On Ryszard Kapuściński

Some ten years ago the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński was at the peak of his fame. And what a peak it was. Well-written, smart and incisive books like “The Emperor”, “The Soccer War” and “Another Day of Life” hade given him a world-wide reputation, not just as a fearless reporter, but also as the grand master of literary reportage.

Since the early sixties Kapuściński had worked all the hot-spots of Africa and Latin America: he was said to have witnessed some 28 revolutions and coup de etats, befriended such revolutionary luminaries as Cubas Che Guevara, and escaped numerous scrapes with disease, death and drunken firing-squads. And the texts that came out of those travels to distant, dangerous places were compared with those of Orwell or Hemingway, and celebrated by people like Susan Sontag and Gabriel García Márquez.

When Kapuściński died, in a heart-attack in early 2007, he was mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature – and as a member of the body that awards it, I can honestly say that his chances were very good indeed.

But despite all that success Ryszard Kapuściński lived his last years as a troubled man. His books had come under increasing disparagement from experts, who complained about errors, overstatements and worse. (Kapuściński was gentle and soft-skinned, never learned how to handle criticism. He never answered in kind.) And he was increasingly worried, scared even, when he heard rumours about stalkers rummaging about in his past, looking for dark secrets.

And then, four months after his death there was a big exposé in the Polish press, showing that for a number of years Kapuściński had done jobs for the intelligence services of communist Poland. There was a big uproar. Although never a prominent critic of the system, he was still seen as one of those that helped undermine the grey and tottering dictatorship that was Poland in the eighties. (When “The Emperor” was first published in Poland, it was read not as much as a reportage from the court of Haile Selasse, but – quite rightly so – as a sort of tongue-in-cheek allegory over the slowly failing systems of power in Eastern Europe.)

Polish journalist Artur Domosławski, who knew Kapuściński personally, has written the first real biography over him. It is obviously not a hagiography, but at the same time the book is informed by a genuine will to really understand the subject, which is tall order with any person but even trickier when it comes to a man like Kapuściński, who not only was as complex as he was talented, but also both elusive and prone to exaggerations.

Ryszard Kapuściński was born in 1932 in Pinsk in eastern Poland, and although that he – true to a form – often embroidered his family background, and made it poorer than it actually was, he grew up in a milieu where poverty was rife. This, and of course the war, became the defining experience of his life. In his adult years he was for ever drawn to war, and to similar extreme situations where the world tends to be simplified into a manichean struggle between the forces of Good and Evil.

So coming of age in the crater that once was Poland Kapuściński became an enthusiastic boy Stalinist, ever ready to bully his fellow students and write starry-eyed poems celebrating the pouring of concrete and the mind of Stalin. But, as one of those who knew him back then, “He wasn’t some sort of awful swine – he just believed in it, that’s all”.

Kapuściński stayed a believer. It was just the objects of hope that shifted. And hope constantly triumphed over reality, as it tends to do. So after feeling let down by the old, Stalinist system, and switching around 1956 – with equal enthusiasm – his allegiance to those in the communist party striving reform the old structures, he soon felt disappointed with them too, and instead started looking for Hope For A Better World abroad. And it’s here, in the early sixties, he starts galloping around the world, passionately hunting for revolutions and rebellions, for ever pushing out of his comfort zone, going anywhere he could spot an old order breaking down and a new one emerging.

The irony is of course that one of the greatest and most momentous old order-breakdowns is at the same time taking place – slowly but surely – in his own home country. The turning point for Kapuściński comes in 1980, with the massive strikes of the workers in the shipyards on the Baltic coast. Up until now he has – consciously or not – more or less ignored what has been going on in Poland, but as he once used his experiences of his childhood and youth to comprehend the unrest in Africa and Latin America, his experiences of Third World turmoil finally makes him understand that he is facing yet another revolution. And the romantic in him of course chooses the revolution.

