“Sometimes, in describing what I do, I resort to the Latin phrase ‘silva rerum’: the forest of things. That’s my subject: the forest of things.” — Ryszard Kapuściński

One of my favorite writers. His death in 2007 was devastating to me. I went to the memorial tribute at the New York Public Library, hosted by his close personal friend Salman Rushdie. I am not sure I can sufficiently express what his work has meant to me. It expanded my horizons. Brought me into a wider world. Made me think. Made me consider history in terms of millennia not centuries. You can read some background of this extraordinary man (and thinker) here.

He wrote books on Angola, Iran, Ethiopia, Central America, a book on his travels through revolutionary 1960s Africa, and – finally – a book on Russia, only possible after the crackup of the USSR. All of his critiques of tyrannies around the world was a not-so-subtle way of critiquing totalitarianism in his own country (Poland). Obviously I have only read him in translation. I cannot judge how accurate the translations are. But to me, his writing sings, thrums, mourns, paints pictures, sets up context. I get the sense that the poetry of the moment was more important to him than the prose. The MOOD, not the facts. There are no indices in his books, no footnotes. Take his “facts” with a grain of salt. His writing is impressionistic. There’s a story about him that in his travels he was once locked in a cell (he was detained many times). A guard would open the door and throw in a poisonous snake. The room eventually was filled with poisonous snakes. He was locked up for 2 weeks with those snakes. When he was let out, his hair had turned white. Factually true? I am not sure it matters. Consider the possibility that a deeper truth is being revealed about the nature of tyranny, torture, oppression, man’s inhumanity to man. This is his topic. Nothing else matters.

Here are some excerpts from his books:

A great excerpt from The Soccer War: This is probably his most famous book. It’s about war and revolution. I think about this section all the time. There’s so much NOISE. But when things go silent? That’s when there’s real trouble.

People who write history devote too much attention to so-called events heard round the world, while neglecting the periods of silence. This neglect reveals the absence of that infallible intuition that every mother has when her child falls suddenly silent in its room. A mother knows that this silence signifies something bad. That the silence is hiding something. She runs to intervene because she can feel evil hanging in the air. Silence fulfills the same role in history and in politics. Silence is a signal of unhappiness and, often, of crime. It is the same sort of political instrument as the clatter of weapons or a speech at a rally. Silence is necessary to tyrants and occupiers, who take pains to have their actions accompanied by quiet. Look at how colonialism has always fostered silence: at how discreetly the Holy Inquisition functioned; at the way Leonidas Trujillo avoided publicity.

What silence emanates from countries with overflowing prisons! In Somoza’s Nicaragua — silence; in Duvalier’s Haiti — silence. Each dictator makes a calculated effort to maintain the ideal state of silence, even though somebody is continually trying to violate it! How many victims of silence there are, and at what cost! Silence has its laws and its demands. Silence demands that concentration camps be built in uninhabited areas. Silence demands an enormous police apparatus with an army of informers. Silence demands that its enemies disappear suddenly and without a trace. Silence prefers that no voice — of complaint or protest or indignation — disturb its calm. And where such a voice is heard, silence strikes with all its might to restore the status quo ante — the state of silence…

Today one hears about noise pollution, but silence pollution is worse. Noise pollution affects the nerves; silence pollution is a matter of human lives. No one defends the maker of a loud noise, whereas those who establish silence in their own states are protected by an apparatus of repression. That is why the battle against silence is so difficult.

It would be interesting to research the media systems of the world to see how many service information and how many service silence and quiet. Is there more of what is said or of what is not said? One could calculate the number of people working in the publicity industry. What if you could calculate the number of people working in the silence industry? Which number would be greater?

From Shah of Shahs:

All over the world, at any hour, on a million screens an infinite number of people are saying something to us, trying to convince us of something, gesturing, making faces, getting excited, smiling, nodding their heads, pointing their fingers, and we don’t know what it’s about, what they want from us, what they are summoning us to. They might as well have come from a distance planet — an enormous army of public relations experts from Venus or Mars — yet they are our kin, with the same bones and blood as ours, with lips that move and audible voices, but we cannot understand a word. In what language will the universal dialogue of humanity be carried out? Several hundred languages are fighting for recognition and promotion; the language barriers are rising. Deafness and incomprehension are multiplying.

