I don’t know when I fell in love with Ryszard Kapuściński, but somewhere along the way between The Emperor and Another Day of Life, I did. Fell in love with the idea of a man who was in always in the middle of the story he told, telling us what he thought and saw and felt. Visceral almost, but smoother. To be visceral, you have to be linear and constrained; but to be a writer like Kapuściński, you have to be more porous.
This particular book was probably bought by someone in the previous generation, it’s a Picador- 1988. Probably one of my uncles in Delhi- back when they had big hair, wore bell-bottoms with smuggler moustaches, and had literary/revolutionary ambitions (as we all do).
Another Day of Life are like literary dispatches from a war-zone. It is 1975-76, and Kapuściński is sometimes in the despairing Angolan capital of Luanda, and sometimes on the front. Sometimes it feels like he has transported us to witness a fin-de-siecle moment. The packing up and sweaty departure of the last of the Portuguese from their African colony. Here we are in the middle of the city watching the rich, and the poor, pack their belongings into wooden crates, so many crates that “this dusty desert city nearly devoid of trees now smells like a flourishing forest”. It is like watching humanity from afar, how we live in the bubbles of our existence until the day when everything comes crashing down. Wars, partitions, conquests, exiles- these were truths only two generations ago, and already we have forgotten such displacements and expect to live forever in our blessed status-quo.
But you cannot simply leave, you always leave the wake of your existence behind. The Portuguese leave behind villas, cafes, bread in ovens, plantations, warring factions, religion, statues and their pets. Ah no…abandoned pets- “Deserted, stray, they roamed in a great pack looking for food…one day they disappeared“. This reminded me of this. (Conspiracy theory + TV content alert!).
Kapuściński takes us to the front and back, in the throbbing heat or in the darkest African night. The drudgery of war and inevitability of death are not easy readings. Even when sometimes it almost feels like the Angolan war was fought with soldiers so green that “he shoots anywhere, as long as he can shoot a lot without stopping. He is not hurting the enemy, he is killing his own terror“.
He expertly hides the horrors and lets it slip in a small paragraph here and there- decapitated heads are in the ditch, soldiers would rather leap into rivers and follow their retreating foreign allies, Polish cigarettes have crumbled into “a handful of damp hay smelling of nicotine” and young women have died before their photographs are developed.
There is horror, and there is hope.
“Even the worst situation in which we can find ourselves breaks down into elements that include something for us to grab hold of, like the branch of a bush that grows on the bank, to avoid being sucked to the bottom by the whirlpool. That chink, that island, that branch sustain us on the surface of existence“. Hopefully we will have journalists like Kapuściński in the future.