Kapuscinski: A disptach from the late master of reportage

No reporter ever brought the world's trouble spots to life with the vividness of the great Ryszard Kapuscinski. To mark his death this week, Ian Jack recalls his late friend's 'passionate curiosity', and we publish the opening chapter of one of the Polish writer's most acclaimed works, 'The Soccer War'
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A few years ago a party to celebrate the publication of Ryszard Kapuscinski's book on Africa was held, properly enough, in the Polish Club in South Kensington. A few of us then walked to dinner with him at a restaurant in Kensington High Street; no more than a luxurious toddle, but someone complained that a taxi would have been a better idea, that it was really quite far. Obviously, said Kapuscinski of the complainant, he never went on a route march with the Polish army in Stalinist times.

A lot of Kapuscinski's passionate curiosity about the world can be explained by the circumstances of his childhood. He was born in Pinsk, now in Belarus, an isolated town of unmetalled roads. He was seven before he saw his first train and 30 before he owned a telephone. During the terrible hardships of Poland's German occupation, he and his family subsisted on pastries of flour and water and wore tree bark on their feet rather than shoes. Shoes were always one of his enthusiasms. In 1987, in an interview with Bill Buford, my predecessor at Granta, he said, "I'm obsessed with footwear."

As Pinsk was to Warsaw, so post-war Poland was to the rest of the world. "Don't forget that for my generation the outside world didn't exist," he told Buford. "Africa and India were fairy tales." It's useful to remember this when we think of Kapuscinski's writing. He came to places fresh, without the preconceptions and cultural baggage of an English or American writer, and he was determined to describe what they were like as vividly as he could.

As a foreign reporter for the Polish Press Agency he saw an awful lot - Africa, South America, Asia, 28 revolutions in the wake of European de-colonisation - but his quick reports couldn't begin to describe the rich complexity of the reality in front of him. Agency reporters, filing daily, were, as he described them, "terrible victims of information". His books could never have been written without this experience, but their success as literature is owed to a different side of Kapuscinski. Before he was a reporter, he was a poet and short-story writer: his sentences, with their rhythms and images and careful selection of the persuading detail, could have been written by a fine novelist.

He used to wonder where the novelists were when he covered riots, wars and coups. Why were they all back in Europe tinkering with their "little domestic stories" about marriage and divorce? Why weren't they here in the thick of it, grappling with the events that mattered? Very few writers answered this call, and he had few rivals in the business of depicting the troubled reality of poor countries and people. (VS Naipaul is one of them, and, perhaps not coincidentally, is from another place, Trinidad, which was well off the beaten track.)

The world to Kapuscinski was silva rerum, the forest of things, and he believed that "to capture it you have to penetrate it as completely as possible". He came to be known as a literary reporter, but often saw his work more accurately as "literature by foot". The long march has ended for him, but he has shown us unforgettable views.

Ian Jack is the editor of Granta

Chapter One: The Hotel Metropole

I am living on a raft in a side street in the merchant district of Accra. The raft stands on pilings two-storeys high, and is called the Hotel Metropol. In the rainy season this architectural monstrosity eats and festers with mould, and in the dry months it expands at the joints and cracks. But it does not fall apart! In the middle of the raft there is a construction that has been partitioned into eight compartments. These are our rooms. The remaining space, surrounded by a balustrade, is called the veranda. There we have a big table for meals and a few small folding tables where we drink whisky and beer.

In the tropics drinking is obligatory. In Europe, the first thing two people say when they meet is: "Hello. What's new?" When people greet each other in the tropics, they say: "What would you like to drink?" They frequently drink during the daytime, but in the evening the drinking is mandatory: the drinking is premeditated. After all, it is the evening that shades into night, and it is the night that lies in wait for anyone reckless enough to have spurned alcohol.

The tropical night is a hardened ally of all the world's makers of whisky, cognac, liqueurs, schnapps and beers, and the person who denies them their sales is assailed by the night's ultimate weapon: sleeplessness. Insomnia is always wearing, but in the tropics it is killing. A person punished all day by the sun, by a thirst that can't be satisfied, maltreated and weakened, has to sleep.

He has to. And then he cannot!

It is too stuffy. Damp, sticky air fills the room. But then, it's not air. It's wet cotton. Inhale, and it's like swallowing a ball of cotton dipped in warm water. It's unbearable. It nauseates, it prostrates, it unhinges. The mosquitoes sting, the monkeys scream. Your body is sticky with sweat, repulsive to the touch. Time stands still. Sleep will not come. At six in the morning, the same invariable six in the morning all year round, the sun rises. Its rays increase the dead steam-bath closeness. You should get up. But you don't have the strength. You don't tie your shoes because the effort of bending over is too much. You feel worn out like an old pair of slippers. You feel used up, toothless, baggy. You are tormented by undefined longings, nostalgias, dusky pessimisms. You wait for the day to pass, for the night to pass, for all of it, damn it to hell, finally to pass.

