Foreign correspondent's memoir is both exciting and reflective

May 05, 1991|By Zofia Smardz

THE SOCCER WAR.

Ryszard Kapuscinski.

Knopf.

240 pages. $21.

There is a type of foreign correspondent known in thbusiness as a "cowboy" -- one addicted to the dangerous assignment, drawn to the front lines of war, enraptured by the perilous locale, never hesitating to throw himself into the line of fire in pursuit of a story. Peter Arnett, holed up in Baghdad LTC during the gulf war, is the most readily accessible example of this turbocharged breed. But the unlikely prototype may well be Ryszard Kapuscinski, whose quasi-memoir, "The Soccer War," could be a blueprint for nosing out adventure and mayhem on the overseas beat.

A Third World specialist, Mr. Kapuscinski covered 27 revolutions, wars and coups in Africa, Central America and the Middle East for Poland's official press agency from 1958 to 1976. "The Soccer War" -- the title refers to a four-day war absurdly sparked by a soccer match between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969 -- chronicles the highlights of those years. That is, if you include among "highlights" being sentenced to execution by firing squad in Burundi, narrowly escaping death at burning roadblocks in civil strife-torn Nigeria, being stung by a scorpion in the Somali desert, and crawling under fire through the Honduran bush with a "guide" who risked both their lives to rob dead soldiers' corpses of their boots.

Lest Mr. Kapuscinski's book sound merely like an account of exercises in unrestrained machismo, let me hasten to say that this it most emphatically is not; far from it, it is an intelligent, sober, linguistically and philosophically haunting discourse on the nature of journalism, war, race, nationalism, fame, fate, death and life. In two earlier books, one on Ethiopia under Haile Selassie and one on the Iranian revolution, Mr. Kapuscinski established himself in both journalistic and literary circles as a perceptive and poetic reporter who manages to see the universality of the human condition in the most fantastically diverse situations, and describes it in beautiful prose that seems to flow effortlessly from his felicitous pen.

"The Soccer War" enhances this reputation while giving us a glimpse of what makes this unusual observer tick. Mr. Kapuscinski makes no bones about his lust for the exotic, exhausting life he led as a foreign correspondent. So often, his presence in a particular country as a crisis unfolds is due not so much to thePolish public's need to know what is happening in Ghana or Algeria or the Congo, but to his own urgent need to be there.

He places himself in dangerous situations out of his own admittedly mad desire for firsthand knowledge. "I was driving along a road where they say no white man can come back alive," he writes of the burning roadblocks in Nigeria. "I was driving to see if a white man could, because I had to experience everything for myself. . . . I had to do it myself because I knew no one could describe it to me."

Yet for all that, there is in Mr. Kapuscinski's memoirs none of the self-congratulatory breast-beating that mars so many first-person journalistic writings. His perception of his own profession is pitilessly levelheaded -- "drudges of the pen," he calls reporters, whose "job is like a baker's work," stale after a day.

His own amazing exploits are subsumed in the larger picture of the events he witnesses. They become secondary to his portraits of the great leaders of Africa's revolutions (Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Abou Ben Bella); to his wry observations of the shock awaiting the African who leaves his jungle tribe for the city, or the ludicrous materialism of the Latin American upper classes; and to his sage reflections on war, with its "black wings" and its constant threat of death and extinction.

As for war, Mr. Kapuscinski's wisdom is also au courant: "No war can be conveyed over a distance," he writes. "Somebody sits eating dinner and watching television . . . and gets angry and curses because while he was gaping at the screen he oversalted his soup. War becomes a spectacle, a show . . . expertly reshaped in the cutting room."

In his fluid, impressionistic prose, gracefully translated by William Brand, Mr. Kapuscinski brings the reader with him to the front lines of a world we seldom see and would hardly dare venture into ourselves. Reading him, we can only be grateful that cowboys like himself are willing to do the venturing for us.

Ms. Smardz is a former Newsweek correspondent based in Europe.

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