Until recently I didn’t know much about the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. However, I was reading his obituary and became quite fascinated. He was born in Pinsk, in what is now Belarus, in 1932. His family was so poor that they wore tree bark for shoes. He started smoking at the age of seven “because of the hunger”. He grew up to become a reporter on conflict and poverty, among many other things, all over the world. Yet his reporting was unique in its literary quality. The man should have been a novelist, but he obviously found far too much in reality to write about. He died in Warsaw on 23rd January. You can learn more about him here.
However, on studying the man I found some truly incredible writing. Let me share some with you here. For anyone that’s ever been to the tropics, this will make you feel it all over again; it certainly made me feel desperate for an air conditioner, and I’m in sub-zero England at the moment! This is from the first chapter of one of his most acclaimed pieces, ‘The Soccer War’.
In the tropics drinking is obligatory. In Europe, the first thing two people say when they meet is: “Hello. What’s new?” When people greet each other in the tropics, they say: “What would you like to drink?” They frequently drink during the daytime, but in the evening the drinking is mandatory; the drinking is premeditated. After all, it is the evening that shades into night, and it is the night that lies in wait for anyone reckless enough to have spurned alcohol.
The tropical night is a hardened ally of all the world’s makers of whisky, cognac, liqueurs, schnapps and beers, and the person who denies them their sales is assailed by the night’s ultimate weapon: sleeplessness. Insomnia is always wearing, but in the tropics it is killing. A person punished all day by the sun, by a thirst that can’t be satisfied, maltreated and weakened, has to sleep.
He has to. And then he cannot!
It is too stuffy. Damp, sticky air fills the room. But then, it’s not air. It’s wet cotton. Inhale, and it’s like swallowing a ball of cotton dipped in warm water. It’s unbearable. It nauseates, it prostrates, it unhinges. The mosquitoes bite, the monkeys scream. Your body is sticky with sweat, repulsive to the touch. Time stands still. Sleep will not come. At six in the morning, the same invariable six in the morning all year round, the sun rises. Its rays increase the dead steam-bath closeness. You should get up. But you don’t have the strength. You don’t tie your shoes because the effort of bending over is too much. You feel worn out like an old pair of slippers. You feel used up, toothless, baggy. You are tormented by undefined longings, nostalgias, dusky pessimisms. You wait for the day to pass, for the night to pass, for all of it, damn it to hell, finally to pass.
So you drink. Against the night, against the depression, against the foulness floating in the bucket of your fate. That’s the only struggle you’re capable of.
I apologise to anyone in Darwin that might read this during the wet season, as you know only too well that habit of drinking against the climate, and this piece of writing could have been about you. Except, perhaps, for the bit about monkeys.