Monday, October 09, 2006

"The Wandering Dissident"

#33 -- "Imperium" by Ryszard Kapuściński (re-read)

Of all the writers I admire, I'm perhaps most evangelical about Kapuściński; I know I've pushed him on several people who are reading this. "Imperium," his 1993 chronicle of traveling the Soviet Union's outer reaches as the country collapsed, seemed like an apt (and quick) read before I depart for St. Petersburg this coming weekend.

He is a sympathetic observer, chronicling the effects of totalitarianism without condemning those under it, trying instead to understand them and their actions. Kapuściński manages a delicate balance that many writers can't; he's always involved, always talking to the people, but his writing never becomes about him. Some of the best moments in the book come in random conversations -- the most notable for me, talking to a young girl in Siberia about what constitutes a "great cold."

"Imperium" is tied into events -- the prelude to World War II, the main body to the fall of the USSR -- but seems timeless. 13 years after its publication, it's still very relevant to the state of Russia and the former Soviet republics... and it shows a people who are still feeling the impact of Stalinism, 50 years on, and the tsars, 100 years on.

One nice passage comes early on, as Kapuściński describes several groups of people:

"Finally, the third group. They are the ones for whom everything is above all interesting, extraordinary, improbably, who want to get to know this different world hitherto unknown to them, examine it, plumb it. They know how to arm themselves with patience (but not superciliousness!), and to maintain distance with a calm, attentive, sober gaze."

I imagine Kapuściński was describing himself there-- it describes his (written) character to a tee. And it seems a good basis for an interesting life.

Post title taken from pre-suck Christopher Hitchens' description of Kapuściński.


Nanuk of the North said...

I read The Emperor, his book on Haile Selassie, back in university. I still have it. I won't part with that book.

"pre-suck Hitchens" heh heh heh. What happened to him? Don't tell me it's the drinking. Plenty of people drink as much as he does and don't turn into total assholes.

gsdgsd13 said...

Actually, I think he's quit drinking now. Or I heard that. Or someone told me "you should quit drinking" and I thought they were talking about Christopher Hitchens.

I dunno. I think he took on his contrarian thing so completely that he figured he had to contradict everyone. Trotskyists Against Islamofascism has to be a pretty lonely support group.