So you drink. Against the night, against the depression, against the foulness floating in the bucket of your fate. That's the only struggle you're capable of.

Uncle Wally drinks because it does his lungs some good. He has tuberculosis. He is thin, and each breath comes hard with a wheeze. He takes a seat on the veranda and calls. "Papa! One!" Papa goes to the bar and brings him a bottle. Uncle Wally's hand starts trembling. He pours some whisky into the glass and tops it up with cold water. He downs the drink and starts on another. Tears come to his eyes, and he shakes with a voiceless sob. Ruin, waste. He is from London, was a carpenter in England. The war brought him to Africa. He stayed. He is still a carpenter, but he has taken to drink and carries round that battered lung that he never treats. With what could he get treatment? Half his money goes to the hotel and the other half is for whisky. He has nothing, literally nothing. His shirt is in tatters; his only pair of trousers full of patches; his sandals crumbling. His impeccably elegant countrymen have cursed him and driven him away. They have forbidden him to say that he is English. Dirty lump. Fifty-four years old. What is left for him? Drink a little whisky and start pushing up daisies.

So he drinks and waits for his shot at the daisies. "Don't get angry at the racists," he tells me. "Don't get all wound up about the bourgeoisie. Do you think they'll plant you in different dirt when your number comes up?"

His love for Ann. My God: love. Ann came around here when she needed money for a taxi fare. Once she had been Papa's girl, demanding her petty compensation - two shillings. Her face was tattooed. She came from the northern tribe of the Nankani, and in the north they canker the faces of their infants. The custom dates from when the southern tribes conquered the northern ones and sold them to the whites as slaves, and so the northerners disfigured their foreheads, cheeks and noses to make themselves unsaleable goods. Ann had soft, sensual eyes. All of her was in those eyes. She would look at somebody long and kittenishly, and when she saw her gaze working she would laugh and say: "Give me two shillings for cab fare."

Uncle Wally always came over. He would pour her a whisky, grow lachrymose and smile. He told her: "Ann, stay with me and I'll stop drinking. I'll buy you a car."

"What do I need a car for? I prefer to make love."

He said: "We'll make love."

She asked: "Where?" Uncle Wally got up from his table; it was only a few steps to his room. He opened the door, grasping the handle, trembling. The dark coop contained an iron bed and a small chest.

Ann burst out laughing. "Here? Here? My love has to live in palaces. In the palaces of the white kings!"

We were watching. Papa went over, tapped Ann on the shoulder and mumbled. "Shove off." She left gaily, waving to us: "Bye bye." Uncle Wally returned to his table. He picked up the bottle as though to drink it straight down in one go, but before he had finished it, he was slumping in his chair. We carried the old desperado into his chicken coop of a room, to the iron bed, and laid him on the white sheet - without Ann.

After that, he told me: "Red, the only woman who won't betray you is your mother. Don't count on anyone else." I loved listening to him. He was wise. He told me: "The African praying mantis is more honest than our wives. Do you know the mantis? Courtships don't last long in the world of the mantis. The insects have their wedding ceremony, leave for the honeymoon, and in the morning the female bites the male to death. Why bother tormenting him for a lifetime? The result is the same, isn't it? And whatever is done more quickly is done more honestly."

The bitter tone in Uncle Wally's outpourings always disquiets Papa. Papa keeps us on a short leash. Before I go out I have to tell him where I am going and why. Otherwise there will be a scene. "I worry about you," Papa screams. When an Arab screams there's no reason to take it seriously. It's just his way of speaking. And Papa is an Arab, a Lebanese. Habib Zacca. He has been leasing the hotel for a year. "Since the Big Crash," Papa says. Oh, yes, he got wiped out.

"Zacca?" a friend of his cries. "Zacca - was a millionaire. A millionaire! Zacca had a villa, cars, shops, orchards."

"When my watch stopped, I'd throw it out of the window," Papa sighs. "The doors of my house were always open. A crowd of guests every day. Come on in, eat, drink, whatever you want. And now? They don't even say hello. I have to go and present myself to the gluttons who ate and drank me out of thousands." Papa came to Ghana 20 years ago. He began with a fabric shop and made a great fortune, which he lost afterwards, in a year. He lost it at the races. "The horses ate me, Red."