At the same time there was a practical side to all this idealism. For a long time Kapuściński believed in the Party, and they believed in him. Domosławski shows that without his contacts and benefactors high up in the party hierarchies his trips around the world wouldn’t have happened. And Kapuściński was for a long time cautious not to disturb this equilibrium. At the same time he had plenty of friends among the opposition. Everyone liked him. Kapuściński, always prepared to listen and always with a shy but charming smile on his face, had a seductive side to his nature, and was obviously very good at telling people what they wanted to hear. (It isn’t surprising to learn that he was womanizer, forever cheating on his wife.)

It is probably in this context, of a man maneuvering – with skill, care and not too much moral brooding – through the labyrinths of power of the single-party state, that one should understand his work for Polish intelligence. They approached him in the early sixties, when he was a correspondent in East Africa. What they wanted from him was mainly information about American companies and organizations, not least the CIA. Kapuściński acquiesced, obviously without any big pangs of guilty conscience. (In his book objectivity was bunk. While at the front in Angola he sometimes participated in the fighting with a gun in his hand.) As he himself saw it, the US were supporting almost any regime, no matter how morally or politically corrupt, as long as they could be classified as anti-communist. But at the same time Kapuściński produced almost no intelligence of value, artfully dodged assignments, and eventually used his high-level party contacts to be relieved of any further association.

Domosławski gives perspective both to Kapuścińskis long-time membership in the communist party and to his much more fleeting engagements for Polish intelligence, and he leaves you with a sense of what went on in the head of this man. It becomes more difficult when we turn to the other dark side of Kapuściński, the confabulations.

Kapuściński was prone to self-dramatization, and also had what in the book is referred to as a “catastrophist” mind-set. All this combined into a penchant for embellishing what he had seen and done. It could be seen as an embarrassment but just human, too human. But a pattern emerges. Especially after Kapuściński had turned into a celebrated world reporter many of these confabulations became a part of his persona. No, he didn’t befriend Che Guevara, he hadn’t even met him. But that “fact” – and others like it – were repeated in high profile interviews or on book covers, and he never had them corrected.

The pattern turns really problematic when it comes to his own background as a long-time party member. Kapuściński had several occasions to discuss it – say, in his great book on the disintegrating Soviet Union, “Imperium” – and use it not just simply to exculpate himself (that would have been banal), but also to help his readers perceive the internal logic of that horrendous system. But he never did. He glossed over his background. It didn’t fit the image of that brave teller of uncomfortable truths – which he undoubtedly was.

This leads us to the question of the errors in his books. It is well-known now that they are a lot of them, many of them small and seemingly inconsequential. But laid on top of each other they also form a problematic pattern.

Kapuściński wasn’t a stickler for checking stories. He prided himself – and rightly so – for his eye for ordinary people and his ability to talk to everyone everywhere, but he seems to have been much too prepared to take tittle-tattle, barroom gossip and whispered rumours for a fact. And if they fitted with “the essence” – a term he often used, and a dangerous one at that – of the story he was writing he obviously used it. Because this “essence” was in, ultimately, grounded in his ideological view of the world. (And here we are reminded, in a back-handed way, that ideology also is a literary phenomenon, whose main purpose is to make sense of the world by portraying it.)

Literary reportage is probably more of an attitude than a genre. Anyway, the “literary” in “literary reportage” doesn’t absolve you from getting your facts right. Neither is it possible, in my mind, to see it as a sort of sliding scale, where you able to slowly introduce droplets of fiction into a factual text up to a point, when the mixture eventually transmogrifies into all fiction. No, once an element of fiction is introduced into a text everything immediately turns into fiction, maybe fiction with a strong resemblance to the real world, but still fiction.

As Domosławski sees it the well-known figure of “Ryszard Kapuściński” was one of Ryszard Kapuścińskis literary achievements. But at the same time reading this insightful book you are reminded that we reveal ourselves also in our evasions and confabulations, and that, indeed, part of the true story of reality lies in the distortions of reality.

Regardless, Kapuścińskis talent is undeniable. I still love his books.


Artur Domosławski: ”Ryszard Kapuściński – A Life”. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. (456 pages) Verso. Published in the Financial Times August 24 2012.