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Review-a-Day
Powells.com
Monday, June 25th, 2001


 

The Shadow of the Sun

by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Our Man in Africa

A review by Frank Bures

Ryszard Kapuscinski has been roaming the world for forty years now, dodging bullets, running roadblocks, being sentenced to death (four times), having drinks with world leaders mostly Third World leaders and taking notes. The Polish journalist's books and stories are filled with drama worthy of Hollywood.

There is plenty of that in his new book, Shadow of the Sun, about his four-decade affair with Africa, a collection of anecdotes, essays and reportage. In it he also shows that he's still a master of the style he helped create what he calls the "New Literature," in which the writer is a character. Ever since he arrived there in Africa in 1957, Kapuscinski has been more participant than voyeur, so Kapuscinski's Africa in his new book is neither a giant zoo nor a museum of misery. It is far more simple and infinitely more complex than the Africa portrayed in most books: It is a place where people live.

Kapuscinski's new collection, however, is not without its faults. The author takes frequent detours into tangents unrelated to the narratives. Some are interesting. Others drag on into lectures about the evils of the slave trade or how big the world is. Just as seriously, he cautions early on against painting Africa with too broad a brush a place where 10,000 cultures were brutally unified into 50 colonies. Then he goes on to forget his own advice, generalizing about Africa, Africans, and at one point even using the dreaded phrase "the African mind."

Still, the dips are fewer than the peaks on Kapuscinski's continent. When he's on, he brings a depth of understanding historical, cultural, political and personal unmatched by any journalist today. He has been willing to go virtually anywhere in his quest to see and understand the continent. He's gotten cerebral malaria, tuberculosis, and almost died of thirst in the Sahara. He tried getting into Rwanda during the first massacres in 1963. He watched Angola disintegrate in 1975. He went to Liberia after the war in 1995.

But, the dangers are upheavals are not what concern Kapuscinski most. They are the waves of history, and his interest lies in the people tossed around by them. It is this that Kapuscinski is a great humanist first and a great writer second that helps Shadow of the Sun overcome most of its flaws to stand high among books on Africa today.


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