I saw his stables once, in a palm forest outside the city. Nine white horses: splendid Arabs. The way he knew them, the way he stroked them! Papa may have shouted at his wife but with his horses he was as tender as a lover. He led one out. "The best horse in all Africa," he said, despairingly, because it had an incurable wound on its pastern. All the horses had wounds of this kind, and the stables were slowly dying out. For him this was a tragedy greater than the loss of millions. Once the horses died, his one passion would go unrequited. There were days when he could not visit the stable, and he became irritable and couldn't be calmed until he was back in the palm forest, watching the stable boys walking past him, leading one swift Arab with bloodshot eyes after another.

Papa never shows his wife the horses. He treats her sharply and unpleasantly. She often sits silent and motionless in a chair, smoking a cigarette. I once asked her: "How old are you?" "Twenty-eight," she answered. But she is as white-haired as a dove, pale and wrinkled. She has borne four children. Two live in Lebanon and two in Accra. Sometimes she brings her daughter along, a sickly, handicapped little girl who throws herself on the floor and creeps around on her hands and knees, screaming. She is 10 years old and can't walk or speak. She crawls to a corner where a record-player stands, raises her head and begs with her eyes. The mother puts a record on; Dalida sings and the girl's screams mix with the song. She is happy, her face becomes radiant. The record ends and a moan rises in the girl's throat. She is asking for more.

The little one clings only to the Premier. He alone is able to make her smile. She hugs his legs, fawns on him, purrs. He strokes her head and tugs at her ear. We call him the Premier because he is always dropping the names of acquaintances in the Guinean government. He once lived in Conakry and traded something there. "If anybody's going to Guinea, just let me know," he boasts. "I'll give you a letter to Sekou Toure. My pal. Ministers? Who cares about ministers? Don't waste your time talking to ministers."

The Premier and I are in cahoots. He takes me aside and buys me a beer. "Listen, Red," he begins, "you've travelled the world, so tell me, where can I get a big business going? My operation in Ghana is small-time. Very small-time."

I look at that fat little man, at his sweaty face and his hangdog expression. What could I tell him? I think to myself: he's a petty capitalist, not a financial shark, another little man in the ranks of the army of little shopkeepers - why not toss him an idea? I ponder: Burma, Japan, Pakistan. Everywhere is crowded, everywhere there's a crush.

"Maybe India?" the Premier asks.

Oh no, India's tough. There are monopolies everywhere.

"Too many monopolies," I say. "Damned capitalism."

He nods and admits gloomily: "Damned capitalism." The Premier moves from country to country, trying to break into the market, to get off the ground: he has pitched his tent under many skies. Nothing doing. A sterile waste of time, an embittering struggle. "Isn't there any country for a big business?" he asks.

"Perhaps not," I say. "The way I see it, there isn't."

The Premier walks around, mulling things over, asking the same questions. He bought himself a globe and he runs his fingers over it. He calls me: "What about here, Red?"

I look. He's pointing to the Philippines.

"Uh, no," I say. "The Americans are there."

"The Americans?" he assures himself with foreboding. "Only small business, right?"

I show him with my fingers. "Small. A tiny business."

He thinks it over for a while and confides: "I would very much love a big business. More than women."

"Don't you like women?" I interject.

"Of course. They're good too. Now the most beautiful women are in Dakar."

On this subject the Premier is always arguing with Young Khouri, the son of Big Khouri (also Lebanese). Nadir, Young Khouri, is a true man of the world. He has a car in London, one in Paris and another in Rome. A complete dolt. Talking with him is the summit of amusement for me.

"Come to Australia with me," he proposes.

"But I don't have any money," I answer.

"Write to your father. He can send you some."

"My father's rather tight-fisted," I explain. "He won't give me money for a flight to Australia."

Nadir knows no limits in dissipation and squandering. He has everything. He is always getting cash from his father. Big Khouri loves Young Khouri. The old man lives in a small house in a hamlet outside Accra. The house is rotting and the furniture is falling to pieces. A threadbare homestead. Yet it is the residence of perhaps the wealthiest man in all of West Africa, the multimillionaire Big Khouri. This street trader from Beirut has capital but no needs. He eats simple Arab rye bread, baked on a stave, while his profits mount to dizzyingly high sums. He is an old man and could die this year. In Beirut he owns a whole street of houses. He has never seen them.

Big Khouri is illiterate. A confidant writes his business letters, a man who lives with us in the Metropol and to whom Young Khouri always defers. "He's an intellectual," he would tell me. Gregarious, witty - the intellectual can shake jokes out of his sleeve. He showed us a photograph of a sweet old lady under an umbrella. "This is my fiancée," he explained. "She lives in California. She has been waiting for me for 15 years. She'll wait 15 more and die. But death isn't so terrible. You just have to be very tired." And he burst out laughing. The intellectual drank in secret, never on the veranda. He said that drinking in front of others showed lack of culture. In the middle of the conversation he stood up, went to his room and drained a bottle greedily. Then we heard the thud of his body hitting the floor: somehow he never manages to make it to his bed.

