28
Feb
12

A Dazzling Collection of Magical Journalism

The Soccer WarThe Soccer War by Ryszard Kapuściński

A great collection of reportage, The Soccer War is like reading the diary of a foreign correspondant. For about 20 years, he covered wars, revolution and fledging democracy across the world, witnessing the brutal and the banal. This book is him looking back, a loose collection of memories and events, only some of them connected.

Kapuściński travelled widely as a reporter. This book has datelines as diverse as Ogaden, the Golan Heights, South America and Congo, all of them under circumstances most would avoid: war, famine, revolution. But  what’s most admirable about this book is not what he witnessed, but how he treats these events.

For example, Kapuściński writes about The Soccer War, a clash between El Salvador and Honduras that was sparked by a soccer game. This would have been easy enough to write about: two small countries in the third world, erupting into senseless violence over sports. But Kapuściński’s reporting goes deeper: into how a need for land reform has pushed refugees across the border between those two countries, how it’s unbalanced the population base and how it led to a level of contempt between the two countries leaders. He shows what appears random to be inventible – but still brutal, senseless and disturbing. His description of being caught in a crossfire is terrifying.

This is a book of feelings and images, something  all to rare in journalism. When he writes of Somalia, it’s of dust clouds rising from a line of Land Rovers, driving in formation across a war-torn desert, the violence only visible in sun-bleached skeletons scattered around wells. When he writes about being held captive, it’s about what happens when you find yourself sentenced to death (something which, according to lore, happened to Kapuściński four times). He writes about life under oppressive dictatorships and of driving along a road bordered by fire into a hellhole of violence. It’s a vivid book. I know I’ll remember some of these passages for a long time.

Unlike so many of today’s reporters, Kapuściński was out there, in the bush on foot, experiencing everything first-hand and not pretending to adhere to any kind of unbiased objectivity. He rarely objects to put his opinion into what’s happening or to put it in a larger context. But the book is also free of cynicism. There’s some troubling stuff here, but it’s also an optimistic book: there’s a lesson to be learned from all he’s witnessed.

Rating: 9/10. The Soccer War is a great sampler of Kapuściński’s work, a great introduction to someone looking for what journalism should aspire to be be and a great recommendation to anyone looking for good read, especially about conflict in the third world. It’s the best book of war journalism I’ve read since Dispatches. Highly recommended.

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