Exploring imperial decline with Kapuscinski and Farrusco

Alert readers will recall that last week I wrote about re-reading Ryszard Kapuscinski’s amazing book Another Day of Life, which is about the 1975 collapse of Portugal’s empire in Africa. This was part of my current investigation of the phenomenon of imperial decline, in general. The collapse of Portugal’s worldwide (mainly African) empire is an interesting case-study because (a) it really did happen at “warp speed”, and (b) it happened recently enough that there are some fascinating contemporaneous records of how it happened– grainy Youtube videos and the like.

Also, as I recently realized with something akin to shock, some of the significant participants in the dramas surrounding Portugal’s imperial collapse are still alive.

Last week I re-read a great chunk of Kapuscinski’s book, marveling at his attention to detail and the vigor of his writing as he described, for example, how the Portuguese settlers in Angola who were rushing to flee the country before the promised November 11, 1975 date of independence constructed massive forests’ worth of crates in which to pack all their belongings:

Everybody was busy building crates. Mountains of boards and plywood were brought in. The price of hammers and nails soared. Crates were the main topic of conversation how to build them, what was the best thing to reinforce them with. Self-proclaimed experts, crate specialists, homegrown architects of cratery, masters of crate styles, crate schools, and crate fashions appeared. Inside the Luanda of concrete and bricks a new wooden city began to rise. The streets I walked through resembled a great building site. I stumbled over discarded planks; nails sticking out of beams ripped my shirt. Some crates were as big as vacation cottages, because a hierarchy of crate status had suddenly come into being. The richer the people, the bigger the crates they erected. Crates belonging to millionaires were impressive: beamed and lined with sailcloth, they had solid, elegant walls made of the most expensive grades of tropical wood, with the rings and knots cut and polished like antiques. Into, these crates went whole salons and bedrooms, sofas, tables, wardrobes, kitchens and refrigerators, commodes and armchairs, pictures, carpets, chandeliers, porcelain, bedclothes and linen, clothing, tapestries and vases, even artificial flowers (I saw them with my own eyes), all the monstrous and inexhaustible junk that clutters every middle-class home. Into them went figurines, seashells, glass balls, flower bowls, stuffed lizards, a metal miniature of the cathedral of Milan brought back from Italy, letters! letters and photographs, wedding pictures in gilt frames (Why don’t we leave that? the husband asks, and the enraged wife cries, You ought to be ashamed!}-all the pictures of the children, and here’s the first time he sat up, and here’s the first time he said Give, Give, and here he is with a lollipop, and here with his grandma–everything, and I mean everything, because this case of wine, this supply of macaroni that I laid in as soon as the shooting started, and then the fishing rod, the crochet needles– my yarn!– my rifle, Tutu’s colored blocks, birds, peanuts, the vacuum and the’ nutcracker have to be squeezed in, too, that’s all there is to it, they have to be’ and they are, so that all we leave behind are the bare floors, the naked walls, en deshabille. The house’s striptease goes all the way, right down to the curtain rods and all that remains is to lock the door and stop along the boulevard en route to the airport and throw the key in the ocean…

Last week, the spouse and I also saw the gripping, technically brilliant 2018 movie made of the book. It was made by a multinational (but all-European) team, in a style extremely like that of the 2008 Israeli movie Waltz with Bashir. That is, as a feature-length documentary, “Another Day of Life” was based on an “anime” style of telling the story but, like WWB, it was intercut with some actual interview materials, nigh these many years later, with some of the participants in the events depicted.

Scene from “Another Day of Life”

The animations in the movie ADOL were vastly superior to what I remember of WWB, and my initial reaction to ADOL was much better than my reaction to WWB. WWB was a story about the events leading up to the September 1982, Israeli-organized massacres of unarmed Palestinian families in Sabra and Shatila. Most of the “interviews” in it– which unlike those in ADOL had also been rendered as animations– featured various Israeli spy chiefs or military leaders, interviewed in their very comfortable homes inside 1948 Israel in which they “anguished” on-camera about what they and the Lebanese-Falangist allies had done in Sabra and Shatila. You could call this genre, “massacring while crying”; and quite rightly the film-maker got called out for that, and for the extreme paucity of his depiction of any actual Palestinians in the movie, by a number of critics.

I also– like Helia Santos, writing very thoughtfully here–thought that the depiction of actual Angolans in ADOL was very thin. Santos wrote:

By focusing the narrative so reductively on the figure of the ‘hero journalist’, however, the film does not respond to [the call to “remember us” made by Carlota, one of the freedom fighters Kapuscinski traveled with, who had essentially given her life for him] … and remains stuck in the dubious game of use (and abuse) of memory and forgetting,  which so often underlies the production of memories about this historical period.

Santos also, very interestingly, notes that while the movie does certainly depict Kapuscinski as a “hero journalist”, it is also less blatantly misogynistic and hypersexualizing in its depiction of Carlota than Kapuscinski had been in his book.

But she does write, about the film:

The black public is only given serious attention in one scene, and even then is represented through colonial tropes portraying them as alienated from the political situation and the conflict. They are preoccupied with daily life in the musseques, where music, alcohol and parties apparently occupy all their time. Black women are hypersexualized.

Look, one of the reasons I have long been attracted to Kapuscinski’s book is that he, as a mature and much-traveled war correspondent, was doing his reporting from Angola just about the exact same time I was starting my journalism career in Beirut, instantly becoming by force of the circumstances there a war correspondent rather than just a “foreign correspondent.” Also, yes, I certainly saw the machismo, bravado, and racism with which many Western correspondents disported themselves in Beirut.

And fwiw I was also every Saturday teaching English to a small group of girls in Shatila refugee camp. So a lot of this stuff is very personal for me.

