Literature for a Post-Racial World

Reviewed by Francine Prose
Sunday, December 14, 2008


By Ryszard Kapuscinski

Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones | Verso. 100 pp. $16.95


By Ha Jin | Univ. of Chicago. 96 pp. $14

On election night, it seemed as if some, if not all, of our problems had been solved. Even as the president-elect cautioned that the hardest part was still before us, hadn't we already begun to hear that his candidacy had transpired in a post-racial society? And wasn't it possible that the principles that this historic event affirmed -- democracy, inclusiveness, multiculturalism -- might inspire the rest of the world to practice greater tolerance and compassion? Yet that same night, a group of white kids chanting "Obama" beat up a young African-American man in New York, while in Springfield, Mass., a church with a predominantly African-American congregation was burned. The next morning, we opened the papers and were reminded that sectarian wars were still raging in trouble spots around the world.

In all likelihood, prejudice, intolerance and nationalism will -- as Christ said of the poor -- be with us always. And two new slim volumes -- both remarkably thoughtful and compressed, both by extraordinary writers, and both addressing the gaps between disparate cultures -- will just as likely continue to remain relevant and timely.

During an illustrious career that ended with his death in 2007, the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski reported from a wide range of far-flung locales, from Ethiopia to Guatemala, from Nigeria to Iran. The terms "journalism" and "reportage" don't begin to capture his literary, even novelistic ability to describe a landscape, portray a character and explain the intricate workings of Emperor Haile Selassie's inner circle, for instance, or the circumstances surrounding the fall of the Shah. The Other is made up of a series of lectures that Kapuscinski delivered in Austria and in Poland, eloquent speeches in which he considers the history, the present and the future of our relationship with the Other, a term he employs to distinguish Europeans from "non-Europeans, or non-whites, while fully aware that for the latter, the former are just as much 'Others.' "

Lucidly translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, these meditations address the divisions that have hindered the development of a mutually beneficial relationship between races and nations, the ways in which we are driven apart by religion and skin color, by the legacy of colonialism, by the scars of invasions and occupations, and by the fact that "all civilisations have a tendency towards narcissism, and the stronger the civilisation, the more clearly this tendency will appear. . . . This narcissism was and is masked by all manner of rhetoric -- usually to do with being the chosen race, or having been summoned to a salvation mission, or both combined."

Throughout, Kapuscinski emphasizes the necessity of dialogue and cooperation, and he writes beautifully about those rare historical moments when people from different backgrounds "exchanged thoughts, ideas and goods, traded and did business, made alliances and unions, found common aims and values. The different, other person ceased to be a synonym for a stranger and an enemy, a threat or a deadly evil. Each person discovered in himself at least a small particle of that Other, believed in it and lived in this conviction."

In The Writer as Migrant, the Chinese-born Ha Jin, whose novel Waiting won the National Book Award in 1999, discusses the ways in which nationality and culture, exile and emigration affect the course of a writer's life and career, and influence the work he produces. He considers the cases, at once exemplary and unique, of Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, who both wrote in a second language (as he does), and of others, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, forced to leave their native land, causing a rupture from which they never fully recovered. He writes with admiration and delicacy about writers as diverse as V.S. Naipaul and W.G. Sebald. In one especially incisive chapter, a poem by C.P. Cavafy leads to a rumination on the themes of homeland and return in The Odyssey.

Unsurprisingly, many of the book's most valuable passages concern the craft of writing. Here Ha Jin explains a serious flaw in the work of the Chinese writer Lin Yutang: "The novel offers a good deal of details of jewelry, clothes, furniture, gardens, and foods, but they feel like they were prompted by the author's reading of other books, not obtained from the author's own observations or imagination. . . . As a result, the prose tends to remain on the surface of things and does not have enough of the texture that provides material sensation."

Though neither The Other nor The Writer as Migrant is longer than 100 pages, they both seem weightier than their length would suggest. They demand to be read slowly, and savored. You may find yourself pausing frequently to think about some especially trenchant observation and to reflect on the generosity and intelligence with which these writers help us understand what makes us different from, and similar to, the people with whom we co-exist on our endlessly fascinating, precious and increasingly populated world. ยท

Francine Prose's most recent novel is "Goldengrove."

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