BOOK REVIEW / Biblical thunder and steamy cries: 'Imperium' - Ryszard Kapuscinski tr. Klara Glowczewska: Granta, 14.99

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BOOKS, like medicines, might usefully carry labels instructing the reader how they should be taken: in one sitting, nightly before sleep, or in sips. Imperium is a book to be taken in sips.

Ryszard Kapuscinski was born in what was eastern Poland, before the notorious Nazi-Soviet pact. The subject of his enquiry is the empire that occupied his homeland when he was a boy, driving his officer father into captivity and escape and his neighbours into mass deportation. Kapuscinski's choice to make his career as a correspondent in the Third World appears to have represented a clear choice to escape the hand of the Imperium in his own country.

As it collapsed under its internal contradictions, Kapuscinski was suddenly freed to question what had been forbidden territory. The resulting book is held together neither by time nor place, but by his curiosity. Its open form allows him the opportunity to elaborate on just such matters as this, the question of questions and the character of a civilisation in which questions cannot be asked.

It is often in such passages of reflection and in his small observations that his insights are most telling. He delights with a description of how a dozen people in the Arctic Circle sit rapt in front of a television screen on which nothing can be seen but sparks that explode, grains of light that pulsate and dance. Suddenly they cheer. Dynamo his scored] Where a Pole sees nothing but a broken television, these citizens of a superpower that overreached itself are following a Spartak versus Dynamo football match.

Kapuscinski's curiosity draws him towards that which was most impenetrable when power still flowed through the veins of the empire. His journeys to the far north are pilgrimages to places whose names deserve to be as engraved on the collective memory as those of the Holocaust: Vorkuta, Kolyma, Magadan. Here the Arctic coal and gold mines were worked by a Soviet slave labour force recruited under the guise of social correction. It is not enough for the insatiable Kapuscinski that survivors like Shalamov and Ginzburg have written about these circles of hell. He goes there because he must know it for himself. What he discovers is that even one small walk between the bus and a nearby house can bring him face to face with death.

In its time, as he knows from his own childhood experience, the Red Army was equally impenetrable. He chooses to disguise himself as an Armenian pilot and fly in to join the encircled rebels in the mountainous enclave of Nagorny Karabakh, under the nose of that Red Army, risking arrest and imprisonment. To what end, one wonders? Perhaps there is more than an element of boyhood revenge involved. What was he searching for when he casually risked his life, when he travelled the length and breadth of the splintering empire in researching this book? He remains, as befits the author of The Shah of Shahs and The Emperor (his unforgettable book about the last days of Haile Selassie), a student of power. The finest stories in this book are all bound up with this theme.

Memorable in this connection is the story behind what Muscovites wryly call the 'Swimming Pool of Christ the Saviour'. What visitor to the capital in midwinter could fail to have been intrigued by the tortured sight of steam issuing out of the ground and mingling with the sound of massed cries? Only in Russia could this be a clue that people here are having fun. On this site stood a colossal church erected over a period of 45 years in thanks for Russia's delivery from Napoleon. Kapuscinski evokes in hideous detail the obstinate destruction of this monument by Stalin, who wanted to replace it with a Palace of Soviets. It would have been crowned, he tells us, by a statue of Lenin three times higher than the Statue of Liberty. What he does not mention is the brave sequel: the Temple of Christ the Saviour is now to be re- erected.

This theme of power is explored in his reflection on the extreme cruelty, cruelty for its own sake, which has always awed observers of Russia. The contemporary instance he cites is the infamous practice of institutionalised bullying in the Red Army. Every year a substantial number of new recruits die as victims of a sadism which show that 'the people' can emulate the example that has been set them by their Soviet leaders.

It is eloquent of Kapuscinski the man that a specifically Polish bitterness about Russia never seems to get in his way. This attitude is no accidental grace, but an achievement. When writing about Armenia and Azerbaijan, he is moved to thunder biblically:

Three plagues, three contagions,

threaten the world.

The first is the plague of nationalism.

The second is the plague of racism.

The third is the plague of religious


Easy to write if you lived on an island. Much more powerful if you remember that this man writes from that corridor of conquering armies, that most partitioned and subpartitioned country, home of anti-Semitism.

Any traveller in the old Soviet Union knows about the problem of glue. You buy a fine carved bone brooch only to find that it falls to bits within days because the glue was not good enough. Kapuscinski has something of the same problem holding his stories and insights together. He anticipates our disappointment in the way that the book 'disintegrates and falls apart', as he puts it, by pointing out that in so doing it mirrors its subject. If the disapointment remains it is his fault for having raised our expectations so high through the dazzling body of work he has produced, through the demands he clearly makes of himself, and through that rare personal quality that shines through everything.