Reviewers Expose Kapuscinski’s Falsehoods
April 14, 2005 Leave a comment
John Ryle in the Times Literary Supplement
“In this mode of writing – the tropical baroque style – nothing can be ordinary or familiar. Everything is stretched and exaggerated the opposite of home. As Kapuscinski has himself written elsewhere of South American baroque. “If there is a jungle it has to be enormous… if there are mountains they have to be gigantic… if there is a plain it has to be endless… Fact is mixed with fantasy… truth with myth, realism with rhetoric.” The direction of his blurrings and inventions and exaggerations becomes clearer in the light of this inadvertent self-criticism. Africa is a continent without bookshops, he avers. Its rulers are illiterate. Its inhabitants are prisoners of their environment, or of their bloodline. They are afraid of the dark. They live on milk. (Who knows? They may have heads beneath their shoulders too.) Thus Europeans can never really understand them; they can only marvel at them. With the last suggestion we are approaching the true nature of Kapuscinski’s enterprise. It is an outgrowth of the one historical experience that the inhabitants of this hugely various continent do have in common with each other: the experience of colonization (or military occupation) by European powers. Despite Kapuscinski’s vigorously anti-colonialist stance, his writing about Africa is a variety of latter-day literary colonialism, a kind of gonzo orientalism, a highly selective imposition of form, conducted in the name of humane concern, that sacrifices truth and accuracy, and homogenizes and misrepresents Africans even as it aspires to speak for them. ”
Aleksandar Hemon for the Village Voice
April 19th, 2001
He seems to have also mesmerized the editors of Granta, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books, which all published lengthy excerpts from his book, oblivious to or uninterested in the underlying proto-racist essentialism that ultimately casts a shadow on The Shadow of the Sun.
Kapuscinski’s stated ambition is not to write “a book about Africa, but rather about some people from there.” He is careful to say that Africa is “too large to describe,” adding, “Only with the greatest simplification . . . can we say ‘Africa.’ In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.” In an early chapter entitled “The Structure of the Clan,” Kapuscinski acknowledges that “in all of Africa, each larger social group has its own distinct culture,” which is why “anthropologists never speak of ‘African culture’ or ‘African religion, ‘ knowing that . . . the essence of Africa is its endless variety.”
But Kapuscinski is no anthropologist. In the face of his own feeble disclaimers, he quickly plunges into making generalizations about “the African.” For example, “The European and the African have an entirely different concept of time,” he announces early on. Africa might not be a single conceptual unit, but “the African” somehow is. “Let us remember”—he writes—”that fear of revenge is deeply rooted in the African mentality.” “The African” to Kapuscinski seems transcendental and trans-historical, even when he acknowledges the horrors of the slave trade, which “on the psyche of the African . . . left the deepest and most painfully permanent scar: the inferiority complex.”
“The African mind” is largely defined by its difference from “the European mind,” a difference that has metaphysical consequences: “In Africa, the [Christian] notion of metaphysical, abstract evil—evil in and of itself—does not exist.” The difference is deeply rooted and practically unalterable: Kapuscinski seems to agree with an “elderly Englishman,” a longtime resident of Addis Ababa who believes “the strength of Europe and its culture . . . lies in its bent for criticism. . . . Other cultures do not have this critical spirit. . . . [They are] uncritical in relation to themselves . . . [laying] the blame for all that is evil on others.” “They are,” seethes the elderly Englishmen, “culturally, permanently, structurally incapable of progress, incapable of engendering within themselves the will to transform and evolve.” For Kapuscinski, as for the Englishman, the real difference and disparity between races is in “the mind,” rather than skin color—he fumes against the racism absurdly based on skin color, and would probably be shocked if told that his obsessive listing of essential differences is essentially racist.
WHERE AND WHEN WILL Ryszard Kapuscinski BE SPEAKING?
Saturday 16th April 4:00–5:30
Where: The New York Public Library, South Court
Auditorium: 5th Ave. & 42nd St. (Enter on 5th Ave.)
Confronting the Worst: Writing and Catastrophe (SOLD OUT)
Svetlana Alexievich, François Bizot, Caroline Emcke, Philip Gourevitch, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Elena Poniatowska; moderated by Susie Linfield
MONDAY 18TH April
Where: The Town Hall: 123 West 43rd St.
The Power of the Pen: Does Writing Change Anything? The twentieth century was a long quarrel between those determined that the answer should be yes and others who feared that the writer’s engagement in the world would diminish art without improving politics. The goal of this evening is not to answer the question but to find the words with which we can begin to think it through.
The New Yorker hosts an evening of readings by Margaret Atwood, Nuruddin Farah, Jonathan Franzen, Ha Jin, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Salman Rushdie, Shan Sa, Wole Soyinka, and others; introduced by David Remnick.