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The Shadow of the Sun

Ryszard Kapuscinski

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To purchase The Shadow of the Sun

Title: The Shadow of the Sun
Author: Ryszard Kapuscinski
Genre: Travel
Written: 1998 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 288 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: The Shadow of the Sun - US
The Shadow of the Sun - UK
The Shadow of the Sun - Canada
Afrikanisches Fieber - Deutschland
Ébène - France
  • Polish title: Hebanu
  • Translated by Klara Glowczewska

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Our Assessment:

A- : a fascinating variety of reports from the sad modern history of Africa

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph B+ 28/5/2001 Anthony Daniels
The Economist A- 28/6/2001 .
Evening Standard A 12/6/2001 Jeremy Harding
Freitag A 17/3/2000 Christoph Links
The Guardian A 2/6/2001 Geoff Dyer
Libération A 2/11/2000 Antoine de Gaudemar
London Rev. of Books . 21/6/2001 Adam Hochschild
The LA Times F 26/8/2001 David Rieff
The New Criterion . 6/2001 Jeffrey Meyers
New Statesman A- 11/6/2001 Anthony Sampson
New Statesman A 22/4/2002 Jason Cowley
The NY Rev. of Books . 21/6/2001 Neal Ascherson
The NY Times A+ 11/5/2001 Richard Bernstein
The NY Times Book Rev. B 27/5/2001 William Finnegan
The Observer A 3/6/2001 Ian Jack
The Spectator . 23/6/2001 Robert Oakeshott
The Sunday Times A 3/6/2001 Anthony Sattin
The Times A 4/7/2001 .
TLS . 27/7/2001 John Ryle
The Village Voice C 1/5/2001 Aleksandar Hemon
Wall St. Journal . 18/4/2001 Roger Kaplan
The Washington Post A- 6/5/2001 Matt Steinglass
Wiener Zeitung A 21/1/2000 Andreas Wirthensohn

  Review Consensus:

  Most find it a good, personal (as opposed to journalistic) introduction to Africa. But The Village Voice's Hemon is troubled by the book's "underlying proto-racist existentialism" and David Rieff was outraged by the whole thing.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Kapuscinski's powers of description are undiminished, but because the book is fragmented it does not have the power or the effect of The Emperor. (...) As a political thinker, Mr Kapuscinski is conventional; but as an observer, and as a recorder of his observations, he is second to none." - Anthony Daniels, Daily Telegraph

  • "As literature, The Shadow of the Sun is in its way magnificent. As analysis, it can be strange. (...) (H)e creates an Africa of his own. It is a fascinating place. Whether it ever existed as he tells it is another matter altogether." - The Economist

  • "He is a canny moralist who prefers description and tragi-comic detail to the pontifical mode. But he won't jettison what he knows for a fact. Or what he has thought over for the better part of half a century." - Jeremy Harding, Evening Standard

  • "Man muss sich allerdings als Leser auf den ruhigen Erzählstil bewusst einlassen, der auf das Symbolische in der Einzelheit setzt und nicht auf das Faktologische. Nicht jeder Vorgang ist genau datiert, nicht jeder Handlungsort ohne weiteres lokalisierbar." - Christoph Links, Freitag

  • "It is often unclear whether he is recycling dispatches sent 40 years ago or is only now writing up this amazing hoard of experience. Chronology is deliberately uncertain, the sequence fragmented. Rival tenses jostle for dominance within the same page; his prose has both the unsteady immediacy of the moment and a measure of historical reflection." - Geoff Dyer, The Guardian

  • "Ébène, qui constitue une excellente introduction aux réalités d'un continent souvent énigmatique pour le néophyte -- il suffit pour s'en rendre compte de lire le chapitre sur le génocide rwandais, d'une magistrale clarté --, est aussi un voyage et une expérience intérieurs." - Antoine de Gaudemar, Libération

  • "(S)eems to recapitulate with both great elegance and even greater heedlessness the worst and most debasing cliches about Africa that ever graced the colonial inventory. (...) (D)isgracefully disingenuous and wrong-headed." - David Rieff, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(T)he book often reads more like a novel or a collection of short stories, written with a bright eye for human eccentricities, and with sweeping statements that sometimes sound fictional. But for people who have travelled through Africa, it offers a much more convincing picture of the continent than do the more prosaic assessments of growth rates, structural adjustment or infant mortality." - Anthony Sampson, The New Statesman

