Day of
Part I
Ryszard Kapuscinski
William R. Brand and

(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)
Great journalism reads like a great novel, or an epic poem, or a well-wrought short story. We must believe it is real. The writer must know what he's talking about. He must have a feeling for humanity --- and yet must not intrude or turn maudlin. He must love his victims, but not too much. He must give us honest detail so we know he was there.

A great journalist must have Shakespeare's insight into the heart. He must have the narrative flow of Dickens. He must have the existential distance of Camus. And he must have the simple visionary style of Edward R. Murrow, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, Ernie Pyle.

Ryszard Kapuscinski is just that --- a journalist's journalist. A war rages at the end of the last large colonial empire, in Portuguese Angola. He chooses to go there in September, 1975, at the very time when every sane man and woman is departing in panic. Angola falling apart under the urgent needs of self- determination, and he's there, the only European journalist brave enough (or stupid enough) to go into the fire.

Another Day of Life is the record of the withdrawal of these Portuguese forces, and the rise of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces: the MPLA supported by Russia and Cuba; the UNITA backed by the United States and South Africa; and the FNLA supported by other Western powers and Zaire. The tale is not one of armies advancing or retreating, of battles won or lost, of forces of good or evil. It is not even the tale of the arrival of anarchy and decay as the Portuguese leave, as the various factions battle for control.

Rather, it is a story about ... crates for the evacuation of the possessions of the ex-colonials:

    Everybody was busy building crates. Mountains of boards and plywood were brought in. The price of hammers and nails soared. Crates were the main topic of conversation --- how to build them, what was the best thing to reinforce them with. Self-proclaimed experts, crate specialists, homegrown architects of cratery, masters of crate styles, crate schools, and crate fashions appeared. Inside the Luanda of concrete and bricks a new wooden city began to rise. The streets I walked through resembled a great building site. I stumbled over discarded planks; nails sticking out of beams ripped my shirt. Some crates were as big as vacation cottages, because a hierarchy of crate status had suddenly come into being. The richer the people, the bigger the crates they erected. Crates belonging to millionaires were impressive; beamed and lined with sailcloth, they had solid, elegant walls made of the most expensive grades of tropical wood, with the rings and knots cut and polished like antiques ...

    The crates of the poor are inferior on several counts. They are smaller, often downright diminutive, and unsightly. They can't compete in quality; their workmanship leaves a great deal to be desired. While the wealthy can employ master cabinetmakers, the poor have to knock their crates together with their own hands.

    Thanks to the abundance of wood that has collected here in Luanda, this dusty desert city nearly devoid of trees now smells like a flourishing forest. It's as if the forest had suddenly taken root in the streets, the squares, and the plazas ... I feel just as if I were sleeping it off in a forester's cottage in Bory Tucholski.

Kapuscinski gives us many loving details of a society gone mad. The airport littered with suitcases of the fleeing. The smell of bodies around the destroyed towns. The refusal of the natives to move from the crowded tenements into the posh and empty houses up the hill, left vacant after the colons have gone. The functioning of Luanda, a city under siege, made possible by only two people --- a pilot an a pumping station engineer: the former who brings in supplies, the latter who makes it possible for there to be water. Then there's the maid Dona Cartagina at the one hotel still functioning: she sniffs, and crosses herself, and pretends that nothing is different, that a hundred thousand Portuguese have not abandoned Angola.

§     §     §

These are the sometimes comic, sometimes sorrowful snapshots that Kapuscinski gives us. We are allowed to see the prisoners of the MPLA, the boy who "looks twelve," who "knows it is shameful to fight for the FNLA, but they told him that if he went to the front they would send him to school afterward. He wants to finish school because he wants to paint..."

The wreckage of war. Roadblocks that function by pulling old, antique dressers out into the roads. The rusted bodies of cars parked on the streets of Luanda. The packs of high-class dogs (poodles, toy collies and German shepherds) gone feral. The wrecked billboards: "In Pereira d'Eça, Stop at the Black Swan Inn ... Home Cooking ..." But in the inn,

    There may be water indeed, but there are no lights. It's dark. The moon doesn't rise. There are only stars, but somehow distant ones, faint and not very helpful. It's not a good place to sleep, because the houses have been smashed and looted. Nor is the cuisine to be recommended. On the concrete floor of the inn, in a puddle of dried blood, lies a butchered goat that has already begun to reek. Anyone who's hungry carves out a hunk of meat with a bayonet.

Vignettes. Frozen pictures joined together by a master draftsman. Is there anyone who writes with such a compassion and, at the same time, such a hardball this-is-the-way-it-is style?

§     §     §

The vignettes: the soldier who is terrified, grey in the face, about having to go into battle; and he shoots into the air, over and over again, trying to shoot his own fear. The long hot truck convoys to the south of Luanda --- the author and four or five soldiers --- and we find ourselves hoping that they will make it, make it to Pereira, because, god knows, we don't want Kapuscinski to perish, to never write for us again.

His description of the weekends, when nothing happens:

    On Saturday and Sunday all life died away. Those two days were governed by their own inviolable laws. The guns fell silent and the war was suspended. People put down their weapons and fell asleep ... Headquarters and offices were closed. Markets were depopulated. Radio stations went off the air. Busses stopped running. In an incomprehensible but absolute way, this vast country with its war and destruction, its aggression and poverty, came to a halt, went motionless as if someone had cast a spell, as if it were enchanted ... Worst of all, I could never establish what happened to the people. The closest friends disappeared like stones in water. They were not at home and not in the streets. Yet they couldn't have traveled outside the city. Clubs, restaurants, and cafés --- they didn't exist. I don't know --- I can't explain it.

"I can't explain it." Would our correspondents at Bataan or Pusan or Inchon or even the Ardennes have said "I can't explain it." Would Ernie Pyle have said "I can't explain it." Maybe that is what makes Kapuscinski so inviting: he's honest and human and we come to know him, know his angers and fears and feelings. Sort of. I mean he isn't telling us about the depression he must feel at the down-home stupidity of killing and wars. But he is still there, in the way that Orwell was there, describing what it is like to be with the Republicans who are dying on the fields, the malfunctioning guns, the cold, the bitter cold of the trenches.

Like Orwell, Kapuscinski misses nothing --- the shabbiness, the stink, the bodies, the nightly radio transmission difficulties with Poland, the beautiful lady commando. The Lisbon TV crew spends an afternoon filming her (and lusting after her) --- causing Kapuscinski to comment: "We always create the beauty of women, and that day we created Carlotta's beauty." And then, after they return, they are eating, and they hear that Carlotta has been killed. And the dispassionate writers and newsmen stand up from the table, leave their food behind, and walk "into the deserted street. Each of us walked separately, alone; there was nothing to talk about ... It was better for us to reach the hotel that way and disappear from each other's sight."

War and death and the unexplainable. Those mysteries which cannot be explained.

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