magical omissions

It struck me, just after I wrote the post below, that the late (and great) Ryszard Kapuscinksi would have had much to say on this topic. If you don’t know him, take a look at this column in the UK magazine, New Statesman. That piece sets out some of the debates surrounding the Polish author who became well known for his writings on several African countries, the Soviet Union, and others. To many, Kapuscinski is – or was – a formidable author, a brave journalist with (forgive me for quoting the Sunday Telegraph) “greater narrative skills, more understanding, a subtler use of irony, than most good novelists”. However, to others – and I, for about a year, was one – he was something of a fake, a man who made up stories to suit his stereo-typed view of, in this case, the African continent. One writer who has written particularly critically of him is the superb Kenyan author, Binyavinga Wainaina. It’s worth reading the latter’s piece in Granta’s A view from Africa to get a taste of his hilarious sense of humour and acute observations. However as I endeavour to push my own writing forward, I have become increasingly sympathetic to Kapuscinski. Maybe he was more magical than real but I am tempted to ask, perhaps not ‘So what?’ as ‘What else?’. There is a difference between what the NS columnist Michela Wrong calls ‘sloppiness with the truth’, which implies intent to deceive and manipulate, and a refusal to control and tame the imagination. The idea that truth can only be comprised of facts is a naïve and rather dull misunderstanding of the world in which we all live and the lives we try to lead. There are things that happen around us which we cannot explain through so-called facts – no matter where we are on the earth. Calls are made and we don’t know who they are from. Questions are asked and we don’t know what they mean. Ceremonies take place and we don’t know what they are in honour of. Journeys occur and we don’t know where we are going. Writing a book – even one claiming to be purely factual (if there is such a thing) – is not simply about recounting a list of events that definitely happened, and recalling meetings with people who definitely exist. The book itself is a journey for both the author and reader, that leads you into the mind and imagination of the writer (though there are many who would refute this) as well as your own (reader’s) mind and imagination. What is there to be afraid of? I’m not sure any book should be read merely as a quest to find the truth. And I am sad that Wrong is so incensed by Kapuscinski’s failure to write about ‘apartheid, Aids, the IMF and the World Bank’. He sought to tell stories through the people he met, people often at the bottom of the global economic pile. He did this as much in his own part of the world – Europe – as he did Africa. He didn’t claim, at least as far as I am aware, to explain the rights and wrongs of history, nor the macro-economic story of the day. His obsession, I think, was with the very exhausting pursuit of being – his own and those whom he met.
P.S. Another Day of Life is often referred to by some Angolans I know as one of the best books written about Angola ever. Kapuscinski – at least that work – seems to be more popular down here than on the East coast.

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One thought on “magical omissions

  1. Someone drew my attention to this piece by Wainaina about Kapuscinski

    http://www.mg.co.za/articlePage.aspx?articleid=302375&area=/insight/insight__comment_and_analysis/

    I’m starting to think the debate can be resolved by thinking of two Kapuscinskis – the Kapuscinski of Shadow of the Sun, and the Kapuscinski of everything else. The quotes on which Wainaina bases his argument are, I think, all from Shadow, which is by far the worst thing he ever wrote, but which, sadly, seems to be better known in the English-speaking world than his earlier stuff. His earlier work on Africa – I’m thinking about Another Day of Life and The Emperor are completely free of generalisations about “Africa” and “Africans” (just as well, as Angola and Ethiopia are both strong contenders for the weirdest, most exceptional places in Africa) – but nor does he try to generalise about “Angolans” or “Ethiopians”. Some of the characters in Another Day of Life you never know if they are black, white or brown.

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