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Kapuscinki's poetic license

Biographer Artur Domoslawski on why only a non-fictional Kapucinski is fascinating and educational

Daniel Passent: How did you come up with the title "Kapuscinski non-fiction?"

Artur Domoslawksi: During his lifetime, Kapuscinski created two oeuvres. One was his life's work as reporter, which went on to become great literature about the mechanisms of power, revolutions and marginalised peoples. The second was his story about himself, which he put together from facts and legends. He understood that there is no such thing as a literary world without legends about its writers and so, like many before him, he helped create his own. The life of a reporter, whose remit was revolution, war, and military coups in the Third World, provided brilliant material for this. The book's title signalises my decision to leave aside black-and-white portraiture because the world of non-fiction is never black-and-white. It contains many truths, in this case many truths about my protagonist. Secondly, it signalises my intention to separate fact and fiction. Reporters around the world regarded Kapusckinski as a master, and yet they had their suspicions about the traces of - let's call it – poetic licence, in his stories. The participants of my workshops asked me to clarify this matter once and for all.

What sort of workshops are these?

They are organised by Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Colombian foundation, which works to raise journalistic standards in Latin America. The workshop participants said of Kapuscinski that he was a secretive person, a puzzle; we know his work but we know nothing about the man behind it. Who is this person we so admire? I have tried to find out as much as possible about the things Kapuscinski liked to keep quiet. I couldn't stop thinking about the words of famous reporter Mark Danner, who said that he hoped my book would tell him about the experiences that provided Kapuscinski with such an excellent understanding of the mechanisms of power and revolution.

Where did you look for the answers?

Mostly in Poland, in the Stalinist epoch of the past, October 1956, in the stories about the corridors of power in the Central Committee. In Polityka too. I travelled much of the world: Mexico, Columbia, Bolivia, Angola, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, the USA... I met the protagonists of his reportage and saw the places he lived and which he described.

How true were his descriptions?

Kapuscinski wrote three kinds of books. The early ones, which are mostly forgotten today, I would classify as journalism, "Gdyby cala Afryka..." [if all Africa" 1968, not available in English] in particular. After that, Kapuscinski the reporter was born, and he gave himself over to literary reportage. "Kirgiz schodzi z konia" [the Kirghisz dismounts, 1968, not available in English], "Chrystus z karabinem na ramieniu" [Christ with a rifle on his shoulder 1975, not available in English], "The Soccer Wars" ["Wojna futbolowa" 1978] ... And finally his greatest works, "The Emperor" ["Cesarz" 1978] and "Shah of Shahs" ["Szachinszach 1982], in which he crosses the boundaries that divide literature and reportage. It was thanks to these that his name went down in the history of both reportage and literature. Both books received an enthusiastic international reception, although doubts were raised about factual accuracy. People were asking whether they were reportage or literature.

And is that important?

However we categorise these books, they will always be brilliant. The difference between the two categories, however, is essential to the question of whether they should be used as examples – less so for novelists than for journalists, who have an obligation to factual truth. Is a reporter allowed to correct reality, and if so, to what extent? If fiction uses reportage techniques, it does not have to pay a price. If journalism crosses into the territory of fiction, it makes the reporter's descriptions more attractive, often more profound, but the price is a high one, and that price is credibility. A work like this risks being cast into doubt and this is exactly what happened. Kapuscinski was a reporter with integrity and a writer with ingenious talent. But let us imagine a journalist with less integrity and less talent, who feels free to cross the boundaries between reality and fiction. What sort of writing does this produce? It is this fear that haunts me when I categorise some of his books as literature. A colleague of mine at the Gazeta Wyborscza, Wojciech Jagielski, who published "Nocni wedrowcy" [night wanderers 2009, not available in English] about child soldiers in Uganda, was acting honestly when he made it very clear that some of the book's protagonists were fictional, even though they were modelled on real people. He talked about the book as a story. I agree with him that it is not good for journalistic credibility if a reporter allows himself too many freedoms.