  • "You will not find any of Robert Cooper's enthusiasm for a renewed form of benign, disinterested colonialism in these pages. What you will find are essays of exceptional imaginative insight and daring." - Jason Cowley, The New Statesman

  • "The penetrating intelligence of Mr. Kapuscinski's vision and his knack for a kind of crystallized descriptive writing have never been on better display (.....) The book is a marvel of humane, sorrowful and lucid observation. (...) (R)endered into sparkling English by his translator, Klara Glowczewska." - Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

  • "The magnificent sympathy that Kapuscinski has brought to reporting on the third world simply deserts him in certain pieces here. (...) Scene, character, inspired subjects, intrepid reporting and a certain stoic moral authority have been his great strengths. But the penchant for big pronouncements that occasionally seems to have seized him here places different burdens on his work." - William Finnegan, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Almost every page in this book comes alive with his quick brilliance as a perceiver and illuminator. Even when he falls back on history outside his own, he is never less than clear and pungent" - Ian Jack, The Observer

  • "The author is at his best when describing the commonplaces of African experience as he observed them." - Robert Oakeshott, The Spectator

  • "(B)etter than most of us, he now understands the character of the continent's peoples and the nature of the issues that confront them. The result -- surprising given the deprivation, the natural terrors and the human brutality always lurking in the background -- is both subtle and haunting, a book written with love and longing, as sharp and life-enhancing as the sun that rises on an African morning." - Anthony Sattin, The Sunday Times

  • "His sentences are heavily freighted, but elegant, too. The legacy of slavery and colonialism on modern African states is imparted not as polemic but as narrative. He highlights an emotional correspondence between characters and landscapes in history in the way the best fiction does." - The Times

  • "There are a host of other errors in The Shadow of the Sun, small but cumulative in effect. (...) The Shadow of the Sun also contains a startling number of generalizations about "Africa and "Africans". (...) The baroque note in Kapuscinski’s prose confirms the movement away from fact towards the realm of fantasy and symbol." - John Ryle, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Despite its occasionally mesmerizing stories, Kapuscinski's book is fundamentally flawed with its cultural-difference racism and its speculations about the mind of "the African." " - Aleksandar Hemon, The Village Voice

  • "The Shadow of the Sun has no apparent narrative structure, but that is part of its strength: It is a loosely arranged, highly detailed, heartfelt but unsentimental introduction to Africa's afflictions and a quiet love song to its profound appeal." - Roger Kaplan, Wall Street Journal

  • "(R)igorous historical analysis is not Kapuscinski's forte. His great strengths are his style -- candid, understated and slightly absurdist, veering into abrupt flights of lyricism on unexpected subjects -- and his gift for picking out stories, or details within stories, that condense volumes of information into a single perfectly crafted passage." - Matt Steinglass, The Washington Post

