Posts Tagged ‘Ryszard Kapuściński


Shah of Shahs – Ryszard Kapuściński

Shah of ShahsShah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuściński

A slim, powerful book on the rise and fall of Mohammad Reza, the last Shah of Iran. Starting in the final days of the revolution, Kapuscinski writes of the propaganda on state television and the barren city of Tehran before looking back at how Reza gained power, gradually turning Iran into a dictatorship with the power of Savak, the secret police (a favorite method of torture: the frying pan, a heated metal sheet an unlucky prisoner would have their hands and feet strapped to) and a military armed with the best weapons Iran’s oil-fuelled fortune could buy. But this is when the seeds of the revolution were laid, and Kapuscinski takes the reader through the early stages through the downfall of the Shah and to the rise of Khomeini.

This is a quick read that’s occasionally a little short on actual details – did the big moments unfold the way Kapuscinski writes them? – but it’s a lucid, fast-moving and colorful history that takes you inside Iran as the revolution unfolds. Recommended.


Life Behind the Lines: Another Day of Life – Ryszard Kapuściński

Another Day of LifeAnother Day of Life by Ryszard Kapuściński

A slim, spooky account of the Angolan Civil War, Another Day of Life is a dramatic and readable read, but it’s also a little maddening too once you start to really think about it.

In 1975, Ryszard Kapuściński took the last plane flying into Luanda as the Portuguese fled the country and it seemed poised on the brink of civil war. He found himself in a country slowly withering away. He writes of seeing the country slowly packing itself up in wooden crates, of dogs roaming the streets and giant ships looming just off the coast, slowly drifting away to Brazil and Europe. Later, he goes to the chaotic front, narrowly missing ambushes and getting shelled. His book vividly captures life behind the action: the empty city, the paranoid citizens and the taps running out of water. It’s a starker read than, say, The Emperor: here, people pop into the narrative and die just a few pages later. A dark sense of mortality is always present here; as he grimly notes when looking at a map of the ever-changing front, “Death’s account is always open.”

As much as I like Kapuściński’s writing (and I really do, I think his prose here is fantastic) there’s always a nagging feeling like I’m missing part of the picture: he clearly had Communist ties thanks to his employment by the government-controlled Polish Press Agency, and openly admits to spending all his time hanging around people affiliated with the Eastern powers-affiliated MPLA. There’s no way his role was as benign or simple as foreign correspondent, but he gives no context to what else he does, let alone of Soviet intervention in the conflict. I don’t know if I should hold that against him.

The space between these lines is one of the most interesting parts of this book: Kapuściński knows the movers-and-shakers of the MPLA, from the guy who flies ammo to the front and takes wounded troops back, to a group of nocturnal and mysterious Cuban army officers to Agostinho Neto, then-president of Angola. It’s never quite clear how he gets to know all these people (it’s hard to imagine too many reporters getting to hang out with Neto during a civil war), only that he does.

Rating: 7/10. As a piece of reportage, I think it’s maybe a little misleading at best and at it’s worst, outright propaganda, like when he calls the FNLA cannibals. But as a writer, Kapuściński shines, making his experiences in a far-removed civil war come vividly alive in these pages. Read it, but think about the message he’s sending, too.


Behind the Palace Doors – Kapuscinski’s The Emperor

The EmperorThe Emperor by Ryszard Kapuściński

You probably remember Lord Acton’s old line about absolute power, right? Acton died over a century ago, never living to see the rise of Hallie Selassie, but he left us with a pretty great description of his royal court.

The late Ryszard Kapuściński was a reporter for the Polish state press. For a long time, he was their only reporter, too. He spent time nearly everywhere: South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, even did a spell at the White House. He died in 2007 but left us with some of the best nonfiction ever written by a working journalist.

One of his best books is The Emperor, a deep look inside Selassie’s palace and at the revolution that toppled his government. Told primarily through the ministers and courtiers that lived and worked inside his palace, the book paints a vivid picture of a government that excelled in corruption and backstabbing, packed with flatterers and praise, which completely removed everyone who worked and lived within from reality. Some of the scenes in here are straight out of Kafka: a valet whose entire job is clean up after Selassie’s dog pees on dignitaries shoes, another whose job is place a pillow under the Emperor’s feet (Selassie liked tall thrones, but had short legs) and three competing spy networks, each of whom spent most of their time reporting on the other two. Other stories are more sobering: a minister who turns down bribes and flattering is put to death; crowds who aren’t allowed to look at Selassie; a minister whose job is to give money to the poor, but pockets most of it for himself (with Selassie’s approval).

Most damning, though, is the remove of his court from reality. Things start off as excessive: to avoid offending the Emperor, he only visits places specially prepared for his arrival: buildings are cleaned up, the hungry and poor shuffled off and his many palaces are kept continually stocked and ready for his arrival, including one he only visited once in over 20 years. The ministers Kapuściński speaks to don’t see anything strange about this: why should they offend the Emperor? He wisely lets them speak for themselves and, as it were, damn themselves.

It goes beyond such potemkin villages, though. As Ethiopia starves, his ministers defend their greed and corruption. They cut off aid, imposing high duties, letting villages starve in the name of progress. They kick out foreign journalists and decry opposition as people who wish to out their country down in the eyes of Western media. It’s not going to hell, it’s giving the country a chance to stand up for itself, they say. Soon the Army stages the first of several coups and things go to hell for the palace. People vanish in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. The people outside demand blood and the Palace is locked up like a prison. Before long, the Army has plucked everyone away and Selassie is alone, trapped in his own opulence.

What’s most striking about The Emperor is how little a role Kapuściński plays. Mostly, he stays out of the story, letting these ministers, valets and assorted voices of the regime dig their own holes; it’s a change from more personal histories, like The Soccer War. He occasionally intrudes to tell what life’s like post-Selassie: these people are all in hiding. But none of them sees why. It’s an informative read into what day-to-day life was like in a place where the leader was both incredibly corrupt and cruel, yet completely aloof from his own country.

Rating : 8/10. It’s a crazy read, looking this deep into Selassie’s palace and the sycophants within, but it’s a fascinating look into a despotic regime. Recommended to anyone who reads non-fiction, especially those with an interest in African affairs.


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. Continue reading ‘A Dazzling Collection of Magical Journalism’