For my first travel writing book review I can think of no better place to start than with arguably the most esteemed travel writer/journalist in history: the late, great Ryszard Kapuscinski.
The Polish author’s reputation is built on several things. One is his ability to craft prose that has all the hallmarks of great literature: his flair for characterisation, eye for descriptive detail and talent for storytelling are exceptional. He turned travel writing in to something of an art form, and it is little wonder he received numerous literary prizes. But his achievements in the travel writing arena owe much to the remarkable circumstances in which he plied his trade: as a correspondent for the Polish News Agency, almost always when the country was under communist rule.
When Kapuscinski undertook his first assignment, in India (detailed in Travels with Herodotus), he found himself massively under-prepared for the experience: he was embarrassed at how he knew nothing of the country, and his inability to speak English made his ordeal worse. He also got in to trouble with the authorities on his way back to Poland – a sign of things to come, as he was jailed for a total of 40 times on his travels!
His fearless brand of travel journalism was a necessity, as he predominantly reported from third world countries, and witnessed many political revolutions and coups. He is perhaps best known for his work in Africa, and this collection is perhaps his definitive book, traversing as it does several decades and an even wider range of the continent’s countries.
In the foreword, Kapuscinski is at pains to point out that Africa is indefinable, “a varied, immensely rich cosmos.” He duly goes on to prove this by detailing a widely varied set of stories, ranging from analyses of post-colonial upheaval and subsequent despotic regimes through to anecdotes of his interactions with everyday people. By training his journalistic lens on the poorest echelons of society as well as canvassing the thoughts of the great and the good, Kapuscinski captures the prevailing zeitgeist in all the countries he covers with aplomb.
As someone who has visited a few African countries, I can certainly confirm that many of the observations made here still apply. His description of African time (i.e. things happen when they happen, and planned timings be damned) is the most wonderfully-described I have ever read, and his description of the idle lifestyle of the impoverished – sitting and staring at the still-life streets in front of them – are eerily reminiscent of the street scenes I myself have witnessed in the likes of Uganda and Zambia.
Where I can’t directly compare experiences with are those moments where our hero, to be frank, dices with death. As well as witnessing coups first hand, Kapuscinski is, among other things, stranded in the Mauritanian desert with no water and only a non-English speaking man for company, nearly killed by malaria, and caught in a military ambush in Uganda. Reading such well-written accounts, you can’t help but wonder if this is a classic example of him venturing a little too far in to the realm of literature, and perhaps embroidering the truth somewhat in order to tell a good story.
But ultimately, this is the only real criticism you can level at his work. His straightforward, but well-informed, accounts of such well-known events as the Rwandan genocide and the rise of Idi Amin bring what could have been dry subjects to life. The characters which populate the page of The Shadow of the Sun – the larger-than-life Madame Diuf he meets on a Senegal train; Salim, the aforementioned stoic-but-noble driver whose vehicle breaks down in Mauritania – all leap off the page. And his use of imagery and metaphor to visualise and personify the African psyche, in all its many guises, is impressively vivid.
Having spent over 40 years, on and off, living on the continent, there can be little doubt that it is a continent that Kapuscinski felt a special affinity for. After reading this masterful memoir, it’s easy to see why, irrespective of whether it is, indeed, all strictly factual or not. Whether you have set foot in Africa or not, The Shadow of the Sun is a captivating read, and a thrilling, unique insight in to a continent that continues to intrigue the rest of the world.
Sketch of Ryszard Kapuscinski, courtesy of Paco Rives Manresa