William R. Brand and
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)In the midst of this most senseless war --- if there can be said to be any sense to any war --- in the midst of this lunacy, Kapuscinski will snap a picture that is so strong and right that it stays with one, stays on and on. A city where most the population has fled, where the power and the water might be turned off momentarily, where war might erupt the next second; and what do they do to forget the misery of it all?
We still have a movie theatre, only one in fact, but it is panoramic and in the open air and, to top it off, free. The theatre lies in the northern part of town, near the front. The owner fled to Lisbon but the projectionist remained behind, and so did a print of the famous porno film Emmanuelle. The projectionist shows it uninterrupted, over and over, gratis, free for everyone, and the crowds of kids rush in, and soldiers who have got away from the front, and there's always a full house, a crush, and an uproar and indescribable bellowing. To enhance the effect, the projectionist stops the action at the hottest moments. The girl is naked --- stop. He has her in the airplane --- stop. She has her by the river --- stop. The old man has her --- stop. The boxer has her --- stop. If he has her in an absurd position --- laughter and bravos from the audience. If he has her in a position of exaggerated sophistication, the audience falls silent and analyzes. There is so much merriment and hubbub that it is hard to hear the distant, heavy echoes of artillery on the nearby front...
Then there's his wry description of the arrival of an American, or a French, or an English correspondent --- who turns up a few months later, when it is safer:
Angola betrays no interest in his presence. The telephone doesn't answer, or if it does it answers in Portuguese, a language he doesn't understand. If he has enough strength and endurance, he can make the journey on foot to Government Palace. There he meets Elvira, a moon-faced typist who will smile but knows nothing and isn't telling what she does know ... Ride to the front. To what front? You can't travel outside Luanda; it's a closed city. A group of Frenchmen acquired a car somewhere and decided, without looking into anything, to drive to the northern front. They were stopped at the first checkpoint and delivered straight to the airport. See a Cuban! But how? They are nowhere to be seen.
This is an opus which tells one how to be a journalist, and how not to be a journalist. If one wants to be journalist, one comes in when everyone else is going, goes without sleep and comfort and clean clothes and baths and safety, gets to know who issues the passes, where the war is, which trucks or DC3s are going there, and when. That's modern civil war journalism. Then, when you've been there for a few months, and the end is at hand, and the other correspondents start streaming in --- you make your departure, get the hell out because you know that with their arrival, the real news is done, over with, gone.
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I said earlier that Kapuscinski reminds us of Orwell, Edward R. Murrow, Hemingway. All three practiced immediacy. All three were restrained, manly (is that the right word?) and yet the existential distance was tempered with compassion. I think of the reports that Murrow broadcast from London, 1940, when a whole nation was under siege. I remember thinking, the last time I read the transcripts of these reports, of how perfect they were for the time. Most Americans heard his voice on short wave, twisting and turning in and out with the æther. Murrow never let his care and love for the English interfere with his careful artistry. He sympathized, but it was a restrained sympathy --- or better it was a sympathy tempered by his being that strange dispassionate creature of the 20th century we call "journalist."
That is, I suppose, what I mean when I use the word "manly." When Murrow went up for a bombing run to Germany, his narrative description of the crew, what they said, what he thought, left you no doubt that he had made the journey, was scared, was observant, had not been killed, had returned. His immensely evocative descriptions of the colors (the sunset as they took off; the explosions below when they arrived on target; the ack-ack balls drifting by as they veered towards home) all were designed to make a radio audience see through his --- Morrow's --- eyes. He was translating for the blind, but he did so artistically and discreetly, and a restrained, very restrained, love.
Some of Hemingway's best writings --- now hard to come by --- are his dispatches from the front during the Spanish Civil War. He tells of the noise, the vision of killing, gunfire and dust and debris: its effect on the people. He gives us the smell of cordite, the cries of dying horses, the stray bombs that turned up everywhere in Madrid (one directly across from where he is staying; it knocks him out of bed).
What Murrow and Orwell and Hemingway give us is a non-judgmental, cool-headed, cool, individual sense of what it is to be there as madness is transpiring. And it requires a concurrent madness of the correspondent, for war induces fear, high level fear. That Murrow and Orwell and Hemingway and Kapuscinski don't get the hell out, go home, be safe, take a bath: that's one of the most subtle parts of the story. Living the bombing, going without water, eating food not fit for pigs, being without what we think of as the essentials of life; all the while, observing, observing, writing, writing --- with keen insight, brilliant instincts, a quiet, wry, sophisticated vision, observing the worst of the madness of men, and not being destroyed by it. Not being shot or blown up or driven mad. Trying, all the while, in a reasonably artistic way, trying to make some sense, any sense of what is, after all, the most wretched of men's accomplishments --- the killing others in the name of Right and Power.
It is, we guess, no accident that Kapuscinski places at the very beginning of this opus an appeal from a N'Khosa, by the name of Koq, recited just before his battle with the Boers, in 1876. Koq, knowing what is coming, invokes his own --- perhaps, too, our own --- god:
0, Lord! Despite a great many prayers to You we are continually losing our wars. Tomorrow we shall again be fighting a battle that is truly great. With all our might we need Your help and that is why I must tell You something: This battle tomorrow is going to be a serious affair. There will be no place in it for children. Therefore I must ask You not to send Your Son to help us. Come Yourself.--- Ignacio Schwartz