Travels with Kapuściński
Looking at the troubled legacy of Poland's greatest journalist, and investigating the nature of non-fiction.
In this edition: Looking at the troubled legacy of Poland's greatest journalist, and investigating the nature of non-fiction.
Ryszard Kapuściński was a longtime Polish foreign correspondent who spent decades traversing Africa, Latin America, and the Soviet Union in the twentieth-century. According to the backflap of some of his books, he was even sentenced to death four times for his reporting. It seems plausible when reading his work. Reading through the material one feels the polished bravery, the hero journalist heading towards danger.
He wrote with the view of history in mind. He had studied history in Poland, and he writes potently, in his book Travels with Herodotus, about discovering the Greek historian after the work was translated into Polish. Herodotus opened a new space for Kapuściński. In a somewhat similar way, the translation of his work into English opened up a new space for me. I read Kapuściński’s The Shadow of the Sun after working as a journalist for a few years, and spending some time on the ground in East Africa. It gave the eery feeling that someone had lived a version of my life before me, better, and with more literary style. Even from the opening pages in the writer’s description of the all-surrounding light of Africa this brilliance shone through.
I can only suspect the envy is wide-spread. British correspondent Jon Snow wrote a preening piece for Channel 4 in 2010, under the ungrammatical headline “I suspected Polish reporter was fake”. If one believes Snow, there were rumblings that Kapuściński’s brew of literary reportage was more literary than reported. And there is some reason to suspect this.
Kapuściński had been elevated to international fame with The Emperor, an inside look at the collapse of the Haile Selassie regime in Ethiopia based upon interviews with courtiers after the fact. It was a once in a lifetime book that would be repeated quite a few times. Some of the highlights of the author’s book publishing career include Imperium, Another Day of Life, Shah of Shahs, The Soccer War. In The Other, an early 2000’s release based upon lectures he gave in Krakow and Vienna, he gives a broadly humanistic approach to observing colonization, though the book was unfinished and repetitive.
Through all this, his status as an all-star reporter was cut into stone, but his relationship to the truth, as a modern reporter would understand it, was more free than slavish. He imagined himself to be writing literary polishes. The truth fitted with beauty. Emotionally, his reports were gold. With his ferocious observational bite, they were masterful examples of what reporting could be. But factually? That’s another matter.
Salman Rushdie famously said that “One Kapuscinski is worth 1,000 grizzled journofantasists” in a review of Another Day of Life.
Kapuściński Non-Fiction, a biography of the journalist, knocked the tea pot on the floor. The biography is uncomfortable. It accuses Kapuściński of making up details, of fabricating, of collaborating with the communist regime (a similar collaborationist accusation exists around George Orwell), and even of fibbing about his father’s near murder by Stalin at the Katyn massacre.
Artur Domosławski, who wrote the biography, is himself a Polish journalist who has written for Gazety Wyborczej. The review of the book in that journal, perhaps worth mentioning, hardly flattered Domosławski. The book, it seems, hit an exposed wire in Polish journalism culture, where Kapuściński is venerated. He set out to understand this genius and found a gaggle of lies and half-truths. Kapuściński’s widow reportedly tried to block the publication of the book because it describes extra-marital affairs.
Although in many ways Kapuściński was unique, the issue is ever-green for literary journalism. The “new journalism” of the sixties incorporated an openly literary approach to coverage. Hunter Thompson’s “gonzo” journalism abandoned the pretense of objectivity entirely, emphasizing the subjective side of reporting.
The “nonfiction” side of publishing we have learned encompasses a lot of fictive things. The promise of reporting is, of course, that it doesn’t do that. Literary nonfiction steers closer to the inner workings of memory. It is “true”, or is supposed to be, in something other than a literal sense. The hero of these venerated books Ryszard Kapuściński is also a fictional character, reflects Domosławski. The creation helps to carry the reader into the world it describes— more “based on real events” than real reportage. For that, it is both a classic example of blurring the lines between reportage and fiction. It will be long read for its beauty, but can be tossed in the fire for its accuracy.