In the age of the internet, when it is so easy to verify things instantaneously, Kapuscinki's type of writing is no longer sustainable. How would you describe his "creative relationship with the facts"?

He once showed a report he had written for an agency to some of his friends who were with him in Africa. They protested: Rysiek, that was not there, it was there, and the sequence of events was different. You don't understand a thing, he replied irritatedly, it's not about the details, it's about the heart of the matter. When Wojciech Gielzynski asked him whether he would allow minor tweaking to the sequence of events, in the chronology for example, for the sake of impact, he replied yes, one could "embellish reality" as long as one used authentic elements.

The people you talked to in Addis Abeba, who knew Kapuscinksi, did not only question individual details, they also cast doubts on the judgement passed on Haile Selassi in "The Emperor".

In "The Emperor" Kapuscinski is clearly operating in literary territory. The book's fawning courtiers talk a Baroque language with a deliberately literary turn of phrase. To write this history - and in this form - he read up on Baroque literature. One of his literary friends said that "The Emperor" is the most important Polish novel of the 20th century! There is some truth to this. Which is why I am so sceptical about the criticism by narrow-minded specialists. To read "The Emperor" or "Shah of Shahs" as schoolbooks on the history of Ethiopia or Iran is a mistake. Kapuscinski presented specific intellectual constructions, he universalised human behaviour and the mechanisms of societal trauma. I prefer to read this book as a treatise on power and not as a history of the feudal lords of Ethiopia.

Did he lack information? Was he perhaps bending the truth in the interests of ideology?

If you read the reports he wrote for the PAP news agency, it's immediately obvious how well-versed and competent he was with his material. If his writing contained ideology, it came from his convictions: he was a committed communist for many years. He was neither a cynic, nor a Wallenrod who wrote one thing and believed another. Until the late seventies he believed in the system of People's Poland. Even in the Solidarnosc years of 1980-1981 he was still interested, although the new movement fascinated him, in reforming the party, in particular the United Polish Worker's Party. He sympathised with so-called horizontal structures. He handed in his membership card under martial law.

You also write that even as a loyal party member he maintained an independent vision.

More than once. When he was a PAP correspondent in Latin America, Moscow and Havanna were arguing over revolutionary strategy in the region. At that time Moscow was opposed to Che Guevara-style guerrilla warfare. Che was not kosher in Moscow's eyes because he started revolutions where and when he saw fit, without asking the Soviets, and thus damaged their relations with Washington during the period of so-called peaceful coexistence. Kapuscinski sympathised with these "Christs with guns over their shoulders" who – against Kremlin orders – went off to battle with weapons in their hands. He translated Guevara's Bolivian diary which was published thanks to his connections with the Central Committee, but it was never re-issued in People's Poland.

He sympathised with the guerillos, and yet his books got shining reviews in the USA.

It was not without incident. The American publisher, who was sensitive about potential legal repercussions, demanded he sign a declaration that the people and statements in "The Emperor" were true. Kapuscinski signed - confident that nothing would happen.

Because the people were not authentic?

Even if they were, he never actually named names, only initials. When "The Emperor" was published in New York in 1983, it was to great critical acclaim, and "Shah of Shahs" was equally successful two years later. It was the futurist Alvin Toffler who made sure that "The Emperor" was well received, by giving the manuscript to Wiktor Osiatynski. John Updike's review in The New Yorker also played an important role. Salman Rushdie, too, did some selfless promotion for Kapuscinski when, in a questionnaire, he listed "The Emperor" as his book of the year. The snowball of fame was rolling. Kapuscinki's books have been translated into more than 20 languages. It was in Spain, where interest in the Third World was high, that his career really took off, and in Italy. His "Imperium", which was translated in the nineties, satisfied a need to tell the story of the collapse of the system in our part of Europe. Both countries had a flourishing left-wing culture which Kapuscinski was close to. But he also had his critics internationally, who accused him of making mistakes, such as crossing borders which should not be crossed in journalism.

Why did he have no critics in Poland?