From Shah of Shahs: Here he describes the vibe on New Year’s Eve in Teheran, 1979:

I’d made up my mind to go to the US Embassy on New Year’s Eve. I wanted to see what this place the whole world was talking about would look like that night…In the daytime, the place is like a big marketplace, a busy encampment, a noisy political amusement park where you come to scream and let off steam. You can come here, abuse the mighty of the world, and not face any consequences at all. There’s no lack of volunteers; the place is thronged.

But just now, with midnight approaching, there was no one. I walked around what would have been a vast stage long abandoned by the last actors. There remained only pieces of unattended scenery and the disconcerting atmosphere of a ghost town. The wind fluttered the tatters of banners and rippled a big painting of a band of devils warming themselves over the inferno. Further along, Carter in a star-spangled top that was shaking a bag of gold while the inspired Imam Ali prepared for a martyr’s death. A microphone and batteries of speakers still stood on the platform from which excited orators stirred the crowds to wrath and indignation. The sight of those unspeaking loudspeakers deepened the impression of lifelessness, the void.

I walked up to the main entrance. As usual, it was closed with a chain and padlock, since no one had repaired the lock in the gate that the crowd broke when it stormed the Embassy.

Near the gate, two young guards crouched in the cold as they leaned against the high brick wall, automatic rifles slung over their shoulders — students of the Imam’s line. I had the impression they were dozing.

In the background, among the trees, stood the lighted building where the hostages were held.

But much as I scrutinized the windows, I saw no one, neither figure nor shadow. I looked at my watch. It was midnight, at least in Teheran, and the New Year was beginning. Somewhere in the world clocks were striking, champagne was bubbling, elaborate fetes were going on amid joy and elation in glittering, colorful halls. That might have been happening on a different planet form this one where there wasn’t even the faintest sound or glimmer of light. Standing there freezing, I suddenly began wondering why I had left that other world and come here to this supremely desolate, extremely depressing place. I didn’t know. It simply crossed my mind this evening that I ought to be here. I didn’t know any of them, those fifty-two Americans and those two Iranians, and I couldn’t even communicate with them.

Perhaps I had thought something would happen here. But nothing happened.

From Imperium: (his book on Russia and all of its republics – he was only able to write this after the perestroika/glasnost)

The sight of Moscow enraptured Chateaubriand. The author of Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb accompanied Bonaparte on the expedition to Moscow. On September 6, 1812, the French army reached the great city:

Napoleon appeared on horseback near the advance guard. One more rise had to be crossed; it bordered Moscow the way Montmartre borders Paris and was called the Hill of Homage, for Russians prayed here at the sight of the holy city like pilgrims at the sight of Jerusalem. Moscow of the golden domes, as Slavic poets say, blazed in the sun: two hundred and ninety-five churches, one thousand five hundred palaces, houses out of decoratively sculpted wood, yellow, green, pink, all that was lacking was cypresses and the Bosphorus. The Kremlin, covered in burnished or painted sheets of iron, was a part of this ensemble. Among the exquisite villas made of brick and marble flowed the River Moscow, surrounded by parks of pines — the palms of this sky. Venice in the days of its glory on the waters of the Adriatic was not more splendid … Moscow! Moscow!, our soldiers shouted and started to applaud.

” … for Russians prayed here at the sight of the holy city like pilgrims at the sight of Jerusalem”.

Yes, because Moscow was for them a holy city, the capital of the world — a Third Rome. This last notion was put forth in the sixteenth century by the Pskov sage and visionary, the monk Philotheus. “Two Romes have already fallen (Peter’s and Byzantium),” he writes in a letter to the contemporary Muscovite prince Vasily III. “The Third Rome (Moscow) stands. There will not be a fourth,” he categorically assures the prince. Moscow: it is the end of history, the end of mankind’s earthly wanderings, the open gateway to the heavens.

Russians were capable of believing in such things profoundly, with conviction, fanatically.

The Moscow Napoleon saw on that sunny September afternoon of 1812 no longer exists. The Russians burned it down the next day so as to force the French to turn around. Later, Moscow burned several more times. “Our cities,” Turgenev writes somewhere, “burn every five years.” It is understandable: Russia’s building material was timber. Timber was cheap; there were forests everywhere. One could raise a building out of timber quickly, and, moreover, a wooden wall retains heat well. But then if a fire breaks out, everything burns, the whole city. Thousands upon thousands of Russian townspeople went to their death in flames.

