shortage of other sources. At the rate they are going, there will also be a shortage of human beings.