The Books: “Another Day of Life” (Ryszard Kapuscinski)

History Bookshelf:

41WYSG23GPL._SS500_.jpgNext book on this shelf is called Another Day of Life by Ryszard Kapuscinski.

Kapuscinski. He’s one of my all-time favorite writers. And I’m reading him in translation – so I have no idea how good he must be in his native Polish. But the translations I have are pretty damn good. My only complaint about him is that he doesn’t publish ENOUGH. hahahaha And I also eagerly await an official biography of this guy. I know a little bit about him – but I mainly know him through his books. Here’s the deal: He’s Polish. He’s a journalist. He grew up under Communism – and remembers when the Communists arrived in his town, at age 8. He lived under that oppressive regime. He felt the oppression. He became a reporter – and eventually, he was sent out as the only foreign correspondent that Poland had. I think … the details are blurry – this is why I need a biography. Anyway, of course the Communists were not wacky about letting people travel – but because Kapuscinski had the job he did, he went everywhere. This also happened to be in the 60s and 70s, when revolutions and civil wars were breaking out all over the world. He went everywhere. The really subtle thing about his books (at least the ones written before the 1980s) is that – he uses his writing as a way to criticize totalitarian regimes, and totalitarian mentalities – without ever criticizing the Communist powers-that-be. It was a kind of subterfuge. His book about Haile Selassie’s fall was, yes, about Ethiopia – but if you read it in the context of what was going on in Poland, what they suffered back there – you can see that it was a sneaky way to critique the leaders in his own country, without ever naming them.

I love his books.

I mean … I LOVE his books.

So. Another Day of Life which … I think is his first book. In 1975, the fascist dictatorship in Portugal fell apart – and as a consequence, Angola – one of their long-held “colonies” was cut loose. Pandemonium ensued. The Portugese population fled for thier lives, civil war broke out between rivaling factions, trying to fill up the power vacuum – Who among the “natives” would now get to rule the country – now that the Portugese were gone? – Kapuscinski bribed an airline pilot to take him to Luanda from Lisbon. The pilot did not want to take him – too dangerous – all planes were LEAVING the country, no more planes going in … but Kapuscinski arrived in 1975, as everything was breaking apart. This civil war was brutal and lasted almost 30 years – over 1.5 million people were killed, millions and millions of people were displaced … Hell on earth.

Another Day of Life describes the last days before the real war breaks out – when the Portugese, who had lived in Angola for generations, realized what was coming … and then had to get themselves together and get the hell OUT. I’ll excerpt a bit from that section.

You know how sometimes, even if you really thought a book was good, only one or two images from the book will really STICK in your mind? Like … if the title is said to you, then one of those images will immediately come up in your head? You don’t keep the WHOLE book in your head. But one or two images stay behind, forever. What Kapuscinski describes in the following excerpt is the image that has been left behind forever in my brain, for whatever reason. It’s kind of haunting.

From Another Day of Life by Ryszard Kapuscinski.

Various things happened before that, before the city was closed and sentenced to death. As a sick person suddenly revives and recovers his strength for a moment in the midst of his agony, so, at the end of September, life in Luanda took on a certain vigor and tempo. The sidewalks were crowded and traffic jams clogged the streets. People ran around nervously, in a hurry, wrapping up thousands of matters. Clear out as quickly as possible, escape in time, before the first wave of deadly air intrudes upon the city.

They didn’t want Angola. They had had enough of the country, which was supposed to be the promised land but had brought them disenchantment and abasement. They said farewell to their African homes with mixed despair and rage, sorrow and impotence, with the feeling of leaving forever. All they wanted was to get out with their lives and to take their possessions with them.

