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Ryszard Kapuściński. A Life. Artur Domosławski. A Review

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Ryszard Kapuściński. A Life. Artur Domosławski. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Verso).

In 1953, an acquaintance of Kapuściński, Teresa Lechowska, was sent to prison. A Warsaw she got two and a half years for making political quips. One was about Soviet (Lysenko) genetics. “Why is a good idea to cross an apple tree with a dog? Because it waters itself, and if anyone tries to steal the apples, it barks?” At the time that this real-life Milan Kundera’s “joke” took place, Kapuściński was a committed Communist and member of the party’s youth-wing (ZMP). He wrote a poem with the lines, “We, – stronger by a billion hands, mightier, by force of Stalin’s mind” (page 60) He was a member of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) until the declaration of Martial Law by General Jaruzelski in 1981.

Domosławski’s biography is not just the story of somebody caught up in Polish Stalinism. It is a critical, deeply researched, “warts and all” account of one of the 20th century’s leading field journalists. Kapuściński’s reportage, his books, The Emperor (1978), on Haile Selassie, the Shah of Shas (1982), are not only exceptional, they form part of the mental furniture of millions of readers. Domosławski’s unravelling of the factual basis of much of these books has created the most visible controversy. But it is perhaps Kapuściński’s political engagements, including the Stalinism just cited, that make for the most troubling discussion.

Magical Journalism.

Turning the pages, again, of The Shadow of the Sun (2001) is to be reminded of just how fine a writer Kapuściński was. In this collection of African reports his Lecture on the Rwandan genocide ends with the Tutsis’ return and the flight of Hutus implicated in the mass killings.

He described these, “the terrified and defeated Hutus”,

“Those in Europe, observing the endless columns on their television screen, could not fathom what force propelled these emaciated wanderers, what power commanded these skeletons to keep walking, in punitive formations, without stopping or asking, without food or drink, without speaking or smiling, trudging humbly, obediently, and with vacant eyes along the ghastly road of guilt and anguish.”

But in the same book, as Domosławski points out, there is a story about Uganda that is manifestly untrue. Fish, the journalist, claimed, throve in abundance in the Kampala Lake, on the corpses of Idi Amin’s victims. In fact, this was, to William Pike, who had accompanied Kapuściński on this trip, “pure fantasy. The Nile perch just fed on smaller fish.”(Page 315)

Other memorable images in the most famous reportage turn out to be at best “flawed”. The tale of Ethiopian Emperor Selassie’s dog Lulu pissing on his courtiers’ shoes, and that there was a special servant whose job was the wipe them dry, is, at best contentious. Domosławski suggests that this may be “the truth of lies”, fictional condensations of a deeper truth. Neal Ascherson, who defends the writer’s urge to “Play around with reality”, still, lists some of the most significant distortions,

It seems to be untrue, for instance, that he was awaiting execution by Belgian mercenaries at the Usumbura airfield; other journalists tracked down by Domosławski say nothing of the sort happened. When Kapuściński told him he was in Mexico City for the massacre in 1968 or in Santiago for the Pinochet coup in 1973, the truth was he was in Mexico ‘a month later’ and in Chile a couple of years earlier. In Bolivia, he wrote a scandalous, colourful but quite untrue story about a rebel editor.” (How It Felt To Be There. London Review of Books. 2. 8.2012)

Now Kapuściński never denied being a committed reporter. His reporting was aimed at getting at the essence of the matter”, not the incidental detail. I am less than convinced by his own distinction between the Anglo-Saxon press and the continental European press. That is, the former aiming to be “Independent, impartial and objective”, the latter, marked by “partiality, commitment, the fighting spirit and a party bias.”(Page 311) No doubt the Polish reporter was no reader of the kind of ‘impartiality’ offered by the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Daily Mail or the Sun. But can one say, of media he would have been familiar with, that le Monde or Der Spiegel lack objectivity? Or indeed that Robert Fisk cannot combine a high degree of objective reporting with passionate commitment? Mistakes, poetic licence, do not cover over, as Domosławski observes, the slanderous description of the Bolivian newspaper publisher, Rómulo Peredo, as a blackmailer, a “scandal-monger and con man.” (Page 313) The Continental press of record is marked by analysis, sometimes – it is the case – partial, but not generally marked by falsehood.

