Here is the Kapuscinski story in brief: born in Poland in 1932, he joined the Polish Press Agency in his teens, and his first posting was to India. Over the next 30 years he was to travel the length and breadth of the world, accumulating a stock of experiences to rival that of any other man in history. In particular, he was witness to the massive wave of decolonization in Africa in the fifties and sixties, and often to the chaos and anarchy that followed; he had a reporter’s nose for trouble, and wherever in the world something was brewing – civil war in Angola, the revolution in Iran, the collapse of Soviet Russia – there he turned up to file his dispatches. Later he was to write up his experiences at greater length in a series of memorable books.
“Man is broad, too broad. I’d have him narrower,” laments Dmitri Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Kapuscinski has done as much as any great novelist to acquaint us with the divergent aspects of man’s nature, his basic goodness and decency as well as his capacity for wickedness and perversity, especially when in power. Here, in the book The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life, Kapuscinski recounts an incident he witnessed in Uganda under the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin:
One day I was walking around the market in Kampala. It was somewhat empty, many stalls were broken, abandoned. Amin had stripped and ruined the country. [...] Suddenly, a band of children came up the street that led up from the lake, calling, “Samaki! Samaki!” (fish in Swahili). People gathered, joyful at the prospect that there would be something to eat. The fishermen threw their catch onto a table, and when the onlookers saw it, they grew still and silent. The fish was fat, enormous. These waters never used to yield such monstrously proportioned, overfed specimens. Everyone knew that for a long time now Amin’s henchmen had been dumping the bodies of their victims into the lake, and that crocodiles and meat-eating fish must have been feasting on them. The crowd remained silent. Then, a military vehicle happened by. The soldiers saw the gathering, as well as the fish on the table, and stopped. They spoke for a moment among themselves, then backed up to the table, jumped down, and opened the tailgate. Those of us who were nearby could see the corpse of a man lying on the truck bed. We saw the soldiers heave the fish onto the truck, throw the dead, barefoot man onto the table for us, and quickly drive away. And we heard their coarse, lunatic laughter.
What could be more macabre than this: an enormous and dread-inducing fish, fattened on human corpses, is carried away by laughing soldiers who leave in its place a fresh kill of their own. And nor is this a story so far away from the world we live in: I am reminded of the story in the news some time ago of the Uttar Pradesh MLA who allegedly has a crocodile pond in his backyard where human remains were found, and of the riots in Gujarat three years ago in which mobs torched, raped, speared and pillaged with the apparent backing of the state. Barbarism, it seems, is always knocking ominously on the doors of civilization.
A long interview with Kapuscinski can be found here, and an extract from The Shadow of the Sun here. John Ryle offers some criticisms of Kapuscinski here.