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In Mistah Kurtz's footsteps, with Ryszard Kapuscinski as our guide

The Shadow of the Sun

By Ryszard Kapuscinski

Translated by Klara Glowczewska

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Knopf Canada, 325 pages, $35.95

First, the blinding white heat, empty, airless expanses swept bone-dry by hot winds, sleepy villages resonant with flies, the sticky smell of fecundity and rot.

Then, endless toil, poverty, hunger, thirst, malaria-racked bodies, segregation, coups, civil wars, massacres, child soldiers, expulsion, flight, a flimsy border between death and life.

And patience, good humour, the bonds of community, the obligations of kinship, eternal, abiding.

This is Ryszard Kapuscinski's Africa. The Shadow of the Sun is his elegantly trenchant summation of a 40-year peregrination beneath the skin of the continent. In his latest work to be translated into English, the peerless practitioner of grand reportage filters the study of history and political analysis through finely honed literary sensibility and journalistic acumen as he undertakes a reconnaissance of the African soul.

The "varied, distinct, even contradictory," "immensely rich cosmos" that is Africa is deftly captured in a collection of verbal snapshots, extended dispatches, lectures, notes and diary entries marking Kapuscinski's passage from novice foreign correspondent, the Polish Press Agency's only correspondent in Africa, to seasoned expositor of a continent rocked by massive social upheaval. The book opens in 1958 in newly liberated Ghana. It ends in the 1990s, at a Christmas Eve celebration in Tanzania's Mikumi National Park, with the auspicious appearance of an elephant, the creature believed to incarnate the spirit of Africa because it cannot be vanquished.

The intervening pages cover the process of decolonization and the convulsive births of independent states during the fifties and sixties. This period of "promise and hope" is followed by "the darkest decades" of the seventies and eighties, epitomized by Idi Amin's bloody dictatorship of Uganda and Sudan's "vast and tragic killing fields" -- mere prelude to the Endlosung (final solution) in Rwanda. The chapter entitled Amin contains one of the book's most chilling scenes: People in the Kampala market are gawking at an unusually enormous fish, fattened on the bodies Amin's henchmen have tossed into the lake, when a military vehicle pulls up; the soldiers, laughing maniacally, grab the fish and in its place they toss a corpse.

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Kapuscinski's Africa is a laboratory for evil. The book is a scathing indictment of the ideology of colonialism, and the ethnic and religious conflict and intolerance it bred: "Racism, hatred and contempt for others, and the desire to exterminate them, have their roots in African colonial relations. Everything was invented and honed there centuries before totalitarian systems grafted those grim and disgraceful impulses onto twentieth-century Europe."

Moreover, it issues an injunction to "whites" to attend closely to the African mosaic rather than viewing it as a single entity, "to see how the bits and pieces of this tableau change place, shape, and hue, giving rise to a spectacle staggering in its mutability, richness, pulse of color."

The Shadow of the Sun is neither pure history text nor political tract. It is one man's reflection on his encounters with individuals: a young government minister who is also Ghana's ping-pong champion; a merchant from Berbera; a former Mengitsu ideologue from Ethiopia, now a prisoner; a Polish missionary dying of malaria in the forests of Cameroon; the ever-expansive Madame Diuf, who slowly pushes the white travellers out of the train compartment by filling it with goods purchased en route from Dakar; an Ethiopian walking south in search of his brother; a Nuer refugee; a cobra. For the most part, it is not the politicians, leaders and executioners, but rather these ordinary people, the marginalized and the victims, who serve as his guides. They help him to "decipher the landscape, which for [the outsider]is merely a baffling collection of signs and symbols."

How he encounters these people is as much a part of the story as what they tell and show him: Kapuscinski goes off the beaten track, into the perilous labyrinth of the African bush. It also provides much of the drama by imbuing the storytelling with a kind of old-fashioned bravura. When he hitches a ride through the Sahara, for example, and the truck breaks down, the driver, sun bearing down, water running low, starts to dismantle the truck slowly. Or, after pulling off landing a small plane in Zanzibar, when the black majority stages a successful coup against the ruling Arab minority, he then tries to get back to the mainland when revolts erupt throughout East Africa by taking a daring and harrowing boat ride at night in the middle of a monsoon.

Kapuscinski neither passively observes events taking place around him nor imperialistically imposes a view on them, acutely self-conscious as he is that his white skin automatically renders him a "colonizer." He is rather an "explorer" of other cultures, other ways of thinking, other types of behaviour. More, he plays a mediating role as a cultural translator, whose mission it is to shuttle between worlds that might otherwise never come into contact, and to build bridges of understanding between them -- even if, ultimately and ineluctably, this is impossible to achieve.

Participation is key. "Words are incomprehensible if one has not lived through that about which one writes. If it has not penetrated through to the blood." He takes this dictum, written decades ago and in another context, to heart, literally. When stricken by cerebral malaria or diagnosed with tuberculosis, he elects to get treated at a local free clinic for the black populace. While the subject matter of the reportage may be actual events that occurred, then, it is the writer himself who is, in the final analysis, the subject of the reportage: The hero is the author's "I" as it tries to grasp, understand, order and explain.

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Each of Kapuscinski's works is executed in a unique style, appropriate to the topic at hand, as though issuing from its inside. It is likewise with The Shadow of the Sun. Here, Kapuscinski's literary guide and forefather is the Polish-Jewish writer, Bruno Schulz, whose cinnamon shops, with their exotic wares, are evoked in the beginning. This is not a throwaway reference. Schulz was a brilliant verbal prestidigitator, whose hero-narrator was a child-exegete navigating the town's tricky labyrinths, trying to decipher the luminous signs and symbols and starry phenomena surrounding him. Schulz himself was murdered in 1942 by that 20th-century European version of racism: Nazism.

The Shadow of the Sun is impassioned storytelling that showcases Ryszard Kapuscinski's keen sense of humour, abiding respect for his subject, and uncompromising humanity. Diana Kuprel's translations of Ryszard Kapuscinski's early reportages and poetry have appeared in Books in Canada, Exile and Alphabet City's Social Insecurity issue. Her translation of Zofia Nalkowska's Medallions was published last year.

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