Sunday, January 6, 2008

Beauty and cruelty meet (Books - Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski - cont'd)

In his discussion of the influence the climate of Turkmenistan has upon its politics is the first time I noticed that Kapuscinski sometimes lets the poetry of his ideas run away with the facts. A good deal of Turkmenistan is desert and he makes the point that was one nation torn apart by the struggle for water. Rashyd says that in oases an ideal proportion reigns between the amount of water and the number of inhabitants, and that is why an oasis cannot absorb new people. An oasis can absorb a guest , it can absorb a merchant, but it will not absorb an entire tribe, for that would immediately disturb the balance upon which its very existence depends. That is why there must be war between the desert and the oasis. Man finds himself in a much more dramatic situation in these climes than does his brother living in a temperate zone, and for this reason the causes of wars are deeper here and, one would like to say, more humane than in Europe, where history records wars started over such petty affairs as lese-majeste, a dynastic feud, or a ruler's persecution mania. In the desert the cause of war is the desire to live, man is born already entangled in that contradiction, and therein lies the drama.

Now that sounds good, but it seems to me that Kapuscinski is romanticizing his subject. I'm not sure that the need for water is any less dramatic than the need not to be murdered by Stalin or Hitler or Pol Pot. When one's existence depends upon the whim of a despot, one cannot predict whether one will live or die and the desire for life would not be any less intense than when one is dependent instead upon the existence of water.

Kapuscinski's description of a desert sandstorm is wonderfully written:
A sharp wind and clouds of dust, which fill all the space between the earth and the sky. Dust that blinds and chokes; there is nothing to breathe. All life stops; machines grind to a halt. Now Palina, Shchaviey, and everyone else hide in corners, sink into crannies, draw sheets over their heads, blankets, whatever happens to be at hand, so as not to suffocate; the sand storm buries everything; the deluge drown men and herds (for in the desert there are deluges!), chokes, suffocates, gags to death. Particles of dust, these bits of near nothingness (they are stone ground to powder by wind and water), suspended in the air, grow warm in the sun, and thus comes into being a dry mist, the terror of all desert people, a dry and hot mist, clouds of powder as hot as burning coals; that is what the desert commands one to breathe in the hour of its fury. I am in a hotel, in my room; there is no light, and more important there is no water; the wind must have torn down the wires, the sand stopped up the pipes; I still have a sip of warm liquid in the pitcher, but what will happen later? The city has no water; the telephones are down; there is only radio communication. I am lying on the bed, but everything is damp, dusty; the pillow gives off heat like a furnace; in the desert, during a storm, people are seized by a water madness, all of a sudden they drink their entire water supply, greedily, thoughtlessly, it is really a kind of madness, they drink not because at that moment they are suffering from thirst, they drink from fear, obsessed by the thought that there will be no more water, they drink to beat the inevitable to the punch. Deserted streets, quiet in the hotel, empty corridor, I go downstairs. Empty restaurant. The barmaid is sitting, staring out the window. A Russian comes in from the street, dusty, the wind has pulled his shirt out of his pants, on his head he wears a warm cap with earmuffs, buckled beneath his chin. "Give us two hundred grams," he says to the barmaid. She gets up, pours him a glass of vodka. He drinks it and utters an ahhhhh! "Now that's better," he says, and walks out into the street with this fire in his belly - into the fire of the desert. For a moment the barmaid follows him with her eyes. "He's one of us," she says, "that sort will endure everything." Then she looks at me, kindly, but also with a touch of irony, and without a word hands me a bottle of lemonade.

Aside from that being an utterly brilliant passage about a place, its character and its climate - one that is not merely descriptive but involving - one can see at work the same qualities that were liabilities in the passage about war above are advantages here. It is the effusiveness, the momentum of the words that create a spell that envelopes us like, well, a storm. Gorgeous writing.

His evocation of the two cities of Uzbekistan occupy just one efficient paragraph:

Bukhara is commercial, noisy, concrete, and material; it is a city of merchandise and marketplaces; it is an enormous warehouse, a desert port. Asia's belly. Samarkand is inspired, abstract, lofty, and beautiful; it is a city of concentration and reflection; it is a musical note and a painting; it is turned toward the stars. Erkin told me that one must look at Samarkand on a moonlit night, during a full moon. The ground remains dark; the walls and the towers catch all the light; the city starts to shimmer, then it floats upward, like a lantern.

Kapuscinski weaves a spell like a magician.

He makes some startling and convincing observations about the Russian people in relation to their governments. He writes of all of the turning points in Russia - the revolutions and other big turning points - occurred because they were the will of a czar or secretary general of the party, or the Kremlin - it is the ruling elite rather than the people who have effected all the major changes in Russia. Ironic that Lenin chose it for his revolution!

It is autumn 1989. My first encounter with the Imperium in years. I was last here more than twenty years ago, at the start of the Brezhnev era. The era of Stalin, the era of Khrushchev, the era of Brezhnev. And before that: the era of Peter I, Catherine II, Alexander III. IN what other country does the persona of the ruler, his character traits, his manias and phobias, leave such a profound stamp on the national history, its course, its ascents and downfalls?

He then talks about Moscow being a "Third Rome," and how, nevertheless, the Russians themselves burned it down to force Napoleon's army to retreat. Most of the city's structures were built of wood and thousands of Russians met their deaths - only the aristocracy in their stone palaces had a chance of surviving. It made me think that, if Russia could burn thousands of its own people to achieve this end, no wonder the communist experiment - in which the needs of all must supercede the needs of the individual, was tried there.

A fascinating combination of beauties and horrors meet in the history and culture of this great land and Kapuscinski is proving an evocative and insightful tour guide. I've never experienced
Russia in quite the same way.

1 comment:

Sheila O'Malley said...

Salman Rushdie and Kapuscinski were best friends for, oh, 40 years? 30 years? And he has written quite eloquently on Kapuscinski's, uhm, embellishments. Coming from a man who experienced a fatwa against him due to his writing, it's all very interesting. Kapuscinski was writing under strict censorship (and we have also now learned that he was under the protection of the secret police - such compromises had to be made in such a society) ... so he was mainly a subversive writer. Imperium came out after the USSR crumbled ... but his books before then are masterpieces of dissembling. He criticizes the regimes in Iran, Ethiopia, African despotic states ... and studies third world revolutions ... all because he could not write about what needed to be overthrown in his OWN nation. But yeah, he had a tendency to embellish to the point that truth is sometimes lost (this is most explicitly shown in his book on the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie - in his brilliant book The Emperor) - and the death he describes Selassie coming to is not how it happened at all! This goes beyond embellishment into a potentially unethical area. I think Kapuscinski needs to be seen in the light of subversion ... a society of complete thought-control ... and how does one write freely?? His huge book on Africa (The Shadow of the Sun) is marvelous - I wish he had lived long enough to complete his book on Idi Amin ... but it's full of enormous generalizations, very well written - that many people took offense to. But he was an impressionistic writer ... which often doesn't equal truth.

Ted, you might be interested in the post I wrote about the Kapuscinski memorial I went to at the NY Public Library - moderated by Philip Gourevitch - and Rushdie was there - etc. etc.

Some great information and anecdotes about Kapuscinski.

I look forward to hearing more of your responses!