Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life
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Controversial biography of the twentieth-century master of literary reportage
Definitive biography of one of the most significant journalists of the twentieth century.
Reporting from such varied locations as postcolonial Africa, revolutionary Iran, the military dictatorships of Latin America and Soviet Russia, the Polish journalist and writer Ryszard Kapuściński was one of the most influential eyewitness journalists of the twentieth century. During the Cold War, he was a dauntless investigator as well as a towering literary talent, and books such as The Emperor and Travels with Herodotus founded the new genre of ‘literary reportage’. It was an achievement that brought him global renown, not to mention the uninvited attentions of the CIA.
In this definitive biography, Artur Domosławski shines a new light on the personal relationships of this intensely charismatic, deeply private man, examining the intractable issue at the heart of Kapuściński's life and work: the relationship and tension between journalism and literature.
In researching this book, Domosławski, himself an award-winning foreign correspondent, enjoyed unprecedented access to Kapuściński's private papers. The result traces his mentor’s footsteps through Africa and Latin America, delves into files and archives that Kapuściński himself examined, and records conversations with the people that he talked to in the course of his own investigations. Ryszard Kapuściński is a meticulous, riveting portrait of a complex man of intense curiosity living at the heart of dangerous times.
from the review in Guardian
"Kapuściński" has long been one of Poland's few internationally recognised names, comparable to "Miłosz" or "Polanski". His vivid literary reporting of the uses and misuses of power, in the books The Emperor, The Soccer War and Shah of Shahs, was widely read in the 1980s and beyond, partly because of the author's unique position (a star reporter emerging from the darkness of communist Poland, then in the midst of martial law after a failed workers revolt) but mainly for its unusual style – personal, meticulous, literary, digressive. His wasn't the typical way of writing journalism and, similarly, Artur Domosławski's book is not a conventional biography. Both the author and his "hero", friend and mentor stand out from what was acceptable during the cold war, and today.
The book caused much controversy when it was published in Poland two years ago (with the title Kapuściński – Non-Fiction). For foreign commentators, the main interest was in discovering how its subject had embroidered the truth in service to style or politics – the fabulations involved his meetings with Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Idi Amin and Salvador Allende. (The Guardian ran numerous pieces in his defence, including by Neal Ascherson and Timothy Garton Ash.) In Poland, the issues were different. Kapuściński's widow tried to stop the book's publication because of its unembellished descriptions of the writer's private life (in particular, his extramarital affairs). But more important than these revelations was Domosławskii's confirmation of the reporter's close connection with various aspects of the communist order, including the intelligence services; his belief in socialist ideology; and his uneasy adaptation to post-1989 realities. In engaging with all this, Domosławski has produced a rare and subtle portrait of the People's Republic of Poland.
are hearing rumours that all is not well aboard ship. Somebody at the PZPR Central Committee comes up with the idea of sending someone there on a special mission. The job is entrusted to Remigiusz Szczęsnowicz, manager of the cultural centre in the Warsaw district of Targówek, who works with ‘difficult’ young people. He is to look around and write a report for the Central Committee. As he recalls years later, at the time there was a story doing the rounds at Nowa Huta about some newborn babies
India begin to flourish, producing a reporter and writer with an anti-colonial world outlook, critical of the West and of capitalism. This world outlook – despite subtle changes – remains with him for the rest of his life. So Kapuściński stands on the square in Accra and listens as Kwame Nkrumah says: We must be vigilant, because imperialism and colonialism might arrive in Africa in a new guise. The imperialists are ready to grant political independence, but at the same time they still
It was a place without pomp or show, a place full of modest, ordinary people. As teachers, my parents were those sorts of people too. Maybe that’s why I always felt all right later on in the so-called Third World, where people are distinguished not by wealth but hospitality, not by ostentation but cooperation.4 Was there really such an idyllic world on the borders where several nations, religions and cultures met? In that part of the world, during the 1930s, when the entire region seethed
indivisible. The armed struggle mobilizes the people, i.e. it pitches them in a single direction, from which there is no turning back . . . At the individual level, violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude. It emboldens them, and restores their self-confidence . . . When they have used violence to achieve national liberation, the masses allow nobody to come forward as ‘liberators’ . . . Enlightened by
Guevara like? What did you talk about? ‘You, comrade, are from a socialist country,’ says a stranger, accosting the Polish diplomat in the bar at the Hotel Stanley, the name of which had just been changed to Mao Zedong. ‘You may have heard of me, I was a minister in Cuba.’ The stranger is Guevara. They spend half the night chatting. Che is lively and full of passion, but when it comes to ideological matters he becomes stiff and doctrinaire. He has come to Zanzibar to see how the