The day I began to compose myself in order to write this review of Another Day of Life (Random House, $18.00, 144 pages, paper, ISBN: 0375726292), the author, Ryszard Kapuscinski's introduction reminded me that the war in Angola has been grinding on since 1975, and the Globe and Mail noted that a bomb planted on a train track by UNITA rebels had halted an express, enabling them to attack and kill approximately 252 people. You can call it coincidence, but I'll stick to synchronicity, just as I did when starting Peter Maass' 1996 Bosnia reportage, Love Thy Neighbour, the very day Slobodan Milosevic was finally helicoptered into confinement.
You see chance in a world rich with randomness, and I see acausal connections mysteriously designed and delivered on cue. We may honour or snicker at each other's attitudes, but we know it takes all sorts to make a world, and in our lovable liberal democracy we blandly tolerate a vast number of norms, agreeing to disagree on just about any topic placed on the table. Opinions proliferate and flourish in their consensus climates. We may swat flies and mosquitos, but we no longer swat each other; at least, not too much.
It's no secret that this happy state of affairs fails to hold sway in many other parts of the world, where differences of opinion lead quickly and inexorably to the infliction of damage¨damage to bodies, damage to buildings, damage to culture. Destruction becomes the sole inevitable consequence of desire.
When no longer distracted by the stink of decay and gore, and perhaps enervated by the endless debating over the legacies of colonialism, pig-ignorant tribalism and the mercenary mentality, we can see fighting is a very human activity, much like any other. Fueled by argument, poverty, real estate and resources (in Angola's case, oil and diamonds), it requires anger, armaments, fear and food; it entails sides that will split into victors and victims, propaganda to beguile the ignorant, and spoils to assuage the suffering. But ultimately all it needs is energy, the energy of unbridled desire: the desire for victory, riches, power, God. All of it I want I want I want. Fighting may exact a stiffer price, but in the final analysis it is just something else to do. Just 'another day of life', as one character dryly comments to Kapuscinsky
Another, one Commondante Ndozi, sums it all up in a page or two. Highlights include: "This country has been at war for five hundred years, ever since the Portuguese came. They needed slaves for trade, for export to Brazil and the Caribbean...The slave wars went on for three hundred years or more. It was good business for our chiefs. The strong tribes attacked the weak, took prisoners, and put them on the market...Sometimes they had to do it, to pay the Portuguese taxes." Need I be overworking the ironic mode to suggest that I think you get the picture?
Ryszard Kapuscinski certainly does. Since at least 1960 he's been casting a cold eye on life, on death in Africa and elsewhere, and garnering an international reputation doing it. And he does so by eliminating all extraneous filler, all decorative fluff. An expert at placing himself inside the city under siege, at the front under fire, and within the risk-filled land of sudden and pointless death, where he starves and shivers and sweats, sharing the fates of the unfortunates around him, gathering in during the quiet eye of the storm what he will later recollect in tranquillity as incisive penetration to the heart of the matter.
In Another Day Of Life one breathes the outbreak of hostilities in Angola, circa 1975, and that stench of death and paranoia which comes with the collapse of civilized discourse, while feeling the historical processes that have furnished the means and motives for the seemingly sudden conflagration.
While this paperback reissue of the 1976 Polish original is doubtless just to piggyback on Knopf's current push for his newest Shadows Of The Sun, it is in no way an inferior product. While long time fans will need no convincing from me, those new to the name need have no hesitation in starting here. Although brief, the text puts you front and center at a pivotal point in the country's 500 year torment of tribal conflict, exacerbated and arguably caused by the Portuguese rapacious insistence on an endless supply of slaves for our old friends in the new world, sugar and cotton. This little book will leave you in no doubt as to his perspicacity, which often verges on the poetic.
Critics have compared him to Conrad, Orwell and Garcia Marquez. John Le CarrT has called him "the conjuror extraordinaire of modern reportage". High praise to be sure, but in this reviewer's eyes, richly deserved. ˛