On Kapuscinski’s ‘gonzo orientalism’

“The European mind is willing to acknowledge its limitations, accept its limitations. It is a sceptical mind. The spirit of criticism does not exist in other cultures. They are proud, believing that what they have is perfect.” — Ryszard Kapuscinski

“The greatest mind to bear upon Africa since Conrad.”The Evening Standard on Ryszard Kapuscinski

I have tried, just once in my life, to be an Angry Black Man. I planned a picket in New York City against a man I love to hate — Ryszard Kapuscinski. He was going to speak at a conference organised by American PEN. Nobody seemed to want to join me. There were better things to do in New York, like drinking — I do not lie — a hibiscus juice and chili margarita. So I got drunk.

The next day, Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian writer, told me that she would help me gatecrash the chichi party being held in the apartment of Salman Rushdie’s friend, Diane von Furstenberg. Google had informed me that Kapuscinski and Rushdie were friends.

We stood in the sad corner of the Von Furstenberg cathedral, with a mournful-looking Eastern European writer. Kapuscinski was not there. A DJ was playing Michael Jackson. We ate raw celery, raw carrot and raw turnips.

Soon, Chimamanda was spotted and whisked away by a warm and fruity cloud of Important People in Publishing. I walked around, looking for any cooked vegetable, any non-roughage. There was nothing. I drank a martini.

After a while, Chimamanda came out towards me and said: “Come, now you can tell Rushdie about Kapuscinski.”

I stood in front of The Rushdie, somewhat nervously. Then, I asked him why he had invited the racist writer Kapuscinski to come to the PEN conference.

“Not Ryszard? Oh, Ryszard is not racist! He is a beeeewutiful soul!”

I quoted to him some Kapuscinski lines. Rushdie looked at me compassionately, and said: “Those must have come from his older works.”

I was about to refute this, when he turned to his wife and forgot about me. I headed for the bar to find a martini.

Since he died, Kapuscinski has been called “the master of modern journalism”, “Translator of the World”, “the Greatest Reporter in the World”, and “Third World chronicler”.

He is also the guy who came up with my all-time classic lines about Africa:

  • “Let us remember that fear of revenge is deeply rooted in the African mentality.”
  • “In Africa, drivers avoid travelling at night — darkness unnerves them, they may flatly refuse to drive after sunset.”
  • “Africans eat only once a day, in the evening.”
  • “In Africa, the notion of abstract evil — evil in and of itself — does not exist.”
  • “Africans believe that a mysterious energy circulates through the world.”
  • “… in Africa, a cousin on your mother’s side is more important than a husband.”
  • It was Kapuscinski, more than any other single writer, who inspired me to write the satirical essay “How to Write about Africa”.

    In his review of The Shadow of the Sun for the Times Literary Supplement in 2001, John Ryle pointed out that serious omissions, factual inaccuracies, obvious inventions and lies appear with great consistency in much of Kapuscinski’s writing.

    He concluded: “His writing about Africa is a variety of latter-day literary colonialism, a kind of gonzo orientalism … conducted in the name of humane concern, that sacrifices truth and accuracy, and homogenises and misrepresents Africans even as it aspires to speak for them.”

    David Rieff, in a review of the same book, wrote: “One scarcely knows where to begin. The level of generality — the white man, the bush, the torment — is such that Kapuscinski’s assertion not only can’t be taken seriously, it can barely be discussed … It is the kind of thinking … that one associates with racist skinheads …”

    Kapuscinski died anointed, in the M&G too, as a hero of Africa.

    There are many fools like Kapuscinski wandering about. They don’t get published. They do not become legends. The questions about him have more to do with lingering superstitions about the continent held by editors and foreign correspondent types, who built him up entranced by his Polish-flavoured, left-leaning, Rider Haggard world of strange, voiceless, dark peoples doing strange, voiceless, dark things.

    Ecstatic fans said his distortions of reality were actually “allegories” and “metaphors”. Those sharp eyes that saw deep allegory became suddenly vague about the naked social Darwinism that underlies all his work. When Kapuscinski was critical of the sloppy reporting of the facts by “Western journalists”, when he repeatedly said his work was reportage, based on facts, it was assumed that he was just being a modest, Polish, authentic, left-leaning, beautiful-soul kinda guy.

    Too modest to admit that his literary Africa was so amazing, it replaced the real thing in their eyes.

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