  • "(N)ie ist er auf der Suche nach der großen Politik, sondern nach dem Alltag und dem einfachen Mann auf der Straße. Das mag für den, der hier nach politischen Hintergrundanalysen sucht, mitunter enttäuschend sein; aber er vergisst, dass Kapuscinski nicht in erster Linie Reporter ist, sondern ein Dichter, der nicht erfindet, sondern findet, was ihm vor Augen kommt, und es in eine Sprache verwandelt, die durch und durch poetisch ist." - Andreas Wirthensohn, Wiener Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ryszard Kapuscinski is an unlikely roving reporter. A Polish journalist, he managed to finagle his way to foreign assignments in the unlikeliest spots, a rare Eastern European journalistic presence all over the globe for the duration of the Cold War (and, less unlikely, afterwards as well). He also specializes, it seems, in the obscurer (and more troubled) spots of what is known as the Third World, especially -- though not exclusively -- in Africa. He has documented his adventures in numerous books, a frequent witness to significant (if often barely acknowledged) modern history.
       The Shadow of the Sun looks back over forty years of reporting from Africa. Few have travelled as far and wide in the sub-Saharan area as Kapuscinski (the northern African states, and South Africa, are conspicuously absent in this book). He first came to the continent on the eve of the sweeping wave of independence ushering in the post-colonial era, visiting Ghana in 1957. The progression in the book, from then to the present day, is one from the initial hope that independence brought -- dreams of wealth and bright futures -- to the terrors wrought by the pathetic tyrants that assumed power in so many places to the contemporary jumble that still is Africa.
       Kapuscinski presents twenty-nine varied chapters from his trips to Africa. He reports from all over the continent. The focus varies: there are a number of closer examinations of the petty tyrants and their rise and ignoble falls. But Kapuscinski also wants to see what life is like for the masses and for the average African. He recounts his intrepid journeys and his encounters, providing slices of African life -- though always acknowledging that he is an outsider, seeing just the surface and trying to make some sense of it.
       Kapuscinski's writing is not didactic, but he gently introduces his reader to the different ways and expectations of Africa. He offers a good historical overview, providing just what details are necessary for the episodes he recounts (though given how unfamiliar (and convoluted) recent African history is it may be a bit too little). His descriptions and explanations give a good sense of the places and peoples. From the always oppressive heat to the subsumption of the individual in the family he notes many pervasive differences to life in the so-called Western world.
       Kapuscinski is a white man, a fact that affects all his interactions with the locals. Being white brings certain expectations with it -- a burden Kapuscinski does his best to rid himself of (though with limited success). His attempts to explain that he too shares a history of oppression, his native Poland having been similarly occupied and exploited by colonial powers is incomprehensible to the locals. Just as most whites lump all Africans together as one single entity, so too Kapuscinski can not escape the too-simple label of being "white". Still, he does his best to fit in, moving into neighborhoods where the African locals live (as opposed to the expat or diplomatic districts). Certainly it makes for a more entertaining clash of cultures and some fun anecdotes.
       Several chapters focus on his interactions in Africa on this day-to-day level, including one on his domicile in Lagos, an apartment that got robbed nearly every time he left it. Bouts with malaria and then tuberculosis also help him blend in and become accepted more readily, his lack of resources turning into a distinct advantage when he can not afford the care most any white person would demand.
       There are adventure stories, too. There is Africa's glorious wildlife: a battle with a cobra, early on, and an unpredictable elephant at the end, among other dramatic encounters. There are wild drives through the continent. There is journalistic pluck, as Kapuscinski tries to do everything to get his story -- so, for example, to reach Zanzibar after the uprising there, and then to get back to the mainland.
       Kapuscinski also reaches the odd and extreme places -- Ethiopian Lalibela (with its famed churches) in 1975, the great Nigerian market town of Onitsha with its market literature -- as well as describing scenes from everyday African life, far off most beaten paths. The hardships are real and everywhere. There are practically no jobs or opportunities in the cities, and little hope in the isolated villages. Roads (and any infrastructure) are poor to non-existent. Kapuscinski himself continues to seem astounded by the overwhelming difficulties he encounters, and the endurance of the people.
       Perhaps most significant, however, are still the historic events that Kapuscinski describes. From transitions in power (Nigeria in 1966) to larger surveys of the wretches that caused such misery in Uganda, Liberia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and elsewhere, Kapuscinski offers a close-up view of the so often so sad state of African politics and government. The stories -- of Liberia, in particular, but also elsewhere -- are stunning, describing the havoc these contemptible, ill-educated, pathetic "leaders" cause, with horrific and lasting consequences.
       Kapuscinski has an obvious love for the continent and its people, and he describes both well. His generous portraits of many of the people he met (and his piercing depictions of many of the rulers) are excellent, and he has a wide variety of good stories to tell. The Shadow of the Sun offers a good overview of all aspects of sub-Saharan Africa over the last four decades of the 20th century. It is a quick, far-reaching, insightful read and a useful, well-presented introduction from one who witnessed much of what happened there. Certainly recommended.

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The Shadow of the Sun: Reviews: Ryszard Kapuscinski: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books relating to Africa

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About the Author:

       Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski was born 4 March 1932. He has reported from all over the world, and has written several internationally acclaimed books, including Shah of Shahs, The Soccer War, and Imperium.

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