August 14, 2012
No moral giant, then
Kapuściński’s ‘empathy’, the talent for which he was admired and, to be frank, about which he was vain, was his habit of going to the back streets or the refugee encampment and ‘listening’ to ordinary people. He liked being well away from press minders, hard to find, roughing it with the locals. It made for fascinating journalism. But he had a weakness for exotic stereotypes which distorted the ‘actually existing’ Africa and Latin America he encountered. John Ryle, an anthropologist and writer who knows as much about eastern Africa as anyone in Britain, has been brutal about him: ‘Despite Kapuściński’s vigorously anti-colonialist stance, his writing about Africa is a variety of latter-day literary colonialism, a kind of gonzo Orientalism … Here facts are no longer sacred; we are at play in the bush of ghosts, free to opine and to generalise about “Africa” and “the African”.’ Domosławski supports Ryle’s verdict with some absurd pronouncements from The Shadow of the Sun: ‘the kind of history known in Europe as scholarly and objective can never arise here, because the African past has no documents or records … history … achieves here its purest, crystalline form – that of myth.’ It’s almost sixty years since the great anthropologist Meyer Fortes told me that ‘Africa has no history!’, and even then, as a student, I knew it was condescending nonsense.more from Neal Ascherson at the LRB here.
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