Ryszard Kapuściński: review

To tell the truth is very difficult, and young men are rarely capable of it. They were expecting an account of how he go all fired up, forgetting himself, how he flew like a storm at the square; how he cut his way into it hacking right and left; how his sabre tasted flesh, how he fell exhausted, and so on. And he told them all that.”                             ‒ Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace.

What exists beyond the page? In a postmodern age, beyond authors and truths, we must ask ourselves what we can and should expect from the creator of prose. Do we expect flawless characters behind wonderful writing, or should the text be a contrast, the one area where our flawed heroes have control and life works out? For novelists and poets, the question is one of creativity and inspiration. For journalists, our expectations change. Our reliance on them, our investment in the truth of their reports, requires a level of trust. You don’t need to confidence in the validity of a brilliant poet. The best reporters illuminate and engage – and ask for the suspension of disbelief. There is a contract between reader and writer: I will inform you of the wonders and horrors of the world, and you must believe me. Can we establish that contact with a flawed individual, no matter the wonders they tell? Moreover, the pressures of accuracy weigh heavy. To be proved wrong, to be labelled a fantasist, is to be discredited, no matter the quality of your writing. Quality is balanced against truth, qualified by it.

Ryszard Kapuściński undoubted produced high quality journalism, some of the finest reportage of the twentieth century in any language. He was a connoisseur of corruption, a veteran of revolution, a consummate translation of the Other into common humanity. He was able to conjure an understanding of the Third World – in its accurate sense of the unaligned countries of the Cold War – for his readers in the towns of socialist Poland, and, later, for his new fans across a post-Soviet world. He had a gift for connecting with ordinary people, seeing their countries through the eyes of the soldier or the courtier, not the general or the king. Like his great inspiration Herodotus, Kapuściński saw himself as a crucial intermediary, introducing people to the foreign and the exotic so as to pre-empt hostility and prejudice born out of ignorance. He wanted people to understand each other to save themselves.

He was also a brave and talented journalist and writer, often alone in countries unwelcoming to Westerners or in the midst of revolutions and civil wars. He creates wonderfully memorable images and set pieces: Luanda’s city of crates, the sensory avalanche of an Indian train station, the hallucinatory visage of a shuddering television screen in the Arctic. He deciphers and suggests; this is analysis by analogy, anecdotes collating to create a universal image. His cultural analysis extends to his own as well, his understanding of revolution and its discontents born in post-war Poland, the heavy reek of corruption that he smells abroad as well. He comprehends revolution because he has believed and been let down. When he describes the power plays of the court of Haile Selassie, his Polish readers recognise what he is really talking about: the corruption of any court, including their own rulers.

Yet Kapuściński is more than a great writer and analyst. He is an enigmatic figure, one with ambiguities, foibles and agendas. His biographer, Artur Domosławski, has controversially sought to draw out the impurities and expose them to his readers. Domosławski was a friend and colleague of Kapuściński’s, but quite how the men related is not made clear – Domosławski is absent from the book in the way Kapuściński never was in his. His is a knowledgeable view, but his place in the tale is never fully clarified. Domosławski unearths questions about Kapuściński’s fidelity, accuracy and loyalties, his main challenge being to address Kapuściński’s relationship to the state and the Party. Quite how was he able to publish and travel widely in a country that restricted these rights for so many? Kapuściński certainly had friends in high places, and his analyses of Third World situations were useful for the government. Moreover, censorship was never much of an issue – Kapuściński was a loyal leftist. Throughout school and university, he was ideologically conformist, an ideal young Party member. But for Kapuściński the socialist, a dissonance developed between the revolutionary socialism of the Third World – liberation theology, Che and Allende – and the corrupt, lethargic Polish state. He found opposition to socialism in Poland odd whilst he was abroad, until he returned and realised that the socialism he admired abroad had more in common with the opposition than the Party that espoused it.

Despite this eventual opposition, Domosławski discusses Kapuściński’s willingness to collaborate and the weaknesses of so many that were revealed during the lustration of the 1990s. Like so many Poles living under Communism, Kapuściński had to make the small sacrifices of principle, the acceptance of a certain relaxing of moral strictures that allowed one a few comforts and a chance of normality. He seems to have been intelligence small fry, occasionally providing information on irrelevant Western figures he met through his work. No-one who has read Imperium, his book on the Soviet Union, especially the chapters where he explores the distant islands of the Gulag archipelago, can view Kapuściński as a Stalinist promoter of socialist dictatorship. Few with his experiences from the Third World could not have been in favour of revolutionary decolonisation and oppose interference. He learned about flawed societies growing up in Poland and took this knowledge to Africa and South America with him; when he returned, he applied his belief in radical social change to his mother country.