Where was I? Oh yes, imperial decline. I am currently very interested in exploring how it has happened– and how it felt to everyone concerned– in various different contexts. We recently re-watched the TV series of “Jewel in the Crown”, which gave one very partial, slo-mo view of how the British empire declined in India. There must be some good accounts of the exit of the British from “Malaya” or Kenya or elsewhere in Africa, or the French from Algeria, or the Dutch from Indonesia? Kapuscinski’s account of the exit of the Portuguese from Angola was notable because it was written by a generally astute (and committed) third-party observer. It was also notable because, of all these imperial declines, Portugal’s from Angola and Mozambique was really the most recent. (Unless you count Israel’s speedy exit from Lebanon exactly twenty years ago this month…)

Farrusco in Lisbon, 2018

Thus, several of the people depicted in the book and the movie of “Another Day of Life” are still alive. Not Kapuscinski himself, which is a pity. But for example Commandante Farrusco, who was the commander of the MPLA’s southernmost outpost in October 1975 at the time the South African military launched a major assault (from the south) to try to defeat the MPLA, is still alive.

The major part of the movie ADOL deals with the reporting trip “Ricardo” Kapuscinski made to the south, which included his spending a couple of days with Farrusco. That was just when the South Africans launched their assault, and since Farrusco apparently had no direct communications with headquarters he left it to Ricardo to drive speedily back there with the news… and that then prompted Cuba’s Fidel Castro to commit to sending 12,000 Cuban troops to Angola to aid the MPLA in their defense.

(The strength of the Cuban-MPLA defense in Angola led to the emergence of a “conscientious objector” movement inside “White” South African society and the gradual unraveling of South African military force more broadly. Slow victories won at excruciatingly high cost.)

Farrusco is extremely interesting to me, because he is a “White”, originally Portuguese person– one of the small group of members of a “White” settler-colonial community who took up arms to help fight the settler-colonial project itself. In South Africa, there were Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Albie Sachs, and a few others. (Were they all Jewish South Africans?) But unlike all those others, he had actually served in the settler-colonial army in Angola before he defected.

Plaque in Camden Town, North London, UK

Slovo and First have both died– First having been assassinated by the South Africans in 1982. I had the honor of interviewing Sachs in Cape Town, in 2004. I would love to interview Farrusco! I did, however, find this 2015 interview with him in the Jornal de Angola, and this 2018 interview with him in a Portuguese publication, 5W.

The interviewer for 5W, Maribel Izcue, went into some detail with questions about what had caused Farrusco’s turn toward opposing the settler-colonial project. Years before independence, she wrote,

Farrusco himself had been one of those [Portuguese] military officers in charge of keeping the MPLA at bay: he was mobilized and sent to Angola with the Portuguese Army in the late 1960s, shortly after reaching the age of majority. .

“They sent me to fight the Angolans. To fight and kill, to defend Portugal. And I went singing that song by Salazar, Angola é nossa!” he says, and starts singing it. “We arrived on the ship Vera Cruz at the port of Luanda. We who stayed in Angola left the ship, because the other half was going to Mozambique [also a Portuguese colony at the time], and we directly got on a train.”

In that train the young Farrusco saw an image that, he stresses, marked what would be his course in Angola: a barefoot boy, with his torn clothes and hungry face, running next to the train, which was going very slowly. Then more kids appeared. Everyone was running behind the train asking for a coin or a piece of bread…

“And I thought: Are these the terrorists? Are these the people who face the Portuguese Government? Are these the people we come to fight?”

The image reminded him of his own childhood. Born in 1948, Joaquim António, the youngest of nine brothers, had grown up knowing what hunger was. Those were the times that followed the Second World War, poverty was extreme and the situation in his hometown of Mora, terrible. His own family were “people with great honor but little money. Or rather, no money,” he says.

He started working in the fields when he was ten years old. He went to school on an empty stomach but his mind was awake and, knowing the difficulties his family was going through, his teacher—Professor Pinheiro, Farrusco remembers almost six decades later offered to pay for his education. But his older brothers refused: the Farrusco boy was needed more in the fields than at school. So the little boy left the classrooms.

Then came a move to Lisbon, military service, and the mission in Angola. With the Portuguese.

Shortly before the end of his military service in Angola, he had an accident. In the military hospital to which he was sent, he met a young indigenous Angolan, Eugene Fonseca, who had been hospitalized for appendicitis. The pain prevented Fonseca from moving alone, and  Farrusco helped look after him. The two men became friends. Some weeks after they had both left the hospital Fonseca and his family revealed to Farrusco that they were part of the underground national liberation movement:

“It was a matter of principle: the struggle of a people to free itself from oppression. It cannot be denied: the oppression of the Portuguese against the Angolans, against the Africans, was strong. It did not get to the point of apartheid in South Africa, that was very crazy, but it was something similar.”

After completing his military service, Farrusco stayed on in Angola, working in some of the Portuguese-run factories there. He became a member of the MPLA (the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), the most powerful and most principled of the three liberation movements active in the country. In 1974, in the midst of the chaos that followed the toppling, in Lisbon, of Jose Salazar’s dictatorship, one of the other Angolan movements, the FNLA, captured an MPLA delegation in the city of Lubango.

Izcue wrote that, “Farrusco was furious and successfully organized the armed counterattack to get the delegation back. That was the beginning of his military participation in the ranks of the movement.”

She prefaces her account of the interview with this information about Farrusco:

If Farrusco, today a three-star general, is asked what his homeland is, he will reply “Angola” without hesitation. In Luanda, he has built his home after dedicating half his life to the MPLA, and in Angola he has eight children from two marriages.