We live at a time when reporters go to foreign countries where there is trouble and come back to write books in which they say that it was hard to make out what was going on. When they say this, they are apt to be called writers, rather than reporters. Writers don't know what is going on. But they can be very good at conveying what it was like to be there, and to be writing it down. An arch-priest of these mysteries is V.S. Naipaul, whose foreign countries figure as areas of darkness, where coups and crises are glimpsed but may remain inscrutable. Another is Ryszard Kapu?ci?ski, an expert in what his new book calls 'confusion', who has attended 27 revolutions in the Third World. These revolutions, he believably reports, have been confusions. There he sat in his writer's hotel room, venturing out into a series of tight corners, filing his copy, then leaving for Warsaw to compose his short books - objects physically slight but charged with these confusions. They are wonderfully done, and they have caused a stir of approval in this country, while also raising doubts. In a recent New Left Review Benedict Anderson made sharp criticisms of the work of the journalist and poet James Fenton in which a comparison with that of Kapu?ci?ski was noted: you were left with the sense of two talented crisis-fancying literary tourists.
LRB 5 February 1987 | PDF Download