He wanted to be loved, he worked at it and was loved. What he wrote was outstanding but the critics had seen plenty of outstanding writing. Kapuscinski disarmed them with charisma. He knew the influential reviewers and bowled them over with his charm. He knew that he was thin-skinned and ill-equipped to endure derogatory opinions. He also knew that he did his writing under stressful conditions and that it was no mean feat to get to dangerous regions in Africa where he risked his health and even his life. Was he doing all this only to be ridiculed by some half-educated critic. ... He was protecting his work. The writer Malgorzata Szejnert says that no energy is lost in nature, and that a lack of criticism will be followed by a backlash of harsh, unfair criticism. I share this fear. A lack of criticism is always pleasant for a writer, but it always has a nasty flip side which is that the work is not subjected to proper analysis. Kapuscinski is celebrated in Poland as "our great countryman", as the journalist of the century, but what he said about the world does not really fit with mainstream thought in Poland, and has never triggered any substantial interest. And this is a great shame. In the past, he sympathised with armed rebellion in the Third World and, more recently, with the new left-wing opposition to Neoliberalism. He was critical of the hawks in America, the imperialist U.S. answer to the terrorist threat and the invasion of Iraq. He talked about it in interviews, wrote short reflections but no one got angry about it or took him to task (I know of only one exception: Ernest Skalski's polemic in the Gazeta Wyborsza). If all this had been written by someone else, they would have been beaten up by right-wing and liberal journalists alike, and he would have been thrown into a padded cell as a left-wing radical. But because it was Kapuscinski, it would have been a faux pas to criticise him, to pick apart what he said, and so it was greeted with a polite silence. It's a pity – because it could have provoked a serious discussion. If that had happened, my heart and pen would have sided with Rysiek. But the fact is that he was no friend of confrontation and polemics. He like to be heard, but heated discussions were not his thing.

As time went by, Kapuscinski changed the role he played – from that of reporter who discovered the world, he tried to become the wise old man who understood and explained it. I preferred him in the earlier role.

This evolution had two reasons. The first was a question of age. He was no longer determined to set off on long, exhausting journeys, mainly due to problems with his health. He continued to travel right up to the end, but mostly for short periods only. The second reason was his aspirations. When he was a reporter he wanted to be a writer. He said to one of his friends: You are a writer and I'm just a journalist. Once he was regarded as a writer, his next wish was to be a thinker. Some critics said that he was only innovative when he had physical contact with reality, when he was tired and dirty; the library Kapuscinski – they say, was unbalanced. In my opinion the library Kapuscinski was also original. He questioned the view that during the Cold War years there was a fight taking place in the Third World between the good West and evil Communism. He showed that the West was an oppressive power in the Southern hemisphere. He then transferred these thoughts to the time after the Cold War. He had original ideas about the roots of totalitarianism. In "The Shadow of the Sun" ["Heban", 1998] he wrote that the contempt for others, the treatment of others as non-humans was written into the logbooks of the slave-hunters. The Europeans, whose contempt for human life peaked during the Holocaust and the Gulag, had already treated the Africans in the same way. He also observed that in the age of globalisation vast swaths of the world were being de-globalised. He talked about them as the new white areas on the map. He made small, ingenious discoveries, for example, that life in Africa was revolutionised by the invention of the plastic cannister which could be used for carrying water. He did not develop grand theories, but in small observations he was often more original than many a wise man.

You point out that Kapuscinski created his own legend. But why would a brilliant, internationally successful writer want to rely on legend?

He came from a small country, whose language no-one understood on the other side of the Iron Curtain. He thought he needed legend, to get himself noticed. He deservedly enjoyed the reputation of being a witness to the revolution, to the fall of colonialism, the birth of the Third World. To this image he added or allowed people to believe, that he had known a string of legendary personalities, yes, that he had even been friends with them, with Lumumba, Che Guevara... Whereas by the time he got to Africa, Lumumba was no longer alive. On the back cover of the English edition of "The Soccer War" it said that he had known both these men, but when the Che biographer Jon Lee Anderson asked him about it, Kapuscinski said that the publisher had made a mistake. But he never corrected the mistake, and the information about his friendship with Che continued to appear on book covers and articles about him... The legend took on a life of its own.