From Another Day of Life: (here he describes the exodus of the Portuguese from Angola, in the threat of revolution).

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.

From The Soccer War (the famous title essay):

Luis Suarez said there was going to be a war, and I believed whatever Luis said. We were staying together in Mexico. Luis was giving me a lesson in Latin America: what it is and how to understand it. He could foresee many events. In his time he had predicted the fall of Goulart in Brazil, the fall of Bosch in the Dominican Republic and of Jiminez in Venezuela. Long before the return of Peron he believed that the old caudillo would again become president of Argentina; he foretold the sudden death of the Haitian dictator Francois Duvalier at a time when everybody said Papa Doc had many years left. Luis knew how to pick his way through Latin politics, in which amateurs like me got bogged down and blundered helplessly with each step.

This time Luis announced his belief that there would be a war after putting down the newspaper in which he had read a report on the soccer match between the Honduran and Salvadoran national teams. The two countries were playing for the right to take part in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

The first match was held on Sunday 8 June 1969, in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa.

Nobody in the world paid any attention.

From The Shadow of the Sun: His book on his travels through Africa. At one point he was Poland’s only foreign correspondent. He was drawn to areas dominated by tyrannies and exploding in revolutions.

For its first eight years of independence, Uganda is ruled by Milton Obote, an extraordinarily conceited man, boastful and sure of himself. When it is exposed in the press that Amin has misappropriated the cash, gold, and ivory given him for safekeeping by anti-Mobutu guerrillas from Zaire, Obote summons Amin, orders him to pen an explanation, and, confident that he himself is in no danger, flies off to Singapore for a conference of prime ministers of the British Commonwealth. Amin, realizing that the prime minister will arrest him as soon as he returns, decides on a preemptive strike: he stages an army coup and seizes power. Theoretically at least, Obote in fact had little to worry about: Amin did not represent an obvious threat, and his influence in the army was ultimately limited. But beginning on the night of January 25, 1971, when they took over the barracks in Kampala, Amin and his supporters employed a brutally efficient surprise tactic: they fired without warning. And at a precisely defined target: soldiers from the Langi and Achole tribes. The surprise had a paralyizing effect: no one had time to mount a resistance. On the very first day, hundreds died in the barracks. And the carnage continued. Henceforth, Amin always used this method: he would shoot first. And not just at his enemies; that was self-evident, obvious. He went further: he liquidated without hesitation those he judged might one day develop into enemies. Over time, terror in Amin’s state also came to depend on universal torture. Before they died, people were routinely tormented.

All this took place in a provincial country, in a small town. The torture chambers were located in downtown buildings. The windows were open — we are in the tropics. Whoever was walking along the street could hear cries, moans, shots. Whoever fell into the hands of the executioners vanished. A category soon emerged, then grew and grew, of those who in Latin America are called desaparecidos: those who have perished, disappeared. He left his house and never returned. “Nani?” the policeman routinely replied, if a family member demanded an explanation. “Nani?” (In Swahili the word means ‘who”; the individiual is reduced to a question mark.)

Uganda started to metamorphose into a tragic, bloody stage upon which a single actor strutted — Amin. A month after the coup Amin named himself president, then marshal, then field marshal, and finally field marshal for life. He pinned upon himself ever more orders, medals, decorations. But he also liked to walk about in ordinary battle fatigues, so that soldiers would say of him, “You see, he’s one of us.” He chose his cars in accordance with his outfits. Wearing a suit to a reception, he drove a dark Mercedes. Out for a spin in a sweat suit? A red Maserati. Battle fatigues? A military Range Rover. The last resembled a vehicle from a science-fiction movie. A forest of antennas protruded from it, all kinds of wires, cables, spotlights. Inside were grenades, pistols, knives. He went about this way because he constantly feared attempts on his life. He survived several. Everyone else died in them — his aides-de-camp, his bodyguards. Amin alone would brush off the dust, straighten his uniform. To cover his tracks, he also rode in unmarked cars. People walking down a street would suddenly realize that the man sitting behind the wheel of that truck was Amin.

