Book review: Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Biography by Artur Domoslawski
THE grey world of Communist-era Poland did not produce many glamorous celebrities but the foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski managed to find a route though the closed borders of his country and achieve global fame during his lifetime.
Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Biography
by Artur Domoslawski
Verso, 464pp, £25
Brave, dashing, irresistible to women, Kapuscinski sported an enigmatic smile and filed urgent dispatches from some of the world’s most dangerous trouble spots. Alongside his compelling reports from Africa and Latin America he also wrought his experiences into books which redefined the genre of observational journalism.
Whether Kapuscinski was describing his adventures haggling with murderous Belgian mercenaries in the African bush, or commentating from a ringside seat at some of South America’s most bloody revolutions, he was always interesting, insightful and above all readable. Dispatches from foreign shores can read like telegrams. Kapuscinski’s read like poems.
He was in every sense an engaged reporter: he carried a rifle in the Angolan civil war, and tended to see every anti-colonial struggle through the lens of a kind of humanitarian Marxism. But though Kapuscinski achieved the rare accolade for a reporter of being repeatedly referred to as a future winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, there have been question marks over his reputation for years, and this detailed biography provides chapter and verse for those who have come to see Kapuscinski as a tarnished saint.
Artur Domoslawski began his biography as a homage to a hero, whom he had befriended in life. Along the way it became a more ambiguous and interesting proposition. For as he followed in the footsteps of the veteran reporter he came on example after example where Kapuscinski had exaggerated, tweaked or entirely fictionalised key experiences.
In his book The Soccer War Kapuscinski had written a terrifying account of being threatened with death by a band of bloodthirsty Belgian paratroopers at the Ususmbura airfield in what is now Burundi. No-one who has read his account could forget the prickling sense of horror, the panicky claustrophobia of the locked prison cell holding the journalist and his colleagues, the fear that he might be shot and his body thrown away into the bush to rot.
But when Domoslawski tracks down the journalists who were there with Kapuscinski that day, their testimony makes it clear that there was little chance they would be shot. The powerful story was essentially invented.
It was not the only time when accounts that the reader desperately wants to read as true turned out to be fictionalised.
Kapuscinski’s book The Emperor painted an unforgettable portrait of the hieratic, doomed reign of Hailie Selassi, the Emperor of Ethiopia. It was supposed to be based on conversations with scores of Selassi’s loyal and disgruntled courtiers. In fact Kapuscinski seems to have spoken to far fewer of them than at first thought, distributed their testimony around to make it seem that they he had spoken to a number of sources and invented a fair amount of material which is passed off as fact.
For the doomed Emperor of Abyssiania, so for the doomed Shah of Iran. Domoslawski describes meeting an American professor who has doggedly researched a biography of the last Shah and who declares Kapuscinski’s book a work of fiction.
Other deceptions smack of bar-room boasting. Was he or was he not a friend of Che Guevara? Almost certainly not. Why did he boast of being at a revolution in Central America when he arrived a week after it had happened? Was he the Walter Mitty of the international press pack or was he so insecure that he bolstered his reputation with invented friends and encounters?
This biography proved highly controversial when it was published in Poland. Kapuscinski’s wife wanted it banned because it detailed her husband’s numerous affairs. She went so far as to declare the book an act of “patricide,” and in parts Domoslawski’s tone does recall that of a wounded son.
Extra-marital dalliances tend to go with the job description of foreign correspondent. While Kapuscinski’s reputation in Poland is damaged by the biography’s claim that he was a particularly zealous and hardline member of the Communist youth, western readers will focus more on his forays into the treacherous territory between fact and fiction. In Polish the title was unambiguous: Kapuscinski Non-Fiction. But just how much of the great man’s reporting was unembellished reporting of the facts?
The answer appears to be complicated. In the copy Kapuscinski generated for PAP, the Polish press agency, he was a reliable reporter. In longer features and especially the books, he enters a more ambiguous mode of writing, which, depending on your point of view, transcends the limitations of reportage or betrays its most important principles.
We live in a time in which journalists who invent facts are quickly exposed and turned into pariahs. They end up being spotted, shamed on the internet and forced to resign from their jobs. But the relationship between facts and truth is more complex than many choose to believe. English language journalism – particularly American English language journalism – takes a ruthlessly hard line on the importance of facts. But Kapuscinski’s book on the Shah of Iran will be read long after the work of the dogged American professor with the impeccable footnotes has fallen out of print.
Kapuscinski’s book on Emperor Hailie Selassie is an astonishing feat of irony developed to high style; a portrait of the tragi-comic delusions of an absolute monarch which also serves as an oblique commentary on Soviet era communism. Does it matter that it was built on shaky foundations if it soars higher than many books built on solid research?
Kapuscinski’s early death ensured that he never won the Nobel Prize for literature. But his books continue to be read with considerable pleasure. This complex, heartfelt biography is a curious mixture of demolition job and love letter which leaves Kapuscinski looking a more ambiguous and enigmatic figure than ever.
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