Was this also true of the tales of his dangerous adventures?

I know that when he told friends about them he had a twinkle in his eye. As the years went by, he began to take the legends seriously and not to correct them when, for example, people wrote about shootings that never happened. But he did genuinely end up in a number of truly dangerous situations, during the war in Angola, for example.

But he never faced a firing squad?

That's is a very nuanced issue. I would ask you to be patient and wait for the book.

You and Kapuscinski were friends. Did you not find it difficult to show a Rysiek who was not a monument?

A little at first. But people don't live on monuments, they live on the ground. There have been enough monuments and hagiographies to Kapuscinski and yet we still knew very little about him. In Poland, nobody had really given a thought to what had been written and said about him. Like every writer, I have the naïve belief that my book will change that – without this belief there is no point to all those hours in front of the computer. I also believe that a Kapuscinski who comes wrapped in compliments, laurels and uncritical enthusiasm is not particularly interesting, it teaches us and challenges nothing. Only a non-fictional Kapuscinski is fascinating and educational. While I was working on the book, I would often think about a conversation I'd had with my professor Claybourne Carson at Stanford, a historian who published the writings of Martin Luther King. Carson gained the confidence of King's widow and she gave him all her husband's papers and access to the archive, and it was there that he discovered that King's doctoral thesis was plagiarised. And he published this in the press. The widow was incensed, but eventually she understood that any self-respecting scholar would have done the same. She had class. I asked Carson whether he was devastated by the discovery. He answered that he had never regarded King as a god, but as a human being. He found it fascinating that normal people were able to do unusual things. It is not good, he said, to admire people for being perfect, because when it emerges that they have their faults – and they always do (King, for example, had a weakness for the ladies) – our belief inevitably collapses. It is better to admire idols for the amazing things they achieve despite their being ordinary people. With these words of my professor in the back of my mind, I still admire Rysiek, despite the various discoveries I have made – as a friend and master.

In one chapter you describe Kapuscinski's relationship with the upper echelons of the Polish United Workers' Party.

We read and love Kapuscinski, because he was a great reporter and writer. And he was not great because he knew [the Central Committee secretary Ryszard] Frelek or [Zenon] Kliszko. Indeed he maintained contacts, and friendly ones, to people in high places, who helped him with his career. In People's Poland you needed people who regarded all this foreign travel as valuable, who supported him, who would sign the application forms etc. Kapuscinski was good at handling these affairs. He did not take up with people in power out of cynicism. For many years he was a committed communist, and he was a party member for almost three decades. He experienced disappointments, but continued to believe in socialism for a long time, especially because he knew capitalism and the West in its colonial and postcolonial versions, from the perspective of the devastations and the crimes, which the free world carried out on the southern hemisphere. He regarded People's Poland as his state and he did not see that having contact with the people in power was anything to be ashamed of, unlike what you read today from the opponents of communism. In his last years, he was less able to derive pleasure from his success and started to worry that the lustrators could harm him. He was also worried that the legend would start to crumble. Since the mid-nineties, he felt – intellectually and spiritually – more at home abroad than in Poland. After the early years, when people in the west were getting drunk on the end of history, there was a renewed interest in the political left. and Kapuscinki's heart beat on the left to the very end, and like the Third World – it was sensitive towards injustice and inequality. In Poland, where free-market and neoliberal thinking dominated, he felt as if he was from another planet. In his "Lapidaria" there are passages that even radical critics of neoliberalism and the new forms of imperialism would not be ashamed of. He felt fantastic when he was giving seminars in Latin America or readings in Spain and Italy. There was a chemistry that existed there between himself and his audience which he never felt in Poland.


This interview originally appeared in Polish in Polityka on 20.01.2010.

"Kapuscinski non-fiction" by Artur Domoslawski was published on March first by Swiat Ksiazki publishers. The book was originally commissioned by Znak publishers who decided against publication.
Translation from the German: lp

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