Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Two books by Ryszard Kapuscinski

As you know, I turned 40 earlier this year. A lot of people bought me books as a birthday present, probably having me down as some kind of reader. By an interesting coincidence, two people got me books by Ryszard Kapuscinski*. If you don't know who he is, he is this Polish journalist and travel writer who died recently and seems to have climbed to an interestingly high posthumous level of fame. Anyway, I have managed to read both ot the books I was given, so I will now talk about them.

The first is called The Emperor, and is about the overthrow of Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selaise by the Derg. The book is a highly atmospheric portrait of the emperor's court and its slow walk to extinction, based on interviews with surviving members of the emperor's entourage, people now living in hiding and fearful of their lives. It evokes nothing so much as Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast in its depiction of a world of pointless ritual, except of course that Peake was describing and imaginary world whose rites and ceremonies served to maintain it in an everlasting stasis. With Haile Selaise's Ethiopia, you are left with the conclusion that it was the regime's inability to adapt that doomed it to oblivion.

I am not sure, though, to what extent this book can be relied on as an accurate portrait of the Ethiopian empire's decline and fall. One thing I have picked up is that Kapuscinski took a fast and loose approach to the facts whenever they got in the way of a good impressionistic story, so I would be wary of taking this a factually accurate account of Haile Selaise's overthrow. Still, it does ring true and has a fascinating sense of the dynamic of regime change. The introduction (by Neal Ascherson) talks of how in writing about Ethiopia, Kapuscinski was implicitly talking of his own country, as the then still extant (in 1978, when the book first appeared) but moribund Communist regime sank into terminal decline. Certainly, the fall of Communism in Poland does bear some comparison to the fall of Haile Selaise, as they were both worn down attritionally by rolling waves of dissent that the regimes were unable to quell. Or at least that is how Kapuscinski makes things appear.

[an aside: if you want to read more about Ethiopian history and the fall of Haile Selaise, check out my other blog. Or read a good book on the subject]

The other book is called Travels With Herodotus. This is a more rambling work, with elements of memoir, in which Kapuscinski relates the work of the ancient Greek writer to experiences in his own life. As you know, Herodotus is often claimed as the first historian. He wrote about some wars between the Persian empire and the cities of Greece, providing us with the classic accounts of the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae, as well as numerous fascinating anecdotes whose provenance Herodotus himself is never entirely convinced by. Herodotus' work moves beyond purely narrative history, and it attempts to present the various cultures and practices of people around the then known world to its readers.

This is a bigger book than The Emperor, and it is a good bit less focussed, as it follows Kapuscinski as his career meanders around the world. The format is basically one of anecdotes from Kapuscinski's life interspersed with anecdotes from Herodotus and reflections on the Greek's work and personality. This kind of rambling works well enough. However, Kapusckinski's reflections on the ancient world often seemed a good bit more incisive than his thoughts on the modern. I was particularly struck by his somewhat facile characterising of the Algerian war of independence as just the latest chapter in an ongoing struggle between East and West. Likewise, one or two of his comments elsewhere played to my pre-conceived idea that Kapuscinski never troubles to let the facts get away in the way of a good story; his characterisation of Nasser as a particularly devout Muslim seemed a bit O RLY-esque.

For all those caveats, this is a most fascinating book, and one that has got me interested in both going back to Herodotus and reading a bit more of Kapuscinski. That Kapuscinski was fascinated by what for me is one of the most striking yet less well known of Herodotus' stories (the terrible vengeance of Hermotimus on Panonius, the man who had made him a eunuch). Kapuscinski seems also to be very taken by Herodotus' depiction of both the extreme excitability of the Greeks (at one point the Athenians stone to death a man who advocates surrender to the Persians, and then for good measure they mete out the same treatment to his wife and children) and the terrible arbitrary power of the Persian emperor (cutting in half the sons of a man who asked that one of them might be allowed stay at home from the war, and then making the army march between the dismembered corpses). More books should contain this kind of crazy anecdote.

Traveling Panda

*there should be an accent on the S and N in Kapuscinski, but I don't know how to get my word processor to do them and in any case they probably would not display properly on the Internet.

No comments: