For my money, Ryszard Kapuscinski should be better-known than he is, despite a difficult-to-pronounce name -- he's one of the most outstanding journal...moreFor my money, Ryszard Kapuscinski should be better-known than he is, despite a difficult-to-pronounce name -- he's one of the most outstanding journalists of the 20th century. As the Polish Press Agency's only reporter in Africa, he has covered just about every coup, revolution, civil war, and natural disaster there since 1957 (and also found time to cover conflicts in various other parts of the world as well).
There's an important difference between Kapuscinski and reporters from Western democracies -- unlike them, he has no money. So whereas the other reporters stay at the Hilton and buy or hire Landrovers or planes when they want to go somewhere, Kapuscinski stays in cockroach- and mosquito-infested hovels, catches malaria and TB, and cadges lifts on lorries or private planes. This gets him into some perilous situations (I am constantly amazed by the insouciant way he shrugs off his numerous brushes with death) and it also obviously gives him a different perspective on Africa. He has a gift for engaging with people, and this book is full of encounters with ordinary Africans who would normally just figure as a backdrop to reports on war, famine, or whatever. To him, they are not a homogeneous, starving and desperate mass, but individuals doing their best to get on with their everyday lives in virtually impossible conditions. At one point, he rents an insalubrious room in the "native quarter" of Lagos, despite dire warnings from other westerners of what will happen to him. Their opinions only diverge on one point: whether he will be murdered, or simply die from the effects of the unhygienic conditions. Undaunted, Ryszard carries on anyway. All is well, except that his room is regularly burgled whenever he is absent for a few days. At first, he is enraged. But then a Nigerian, Suleiman, explains to him that in fact the thefts are a gesture of acceptance: they are a way of telling him he is useful to the locals. He will be quite safe so long as he doesn't attempt to find the culprits and punish them. A week later, Suleiman returns with a bunch of white cock feathers and hangs them over the door. The burglaries stop.
The book is full of little vignettes like this (another memorable one is the moment when, sitting on a rock in the desert smoking, he realises he is about to stub out his cigarette on the head of a deadly viper which will bite him if he moves). He's written elsewhere about the horrors of civil war (see notably his earlier book The Soccer War, the title of which refers to a war that broke out between Honduras and El Salvador over a football match). While this book does include eyewitness accounts of coups, it's mostly a vivid, kaleidoscopic view of Africa's multiple landscapes and cultures, mingling personal histories, with brief, effective expositions of history and politics. Despite the grimness of many of the scenes he paints, and the apparent hopelessness of the political and economic situation in every country he visits, the book is genuinely entertaining, and he ends it on a note of hope: a Tanzanian tells him, "The spirit of Africa always takes the form of an elephant, because an elephant cannot be defeated by any other animal -- not the lion, nor the buffalo, nor the snake." Kapuscinski breaks through the stereotyped view of Africa as a continent of famine, corruption, and conflict, and shows you its hidden riches.
This is apparently the first volume of a projected trilogy which will cover Africa, Latin America, and Asia -- I can hardly wait for the rest. If you haven't discovered Kapuscinski yet, you should.(less)
I'd read a lot of rave reviews of this book, so I was keen to read it even though I rarely read non-fiction. So I snapped it up as part of a 3-for-2 o...moreI'd read a lot of rave reviews of this book, so I was keen to read it even though I rarely read non-fiction. So I snapped it up as part of a 3-for-2 offer. It isn't exactly what I'd expected -- the publisher's blurb makes much of Robb cycling 14,000 miles round rural France, enabling him to get a close-up view of landscape and history, but at least as significant is the four years he spent in libraries! This book is a treasure-trove of quirky anecdotes and unexpected aspects of French history. He's obviously a serious historian, with books on Balzac and Rimbaud to his credit, but he writes in an accessible way, always retaining the reader's interest. It's difficult to classify, combining history, geography, anthropology and linguistics.
Robb brings home just how empty, poor, and far from "civilisation" parts of rural France were, even in the 18th and 19th century, and -- as I already knew -- how few people spoke French as their first language. There are some compelling images: the peasants who basically hibernated in winter to conserve energy because they didn't have enough to eat; the cartloads of abandoned babies (because their families couldn't feed them): "The carters set out on their two hundred and fifty mile journey with four or five babies to a basket ... To make the load more tractable and easier on the ears, the babies were given wine instead of milk. Those that dies were dumped at the roadside like rotten apples... for every ten babies that reached Paris, only one survived more than three days."
The chapter on religion has some entertaining anecdotes. Speaking of the traditional fondness for local saints who mirrored earlier pagan gods, he writes: "The church was important in the same way that a shopping mall is important to shoppers: the customers were not particularly interested in thr creator and owner of the mall; they came to see the saints who sold their wares in little chapels around the nave." Then there were the women who, offended by their priest's threat of excommunication, "stormed the altar, tore off his wig, destroyed the processional crosses, and beat him with the pieces."
There are more serious insights here too: for example, he writes that the French obsession with commemoration of significant events on specific dates highlights the reverse: the events that are not commemmorated. He cites the failure to acknowledge Vichy's role in deporting Jews during the Second World War, and the embarrassed silence over Algeria, but this reminded me too of the "hidden history" of refugees fleeing Franco in 1939, treated as criminals and herded into camps in France. Only now, 70 years later, is this event being publicly commemmorated and the failures of the French authorities recognised.
Anyway, I won't burble on any longer -- if you are interested in France, more especially if you are a foreigner living in France and want to understand better why the French are the way they are, this book is definitely worth reading.(less)
I wasn't sure about this book to start with, but I was gradually drawn in. Recovering from a long and debilitating illness, Fiennes comes across a cop...moreI wasn't sure about this book to start with, but I was gradually drawn in. Recovering from a long and debilitating illness, Fiennes comes across a copy of Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose, which he read as a child, and is prompted to follow migrating snow geese from Texas to the Arctic tundra. His journey away from the confines of home gradually reawakens for him the joy of being alive, but like the birds he eventually also longs to return to the familiar himself.
This is a slow, comtemplative book. You get the impression of a silent, solitary figure, who says little about himself but carefully observes the world around him and the people he meets, then painstakingly sets telling details down on paper, meticulously choosing each word. This reticence means that you aren't even sure whether he likes or dislikes the people he meets on his journey. But his descriptions of the emptiness and silence of the tundra at the end of the book are amazing.(less)