He trusted no one, therefore even those in his innermost circle did not know where he would be sleeping tonight, where he would be living tomorrow. He had several residences in the city; several more on the shores of Lake Victoria, still others in the countryside. Determining his whereabouts was both difficult and dangerous. He communicated with every subordinate directly, decided whom he would speak with, whom he wished to see. And for many, such a meeting would prove the last. If Amin became suspicious of someone, he would invite him over. He would be pleasant, friendly, treat his guest to a Coca-Cola. Executioners awaited the visitor as he left. Later, no one could determine what had happened to the man.

Amin usually telephoned his subordinates, but he also used the radio. Whenever he announced changes in the government or in the ranks of the military — and he was constantly instituting changes — he would do so over the airwaves.

Uganda had one radio station, one small newspaper (Uganda Argus), one camera, which filmed Amin, and one photojournalist, who would appear for ceremonial occasions. Everything was directed exclusively at the figure of the marshal. Moving from place to place, Amin in a sense moved the state with him; outside of him, nothing happened, nothing existed. Parliament did not exist, there no political parties, trade unions, or other organizations. And, of course, no opposition — those suspected of dissent died painful deaths.

From Imperium: (one could suggest that Poland shares many similarities with Armenia, in terms of unfortunate geography):

The source of all of Armenia’s misfortune was its disastrous geographic location. One has to look at the map, not from our vantage point, from the center of Europe, but from an entirely different place, from the south of Asia, the way those who sealed Armenia’s fate looked at it. Historically, Armenia occupied the Armenian Highland. Periodically (and these periods lasted centuries) Armenia reached farther, was a state of three seas — the Mediterranean, the Black, and the Caspian. But let us remain within the borders of the Highland. It is this area upon which the Armenians’ historical memory draws. After the eleventh century, the Armenians never succeeded in rebuilding Armenia within those borders.

The map, looked at from the south of Asia, explains the tragedy of the Armenians. Fate could not have placed their country in a more unfortunate spot. In the south of the Highland it borders upon two of the past’s most formidable powers — Persia and Turkey. Let’s add to that the Arabian caliphate. And even Byzantium. Four political colossi, ambitious, extremely expansionist, fanatical, voracious. And now — what does the ruler of each of these four powers see when he looks at the map? He sees that if he takes Armenia, then his empire will be enclosed by an ideal natural border in the north. Because from the north the Armenian Highland is magnificently protected, guarded by two seas (the Black Sea and the Caspian) and by the gigantic barrier of the Caucasus. And the north is dangerous for Persia and for Turkey, for the Arabs and Byzantium. Because in those days from the north an unsubdued Mongolian fury loomed.

And so Armenia gives all the pashas and emperors sleepless nights. Each one of them would like his realm to have a nicely rounded border. So that in his realm, as in King Philip’s, the sun should never set. A border that does not dissipate itself amid flatland, but which leans against a proper mountain, against the edge of the sea. The consequence of these ambitions is continued invasions of Armenia; someone is always conquering and destroying it, always subjugating it.

He didn’t write much but he inspired a generation. The world of history/travelogues is littered with Kapuscinski knock-offs. He was a big picture person, but he also focused on the weird little details, like Armenian books and the making of cognac, the way the sun sets in the desert, and the meaning of borders. The meaning of sitting behind a desk, the desk another border. His great subject is tyranny. And war. His prose is poetic. Hypnotic. Much cannot be verified. He was often the only white person in a given area, filing dispatches about what was happening. He was always on the side of the underdog, the revolutionaries, the oppressed. His first memory was of Russian tanks rolling into his Polish town. He was born into tyranny and spent his life fighting against it.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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3 Responses to “Sometimes, in describing what I do, I resort to the Latin phrase ‘silva rerum’: the forest of things. That’s my subject: the forest of things.” — Ryszard Kapuściński

  1. Clary says:

    Interesting what he says about silence, in these times of quarantine and curfews.
    What we’ll learn it’s happening at homes now during silence?

    • sheila says:

      Clary – I know – these thoughts on silence have made me see and perceive the world in a different way. I love silence on an individual level – having quiet time, whatever – but culturally and politically – silence is death.

  2. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Gorgeous writer. Read him because of something you wrote some time ago. Have no regrets.

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