Everybody was busy building crates. Mountains of boards and plywood were brought in. The price of hammers and nails soared. Crates were the main topic of conversation — how to build them, what was the best thing to reinforce them with. Self-proclaimed experts, crate specialists, homegrown architects of cratery, masters of crate styles, crate schools, and crate fashions appeared. Inside the Luanda of concrete and bricks a new wooden city began to rise. The streets I walked through resembled a great building site. I stumbled over discarded planks; nails sticking out of beams ripped my shirt. Some crates were as big as vacation cottages, because a hierarchy of crate status had suddenly come into being. The richer the people, the bigger the crates they erected. Crates belonging to millionaires were impressive: beamed and lined with sailcloth, they had solid, elegant walls made of the most expensive grade of tropical wood, with the rings and knots cut and polished like antiques. Into these crates went whole salons and bedrooms, sofas, tables, wardrobes, kitchens and refrigerators, commodes and armchairs, pictures, carpets, chandeliers, porcelain, bedclothes and linene, clothing, tapestries and vases, even artificial flowers (I saw them with my own eyes), all the monstrous and inexhaustible junk that clutters every middle-class home. Into them went figurines, seashells, glass balls, flower bowls, stuffed lizards, a metal miniature of the cathedral of Milan brought back from Italy, letters! — letters and photographs, wedding pictures in gilt frames (Why don’t we leave that? the husband asks, and the enraged wife cries, You ought to be ashamed!) — all the pictures of the children, and here’s the first time he sat up, and here’s the first time he said Give, Give, and here he is with a lollipop, and here with his grandma — everything, and I mean everything, because this case of wine, this supply of macaroni that I laid in as soon as the shooting started, and then the fishing rod, the crochet needles — my yarn! — my rifle, Tutu’s colored blocks, birds, peanuts, the vacuum and the nutcracker have to be squeezed in, too, that’s all there is to it, they have to be, and they are, so that all we leave behind are the bare floors, the naked walls, en deshabille. The house’s striptease goes all the way, right down to the curtain rods — and all that remains is to lock the door and stop along the boulevard en route to the airport and throw the key in the ocean.

The crates of the poor are inferior on several counts. They are smaller, often downright diminutive, and unsightly.l They can’t compete in quality; their workmanship leaves a great deal to be desired. While the wealthy can employ master cabinetmakers, the poor have to knock their crates together with their own hands. For materials they use odds and ends from the lumber yard, mill ends, warped beams, cracked plywood, all the leftovers you can pick up thirdhand. Many are made of hammered tin, taken from olive-oil cans, old signs, and rusty billboards; they look like the tumbledown slums of the African quarters. It’s not worth looking inside — not worth it, and not really the sort of thing one does.

The crates of the wealthy stand in the main downtown streets or in the shadowy byways of exclusive neighborhoods. You can look at them and admire. The crates of the poor, on the other hand, languish in entranceways, in backyards, in sheds. They are hidden for the time being, but in the end they will have to be transported the length of the city to the port, and the thought of that pitiful display is unappetizing.

Thanks to the abundance of wood that has collected here in Luanda, this dusty desert city nearly devoid of trees now smells like a flourishing forest. It’s as if the forest had suddenly taken root in the streets, the squares, and the plazas. In the evenings I throw the window open to take a deep breath of it, and the war fades. I no longer hear the moans of Dona Esmerelda, I no longer see the ruined playboy with his two pistols, and I feel just as if I were sleeping it off in a forester’s cottage in Bory Tucholski.

The building of the wooden city, the city of crates, goes on day after day, from dawn to twlight. Everyone works, soaked with rain, burned by the sun; even the millionaires, if they are physically fit, turn to the task. The enthusiasm of the adults infects the children. They too build crates, for their dolls and toys. Packing takes place under cover of night. It’s better that way, when no one’s sticking his nose into other people’s business, nobody’s keeping track of who puts in how much and what (and everyone knows there are a lot of that sort around, the ones who serve the MPLA and can’t wait to inform).

