In the Pit of History

The Shadow of the Sun

Ryszard Kapuscinski, translated from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska
Knopf, 325 pp., $25.00

Looking for Lovedu: Days and Nights in Africa

Ann Jones
Knopf, 268 pp., $25.00

Landlocked countries used to grow a special crop of daydreams. (“Used to,” because the Boeing and the Airbus long ago replaced the steamship; nobody needs a seaport to fulfill escapist fantasies, and “landlocked” scarcely survives as a category.) Nations that lacked a seacoast or a colonial empire, or were locked up by dictators within their own frontiers, had a special hunger for travelers’ tales about dark continents, palm-bordered islands, fierce jungle peoples, and wild animals greedy for human prey.

In response to this hunger, there grew up a special category of globetrotting reporters, producing in the local language a nourishing stream of books and articles about exotic tropical worlds. And this school of writing was not just a variant of the enormous colonial-adventure literature poured out above all by British and French authors voyaging around their own imperial possessions. It had a special edge, for many of these writers came from long-suppressed European nations, which had a recent history of being invaded, conquered, culturally dominated, and often settled by the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, or German empires. These writers knew all too well what it meant to be at the wrong end of colonialism, and in Africa, Asia, or Polynesia they constantly recognized aspects of their own experience. This is not to say that they were free of color prejudice or that they were necessarily committed to the cause of colonial liberation. But Conrad, for example, even though he wrote for an English readership, had a sense of the ironies and absurdities of tropical empire which Rider Haggard and G.A. Henty and even Flaubert lacked.

That is the tradition from which Ryszard Kapuscinski springs. “Peoples’ Poland,” the Communist regime which lasted from 1944 to 1989, perpetuated the nation’s old sense of isolation. This yearning for news from the exotic world outside was served at the popular end by a series of “approved” travel writers, like Arkady Fiedler, and at the intellectual, politically daring end by Kapuscinski. If he has a close cultural ancestor, it might be Egon Erwin Kisch, the rasende Reporter—the hurtling newsman—from Prague, who traveled the globe to stimulate the fantasies and rouse the moral outrage of Czech and Austrian readers during the first part of the twentieth century. But unlike Kisch, some of whose scoops nearly unhinged the Hapsburg dynasty, Kapuscinski seldom reported from his home ground. Born in Pinsk, in the eastern borderlands of Poland that were annexed by the Soviet Union, he has written a memorable book of travel and reflection about the debris of the collapsed USSR.* Otherwise all his translated books are about his wanderings and discoveries in other continents: Asia, Latin America, and above all Africa.

For many years, working mainly in Africa for the Polish Press Agency and the Warsaw weekly Polityka, Kapuscinski was uniquely privileged. The Communist regime was far away and—apart from the power to censor his output—had little control over him. His Western colleagues were delighted to discover that he was not some spy in disguise but a first-class…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.