There is nothing worse,'' Ryszard Kapuscinski writes, ''than finding yourself alone in somebody else's country during somebody else's war.'' He ought to know. In 22 years as a correspondent covering hot spots in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East for the national Polish Press Agency, Kapuscinski reported on a total of 27 wars, revolutions, coups, and rebellions. Judging by The Soccer War, an eccentric, understated memoir in the tradition of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, Kapuscinski saw enough misery, suffering, brutality, and fear to destroy anybody's belief in political ideology.
But then, as a self-conscious heir to his own country's history of ''pride and powerlessness,'' Kapuscinski doesn't appear to have had much revolutionary ardor to start with. Preferring facts to theories and tending to side with the weak against the strong regardless of political orthodoxy, he resembles a latter-day George Orwell. His bluntness has gotten him into trouble with his bosses in Warsaw more than once. Having written a series of dispatches describing at considerable risk to his own life the rebellion in the Congo following the 1961 assassination of nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba, Kapuscinski returned to Poland only to be ''summoned by a certain comrade from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 'What have you been writing, you?' he stormed at me. 'You call the revolution anarchy! These are pernicious theories! You can't return overseas as a correspondent because you do not understand the Marxist-Leninist processes that are at work in the world.'''
Readers seeking the comfort of an anticommunist tract, however, won't find one here. In most of the countries whose upheavals he chronicled, oligarchies and decaying colonialist regimes held sway, leading him to provide far more sympathetic portraits of nationalist leaders like Nkrumah of Ghana and Ben Bella of Algeria than normally appear in the Western press.
The essential tragedy of so many honest and patriotic leaders in impoverished nations, he writes, rests in their realization that the quest for social justice simply isn't happening, ''that it is slipping away, that it is bogged down in the sand. Everything is in the way the illiteracy, the religious fanaticism, the tribal blindness, the chronic hunger, the colonial past with its practice of debasing and dulling the conquered. The politician begins to push too hard. He looks for a way out through dictatorship. The dictatorship then fathers an opposition. The opposition organizes a coup. And the cycle begins anew.''
Yet for all its bitter honesty, The Soccer War is as compassionate and oddly uplifting a book about the Third World as one could possibly read. Besides the idiosyncratic brilliance of Kapuscinski's reporting which comes across nicely in William Brand's brisk translation the author's self-deprecating sense of humor and his fundamental humanity shine through on every page. The title essay, a sardonic, first-person account of the absurd but tragic four-day war between El Salvador and Honduras that broke out in the wake of a 1969 World Cup trial soccer match, seems destined to become a small classic of political journalism. A