Literary scandals are not really a dime a dozen, so when one comes along it causes a bit of a splash. A few weeks ago, the reputations of one of non-fictions greatest names suffered a serious setback when a biographer alleged that he had been extremely economical with the truth in the course of his writings.
The author in question is Ryzard Kapucinski whose travels around the world took in alleged encounters with Lumumba and Che Guevara, narrowly surviving death by firing squad and becoming involved in an ungodly amount of drama. He was like Indiana Jones with a notebook instead of a pistol and whip.
In the process, he became probably the most famous travel writer of the modern age.
Like millions of readers around the world, I found his work enthralling, and the notion that he might have made up a significant amount left me feeling surprisingly sad. Kapucinski also wrote quite possibly the best non-fiction book on Africa- ‘Shadow of the sun’.
The book is simply a collection of his impressions travelling around post-colonial Africa, but it becomes a lot more than just a travel book. It is a book that leaves a lasting impression-funny, sad and insightful; it is a truly memorable work of art.
Of course Kapucinski received quite a bit of criticism for his work. With ‘Shadow of the sun’ one of the criticisms I came across was that he painted almost every meeting with an African was turned into some kind of mystical and profound encounter.
The allegation was that he was stretching the truth and creating an idealized version of reality. But anyone who reads the book will see the unvarnished reality of Africa during that period.
Whether Kapucinski actively made up some of the events that happened to him will probably never be discovered. However one of the things this scandal revealed was how difficult it is to write about Africa- especially if you are a foreigner-without wading into a non-literal minefield. Simply be virtue of being a white foreigner, writing about Africa left him open to accusations that he was-whether directly or not- endorsing imperialism.
Many assumed that by virtue of being European, he was alienated from the post-colonial experience (Even though as a Pole, he was acutely aware of oppression). And you will even find a few people who consider his writing more naïve than anything else.
And many Africans will always be overly-sensitive that they are being seen as one big mass of people, but that is precisely the opposite of what Kapucinski’s work showed.
‘Shadow of the sun’ shows Africa as a vibrant and complex place, as divorced from cliché as I can imagine.
Certainly one thing that really shone through his work was compassion for the people he met and the situations they found themselves in. As an outsider this can come across as being patronizing, but this would be to completely misread Kapucinski.
But- to return to the allegation that I referenced at the beginning of this column- for this book to work, it would have to be non-fiction in the proper sense of the word.
Non-fiction writers embellish incidents, play with the timeframe of their narrative and do a lot of other tricks to give their work more power.
However there has to be a line that the writer shouldn’t cross at the risk of completely devaluing his work and pushing it into the realm of fiction. I like to think that Kapucinski was very aware of this and took it seriously.
If the contrary is true, then a lot of the magic of his writing will have been lost.
Minega Isibo is a lawyer