When he is not writing letters for Big Khouri, the intellectual argues with Napoleon. Napoleon is a tiny creature with a well-rounded belly. "I long for home," Napoleon says. "I long for home." But he never budges. He marches round the veranda as though on parade, back and forth. He takes out his mirror and counts his wrinkles. "I'm 60, and look how young I am, how strong. I can walk and walk and never get tired. Come on, how old do I took?"

Papa answers: "Twenty."

"So, you all see," Napoleon exalts, pulling in his belly until the veins on his temples bulge. He might have a screw loose. He will go away one day. The sound of his tramping will stop. It will be quieter.

You can see the veranda from the street, illuminated by several weak lightbulbs. By the light, shadows moving along the raft are visible from below. The shadows belong to no one. Their mute pantomime, their slow dance, takes place in the heart of Kokompe. But that quarter, black to the core, does not acknowledge their existence. Kokompe has its own life, foreign and inaccessible to the Metropol. In the opinion of the quarter, the shadows on the raft belong to a different world, one occupied by the bungalows of white administrators and business representatives, the Cantonments district. That's where you belong, Kokompe says.

But the shadows do not exist in the eyes of the Cantonments either. God forbid! The Cantonments quarter turns its back on the raft with contempt and shame: the raft is a disgrace that the Cantonments prefer to see hushed up. The Cantonments - that rich, elegant, snobbish, bureaucratic, European, bourgeois dame.

So the raft is not hitched to anybody's boat - the shadows exist for themselves. They could multiply or disappear - it wouldn't mean a thing. "Does anything have meaning?" Uncle Wally asks. Nobody answers him.

How did I end up among the castaways living on the raft? I would certainly never have met them if it had not been for a chance meeting with a young woman who did not desire an Arab.

In 1958 I flew from London to Accra. The aircraft was a big, slow BOAC Super Constellation. I set out full of excitement and, at the same time, full of anxiety about what might happen: I knew no one in Ghana, had no names, addresses or contacts, and, worst of all, I didn't have much money. I got a window seat; to my right sat an Arab and next to him a fair girl, the Scandinavian type, with a bouquet of flowers on her knees.

We flew across the Sahara at night; such flights are splendid because the aircraft seems to be suspended among the stars. Stars overhead - that's understandable. But stars below as well, along the bottom of the night. Why it's so, I can't say. The Arab was trying to pick up the Scandinavian girl, who, it turned out, was flying to her boyfriend (a technician working on a contract with a government firm) and carrying him flowers. But my neighbour wouldn't be deterred: he wanted to propose right there; he promised her a beautiful and elegant life in any part of the world she chose. He assured her that he was rich - he had a lot of money - and he repeated the phrase several times: a lot of money. In the end the Scandinavian, calm and patient at the outset, grew bored, then angry, and then she told him to stop tormenting her, and finally she got up and moved to another seat.

A banal little incident. But with this result: the Arab, slightly demoralised, changed the object of his attention and turned to me. His name was Nadir Khouri. And me?

Such-and-such.

And who was I?

A reporter.

Why was I travelling?

To look, to walk around, to ask, to listen, to sniff, to think, to write.

Aha. Where was I going to stay?

I didn't know.

So he would show me a good hotel. Maybe not that good, but good. The property of a friend, a once-great man. He would take me there and introduce me. And in fact Nadir Khouri took me straight from the airport to the Hotel Metropol and placed me under the protection of Habib Zacca.

In those days, the 1960s, the world was very interested in Africa. Africa was a puzzle, a mystery. Nobody knew what would happen when 300 million people stood up and demanded the right to be heard. States began to be established there, and the states bought armaments, and there was speculation in foreign newspapers that Africa might set out to conquer Europe. Today it is impossible to contemplate such a prospect, but at that time, it was a concern, an anxiety. It was serious. People wanted to know what was happening on the continent: where was it headed, what were its intentions?

The so-called exotic has never fascinated me, even though I came to spend more than a dozen years in a world that is exotic by definition. I did not write about hunting crocodiles or head-hunters, although I admit they are interesting subjects. I discovered instead a different reality, one that attracted me more than expeditions to the villages of witch doctors or wild-animal reserves. A new Africa was being born - and this was not a figure of speech or a platitude from an editorial. The hour of its birth was sometimes dramatic and painful, sometimes enjoyable and jubilant; it was always different (from our point of view) from anything we had known, and it was exactly this difference that struck me as new, as the previously undescribed, as the exotic.

I thought the best way to write about this Africa was to write about the man who was its greatest figure, a politician, a visionary, a judge and a sorcerer - Kwame Nkrumah.

'The Soccer War' is published by Granta at £7.99

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