Polish writer and foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski may be in the twilight of a golden career spanning more than 40 years but The Shadow of the Sun, an alternative record of his experiences of Africa and its stupefying white heat, is perhaps his finest hour. This for a writer who, to echo the sentiments of Michael Ignatieff, has turned reportage into literature. Drawn to the Developing World through an impoverished wartime upbringing, Kapuscinski arrived in Ghana in 1957 and was on hand to witness the tumultuous years in which colonial Africa was dismantled, resulting in born-again countries ripe for ransacking by despots. From the glare of Accra airport which greets him on first arrival, to the Tanzanian night of the final pages, he crosses savannah, desert and city by foot, road and train, searching out the two most important, yet inconstant commodities on the continent: shade and water. Threatened by an Egyptian cobra, cursed with cerebral malaria and tuberculosis, plagued by black cockroaches the size of small turtles, Kapuscinski intermingles the immediate and the reflective in 29 satisfyingly fragmented vignettes, encompassing historical narratives and personal experience across a host of countries, including Ethiopia, Uganda, Nigeria, Sudan and Liberia.
While acknowledging European colonial culpability, he refuses to rinse his words in guilt. The Shadow of the Sun is reminiscent of Gianni Celati’s Adventures in Africa, employing similarly symphonic atmospherics that can bear poetic witness to both the tragic history of Rwanda and the Ngubi beetle, which toils in the desert to produce the sweat it drinks to survive. As much about the plastic water container as the warlord and preferring the African shanty town to the Manhattan skyscraper as a monument to human achievement, what Kapuscinski, the author of Shah of Shahs describes is not Africa, which he claims does not exist except geographically but a distillation of life itself, through its religiosity, its trees, the frightening abundance of youth, sun that „curdles the blood” and terrorising, ruling armies that fall in a day. The first in a projected trilogy pulling together Africa, Central America and Asia, The Shadow of the Sun is an exceptional and humbling work of imagination and experience by a writer intent on liberating truths from fact. —David Vincent