So by night, in the thickest darkness, we transfer the contents of the stone city to the inside of the wooden city. It takes a lot of effort and sweat, lifting and struggling, shoulders sore from stowing it all, knees sore from squeezing it all in because it all has to fit and, after all, the stone city was big and the wooden city is small.

Gradually, from night to night, the stone city lost its value in favor of the wooden city. Gradually, too, it changed people’s estimation. People stopped thinking in terms of houses and apartments and discussed only crates. Instead of saying, “I’ve got to go see what’s at home,” they said, “I’ve got to go check my crate.” By now that was the only thing that interested them, the only thing they cared about. The Luanda they were leaving had become a stiff and alien stage set, empty, for the show was over.

Nowhere else in the world had I seen such a city, and I may never see anything like it again. It existed for months, and then it suddenly began disappearing. Or rather, quarter after quarter, it was taken on trucks to the port. Now it was spread out at the very edge of the sea, illuminated at night by harbor lanterns and the glare of lights on anchored ships. By day, people wound through its chaotic streets, painting their names and addresses on little plates, just as anyone does anywhere in the world when he builds himself a house. You could convince yourself, therefore, that this is a normal wooden town, except that it’s been closed up by its residents who, for unknown reasons, have had to leave it in haste.

But afterward, when things had already turned very bad in the stone city and we, its handful of inhabitants, were waiting like desperadoes for the day of its destruction, the wooden city sailed away on the ocean. It was carried off by a great flotilla with which, after several hours, it disappeared below the horizon. This happened suddenly, as if a pirate fleet had sailed into the port, seized a priceless treasure, and escaped to sea with it.

Even so, I managed to see how the city sailed away. At dawn it was still rocking off the coast, piled up confusedly, uninhabited, lifeless, as if magically transformed into a museum exhibit of an ancient Eastern city and the last tour group had left. At that hour it was foggy and cold. I stood on the shore with some Angolan soldiers and a little crowd of ragtag freezing black children. “They’ve taken everything from us,” one of the soldiers said without malice, and turned to cut a pineapple because that fruit, so overripe that,w hen it was cut, the juice ran out like water from a cup, was then our only food. “They’ve tatken everything from us,” he repeated and buried his face in the golden bowl of the fruit. The homeless harbor children gazed at him with greedy, fascinated eyes. The soldier lifted his juice-smeared face, smiled, and added, “But anyway, we’ve got a home now. They left us what’s ours.” He stood and, rejoicing in the thought that Angola was his, shot off a whole round from his automatic rifle into the air. Sirens sounded, seagulls darted and wheeled over the water, and the city stirred and began to sail away.

I don’t know if there had ever been an instance of a whole city sailing across the ocean, but that is exactly what happened. The city sailed out into the world, in search of its inhabitants. These were the former residents of Angola, the Portugese, who had scattered throughout Europe and America. A part of them reached South Africa. All fled Angola in haste, escaping before the conflagration of war, convinced that in this country there would be no more life and only the cemeteries would remain. But before they left they had still managed to build the wooden city in Luanda, into which they packed everything that had been in the stone city. On the streets now there were only thousands of cars, rusting and covered with dust. The walls also remained, the roofs, the asphalt on the roads, and the iron benches along the boulevards.

And now the wooden city was sailing on an Atlantic swept by violent, gale-driven waves. Somewhere on the ocean the partition of the city occurred and one section, the largest, sailed to Lisbon, the second to Rio de Janeiro, and the third to Cape Town. Each of these sections reached its haven safely. I know this from various sources. Maria wrote to tell me that her crate ended up in Brazil — crates that had been part of the wooden city. Many newspapers wrote about the fact that one section made it to Cape Town. And here’s what I saw with my own eyes. After leaving Luanda, I stopped in Lisbon. A friend drove me along a wide street at the mouth of the Tagus, near the port. And there I saw fantastic heaps of crates stacked to perilous heights, unmoved, abandoned, as if they belonged to no one. This was the largest section of the wooden Luanda, which had sailed to the coast of Europe.

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