Artur Domosławski, Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Verso 2012
The original subtitle for Artur Domosławski’s biography of Ryszard Kapuściński— “Non Fiction”—does more to explain the uproar this book has caused in Poland since its publication two years ago than the new English translation, predictably called “A life”. Domosławski’s main theme is actually the confusion of genres, the elision of journalism and political impressionism in the unique form of “literary reportage” that Kapuściński pioneered. By setting up hard border between fact and fiction, Domosławski shows how often this wall was breached.
Two examples show the problem. Kapuściński shot to international eminence in the early eighties, when his Kafkaesque report on the court of Haile Selassie, The Emperor, was published in the US. Soon after, an erroneous blurb on the British edition of Soccer Wars claimed that Kapuściński “befriended Che Guevara in Bolivia, Salvador Allende in Chile and Patrick Lumumba in Congo.” These could only have been friendships in the spiritual sense. Two of those heroes of the anti-colonial movement, Lumumba and Guevara, were dead before Kapuściński set foot in those countries, and he only briefly met Allende when the Chilean President intervened to stop the Polish reporter being deported. But the blurb persists to this day, and Kapuściński did nothing to correct the legend.
A more troubling example comes from the time of Kapuściński’s greatest fame. When the English language version of Shah of Shah’s was delivered to the publishers, it inexplicably left out five pages from the Polish original. These weren’t just five random pages, but depicted in detail the CIA backed coup d’etat of 1953 which ousted Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossaddegh. Why was Kapuściński, the long term critic of Western corporate neo-colonialism in the Third World, suddenly censoring one of its most notorious exploits?
Before Domosławskican begin to answer that, he takes us back to Kapuściński’s development as writer, activist and journalist: first as an evocative commentator on the state of Poland in the 1950s, and then as a sympathetic observer (and occasional participant) in the anti-colonial struggles of Africa in the 1960s. Anyone who has read these early essays (the Polish essays have yet to be translated into English, but many of the African ones are collected under The Shadow of the Sun) can see Kapuściński’s incisive style evolving.
“Facts” in the traditional sense are not paramount. What he seeks to do is dig deeper into the political consciousness and mood of a particular time and place. He deploys all the devices of fiction to do this; vivid cameos of characters and groups, absurd moments of non-drama or sudden conflict. Like Milan Kundera, he also veers off into anthropology, morals, philosophy, geology—but the ruminations are filled with purpose. Even the evocative sounds and smells convey more than mere travel writing. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez, his friend and fellow combiner of journalism and fiction once said, you could summarise the whole moral decay of a city from the “fragrance of one rotten guava”.
Assessing Kapuściński’s work on “factual accuracy” therefore, is like trying to measure an emotion with a slide ruler. Did Haile Selassie’s dog “Lulu” really pee regularly in the shoes of his courtiers? Did those Ugandans really believe the large perch they had just caught were fattened on the bodies of Idi Amin’s victims? More often than not, Kapuściński’s provable errors are actually more interesting than the bare facts. It’s clear, even as you read them, that many of these stories derive from long conversations with the people he met on his travels. His stories are filled with rumours, legends, false fears and excessive anticipations. Though his writing is criticised as “tropical baroque” or “gonzo orientalism”, this isn’t self-projection or cultural assumption: the stories are not his confabulations but an attempt to describe the inner life of the people he meets in Africa, South America, or Iran. A true reporter doesn’t just cover the facts, but the imaginations of the participants, and Kapuściński helped to shift many imaginations beyond the frozen polarities of East versus West, to a dialogue between North and South.
Kapuściński’s uncanny ability to understand this emerging world rests in no little part in his origins. Born in Pinsk, on the far eastern fringe of Poland between the wars, he was a “borderlands man”, caught in the contested frontiers of two empires. Within a thousand kilometres of his birthplace, within the span of his childhood, 18 million people were killed by Stalin’s NKVD and Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen, so Kapuściński is also a native of the “Bloodlands” described in Timothy Snyder’s book of the same name.
