It’s always in the details with Kapuscinksi. An Angolan rebel commander intrudes on a scene “holding up his pistol like a starter at a track meet.” On the outskirts of besieged and ghostly Luanda is a movie theater. “The owner fled to Lisbon but the projectionist remained behind. And so did a print of the famous porno film ‘Emmanuelle.’ The projectionist shows it uninterrupted, over and over, gratis, gratis, free for everyone, and crowds of kids rush in, and soldiers who have got away from the front…” Agostino Neto, the president of the putative state, complains that he has no time to write poetry.
No war correspondent and few novelists convey the acid and warped optimism of civil war better than the master Pole. His account of the long-forgotten contest for Angola, a Portuguese colonial property granted independence in 1975 and contested between Cold War adversaries, is compassionate and eviscerating.
He trawls a literal “Heart of Darkness,” bereft of metaphor, a kabuki of rot, maiming, woe, hunger, and opportunism. Anarchy and disorder — confusão in Portuguese — reigns, but Kapuscinksi never leaves well enough alone. He peels skin. “Confusão is a situation created by people, but in the course of creating it they lose control and direction, becoming victims of confusão themselves.” The horror is accomplished with economy. “The Bantu language,” he notes, “has no future tense: the concept of the future doesn’t exist for the Bantu people…” Before cable news, Kapuscinksi streamed the semaphore — “This is an indigent war, attired in cheap calico.” — and oh what a lens.