Moreover, Kapuściński saw himself as a necessary presenter of the other side. When the West German ambassador to Guatemala, Karl von Spreti, was murdered, Kapuściński attempted to understand the motivation of the revolutionary guerillas who executed him. He was criticized for justifying political murder; to him, it was an attempt to comprehend those normally dismissed as terrorists. Kapuściński saw the normal presentation of the Cold War – East versus West – as unhelpful. For him, the meaningful divide in the world was the North-South one. The interference of the USA and USSR in the self-determination processes of the global South was the major obstacle to peace and progress. Kapuściński’s instinctive sympathy for the revolutionary fighting corrupt institutions came from this, but he was a child in a war-torn country, a troubled member of a troubled society. The corruption of his own institutions permeated through idealism and faith.

Beyond the exotic and the new, the appeal of the Third World for Kapuściński lay in escapism – a way out of Poland’s malaise for a talented and enthusiastic young journalist. Inspired by Herodotus, he sought to explore and inform, demystifying the Other and interrogating the mechanisms of power. It was his methods in doing so that were both inspirational and questionable. As Domosławski explores, much of Kapuściński’s reportage worked as metaphor.  In The Emperor, for example, the court of Haile Selassie serves as a case study, an example for Kapuściński to build his analysis around. The effect is intoxicating, but infuriated many experts on the subject, who focussed on the author’s inaccuracies over his wider meaning. The question remains: is metaphor and allusion a betrayal of the reporter’s contract with the reader? Are Kapuściński’s wider points invalidated by his fantastical accounts of the court?

Historians who critique the details of Kapuściński’s account are perhaps missing the point. The immediacy of reporting, the personal refraction of what is seen, is quite different to a historian’s attempt to build up a multi-layered, nuanced image. Kapuściński could well be saying what he saw and heard, only to be disproved later. Reportage is like a photograph: it invokes a powerful sense of place, it is transportational, but it is static. The historian can collate an album, the reporter takes a snapshot. Moreover, Kapuściński’s grander intellectual aim, the humanisation of the Other, requires more than a staid, factual account of diplomacy and economic statistics. In Imperium, he captures the life of ordinary Russians in the most extreme Arctic conditions by recounting his meeting with a girl who follows the tunnels made by her friends walking to school through freezing fog. The mundane and the extraordinary combine to capture the essence of everyday life in a world totally unlike our own, populated by people just like us.

In this sense, Kapuściński belongs more to a tradition of interpreters, stretching from Herodotus to Chatwin. Like Chatwin, he creates places through his prose, the countries he describes mapped through language. Like Herodotus, he has an insatiable curiosity in the different and the seemingly indecipherable; it is in all our interests to understand it. Kapuściński is an intermediary, and therefore inherently and necessarily blurred. He is neither one thing nor the other, historian or journalist, insider or outsider. The liminal space he inhabits imposes compromise. Strict factual accuracy is sacrificed for understanding. Kapuściński and his friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez saw fact and fiction as a false dichotomy – all that matters in understanding and illumination. The Anglo-Saxon tradition is more rigorous, seeing invention and blurring as undermining the legitimacy of reportage. But perhaps it is naïve to expect the truth, especially in the books of Kapuściński, which resemble travel literature more than journalism, as naïve as it is to expect moral purity.

What is more, Kapuściński saw strict neutrality as both impossible and unnecessary. He admired many of the figures he reported on – Guevara, Lumumba – and his sympathies for the revolutionary cause, the anti-imperialism of the people, came through in his writing. As an American journalism commented, how can one remain neutral watching civil rights protestors being beaten by police? Kapuściński ensured he explained what he believed, he translated his sympathies for his readers. Exaggeration and rhetoric were for intellectual and clarifying purposes. Kapuściński existed as a character in his writing, “Ryszard Kapuściński”, whose adventures in the Third World explored it for his readers, to create understanding, even as he disappeared into the mists between dreams and reality.

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