Like George Orwell, Kapuściński understood from experience that Europe is really the “dark continent” rather than Africa. He comes to an even more profound insight into 20th Century totalitarianism, observing that colonialism created “the philosophy that inspired the construction of Kolyma and Auschwitz.” Poles of his generation knew better than most how the goals of lebensraum and collectivisation were underpinned by racism: to usurp an indigenous people, you have to dehumanise them first. The biggest flaw of Domosławski’s “Non Fiction” frame in this light is that, by exploring Kapuściński’s factual inaccuracies, he inadvertently gives the impression that they constitute either the bulk of his journalism, or that journalism was the bulk of his work. They don’t: it isn’t.
However, Kapuściński wasn’t just any writer—he was a member of the Polish Workers Party and for thirty years one of the communist regime’s star reporters. Domosławski is excellent on Kapuściński’s political dance as he moved from the early idealism of the post war reconstruction, through the rejection of Stalin, the opportunist anti-Semitism of Gomulka, and the corrupt and unsustainable consumerism of Gierek. Kapuściński stayed out of Poland for most this period, but can’t escape criticism. Many read his foreign reports as allegories of home. When The Emperor was staged in Warsaw, its depiction of a sclerotic regime was greeted with howls of satirical laughter. There’s no doubt that Kapuściński was involved in complicities with the regime— but he was also an early critic. In the summer of 1980 he joined the strikers at the Gdansk shipyards and, at some risk, signed up to a free press declaration. As a communist, his career is tricky and inconsistent, especially since most his Third World heroes antagonised the politburos in Moscow and Warsaw. As a revolutionary in the Polish romantic tradition, Kapuściński’s admiration for Che Guevara, liberation theology and Lech Wałęsa makes much more sense.
Post 1989, though greeted with world fame, Kapuściński lived an anxious life. Partly he was a victim of his success, and he found it harder to travel incognito and mix with the ordinary people who inspired much of his work. His other great subject was of course political power, it’s irrational, arbitrary qualities, and he could sense danger of his past associations. Unsurprisingly, this is the period he was most likely to rewrite the past—that his father was a near victim of Katyn for example—or translate his complicity into victimhood as in his unsatisfactory book on Soviet power, Imperium. Domosławski suggests most these stem from insecurity rather than egoism, which is also his convincing explanation of the missing five pages about Mossadegh in the US version of Shah of Shahs. Kapuściński didn’t want to get involved in a battle with a foreign intelligence service—he knew where that could lead.
His fears were vindicated two weeks after his death in 2007. The right wing Law and Justice party had already commenced a McCarthyesque process of “lustration” or selectively revealing political files from the communist era. Newsweek published Kapuściński’s file from the Polish secret service, which revealed he had acted as an ad hoc informer on foreign affairs from the early sixties to early seventies. (It’s worth buying Domosławski’s biography for his analysis of this file alone). Kapuściński’s involvement is minimal and the revelation adds little to the record: as an early activist and communist party member, he was on the “wrong” side of the cold war for many years—but by the same logic he was on the “right” side of anti-colonialism and national self-determination.
Partly because of this complex understanding, Kapuściński was one of the most acute observers of the over-reaction to 9/11 and the War on Terror, despite failing health. He presciently saw the implicit racism of a generation of writers who had suddenly “became experts on Islam and Arab culture”, and how much the terrorist threat derived from the failed promises of globalisation.
On the biographical side, Domosławski is respectful, questioning and diligent and his revelations are hardly scandalous in journalistic terms; Kapuściński’s wife was pregnant when they got married: he fell out with his daughter: he had a series of sexual liaisons and a long term affair. If some think this is an iconoclastic biography, then they were either former idolaters, or have seriously misread Kapuściński’s work. Perfection was never his strength—humanity was. Brave but hypochondriac, philandering but devoted, direct but sometimes evasive, like most of us, Kapuściński was a complex, compromised, flawed human being. Unlike most of us, he knew it.
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