Perhaps this is unkind, or at least not really the point. Kapuściński’s writings are some of the best accounts of the 20th century’s most troubling events, the build up to the Iranian Revolution, African decolonisation and strife, Latin American conflicts, ever written. He was on the side of liberation movements, like the Angolan MPLA. At one point he took up arms in battle. The big-picture and the most significant and searing, details are conveyed, give or take some embellishment. As the American Mark Danner says, he showed the nature of politics, “that the main point of power is power itself – attaining it, keeping it, holding it, nothing more”(Page 285)

Communism and Politics.

What then of this ‘power’? Domosławski refuses to condemn en bloc Kapuściński for, what turns out to be a routine degree of collusion with the Polish secret services (PRL). Kapuściński, as a PZPR member was “fighting for socialism” and, as such, it was hardly a surprise that he would work with the ‘socialist’ authorities. He notes in passing that American journalists-patriots would co-operate with the CIA, and no doubt some still do. With the archives now open we can see a note about the émigré Maria Sten, sacked from Warsaw University in the ‘anti-Zionist’ 1968. Meeting her in Mexico City her critical comments on the Polish government are recorded. The report carries the tone of “denunciation”, even anti-Semitism, yet suggests that she may have wanted to “relay her critical views to people at the top of the Party.”(Page 373) Indeed, “From the meagre output in the file we can see that he did not commit himself to co-operation and certainly did not build his career on it.”(P 380)

What rankles Domosławski is a far deeper issue. That is a reckoning with Stalinism. Kapuściński, backed Solidarity, supported Lech Wałęsa’s candidacy in 1989, backed shock therapy and believed in transforming Poland into a “democratic capitalist country” in the 1990s. That is, before returning to leftism in the late 1990s as a critic of globalisation and liberal economics.

No balance-sheet of the Stalinist era, or the attempt to build ‘socialism’, was, nevertheless, ever offered.

Domosławski summarises Imperium (1992), a voyage around the collapsing Soviet Union. He speaks of the Gulag, Stalinist error, as a “historian and analyst”. The man who “encountered the empire several times vanishes.” (Page 33)

He continues, “I am not demanding remorse or self-criticism – I just want to understand. I would like to hear the voice of a man with unique experience behind him: victim of empire, then builder of a province obedient t imperial power, witness to the disintegration of Western colonisation in Asia. And Africa, observer of countless revolutions, uprisings and coups, chronicler human poverty and greatness, human dreams and cruelties on many geographical latitudes. But instead of his voice – that most exceptional voice – there is silence.”(Page 337)

We would indeed have benefited from  “ a personal account by the greatest living reporter about his belief in communism, his hopes and disappointments, built into a journey around the collapsing Soviet Union..” This would have been invaluable. Such a failure to come to terms with a political life is a gaping wound.

Delights and Wonders.

Yet there is this. In  The Other (2008) Kapuściński offered a magnificent defence of the Enlightenment and Levinas’ philosophy of recognition and responsibility for the Other, In the 18th century, “the age of enlightenment and humanism, and of the revolutionary diversity that the non-white, non-Christian savage, that monstrous Other, so unlike us is a human being too (Page 22. The Other). That today, with the planet “becoming an open, or potentially open, space”, all kinds of ‘Others’ are in direct contact, “a non-European who is Other in relation to another non-European.” (Page 41. The Other)

One can say, that, contrary to critics of this book cited by Domosławski, that it is not intended to gloss over the crimes of European colonialism in an opening up world. It would have been better to say the radical Enlightenment, figures like the anti-colonialist Diderot, and let light shine on many other thinkers’ views. But it, that said, he does not ignore the nature of difference between people, that is, its link to power. One should look at his own life. The “reporter-scout” is, as Domosławski suggests, an example of “listening to each other, coming out to meet the Other, global solidarity. Otherwise we will all kill each other.”(Page 354)

What better to summarise this than Kapuściński’s closing quote from Joseph Conrad. He asks whether we can refer to our “capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation – and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts: to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity – the dead to the living and the living to the unborn?” (Page 93 The Other).


With all his faults Kapuściński has an honourable place within the flesh and bones of this humanity

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Written by Andrew Coates

November 24, 2012 at 12:12 pm

One Response

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  1. Many superb writers invent facts and tell tales drawn from their imaginations.

    Bingo Little

    November 27, 2012 at 2:39 pm


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