Pińsk in 1932 was a shtetl, Yiddish for “little town”, the real-life version of Anatevka, the mythical hometown of Tevye the Milkman in Fiddler on the Roof. Overwhelmingly Jewish in character, it was home to Belarusians, Ukrainians, Russians, even Germans. Polish was a minority tongue, but the town, now in the heart of the almost grotesque dictatorship of Belarus, was back then in the poorest region of Poland, Polesie. Could there be a better setting for the beginning of the life story of Ryszard Kapuściński, one of Polish literature’s greats, but also the internationally acclaimed “Reporter of the 20th Century”, its “greatest journalist” who “transformed the humble job of reporting into a literary art” with his writing about the wars and revolutions of Africa and Latin America in the 1960s and 70s?
He was the last of a great triad of Poles who helped shape Europe’s understanding of “the Other”, alongside Józef Korzeniowski, better known under his penname Joseph Conrad, and Bronisław Malinowski, the father of modern anthropology. Poland’s unique experience in Europe as a multilingual country of many faiths (Roman, Greek and Armenian Catholic, but also Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish, even Muslim), then a victim of colonialism, made it a fertile breeding ground for such “interpreters of cultures”. This was Kapuściński’s preferred self-definition as translator from culture to culture, not language to language.
Born a few years before the Pińsk of his childhood disappeared, beginning with a wave of Stalinist brutality, followed by a sea of Jewish blood and the Nazi oppression of all “native races”, Kapuściński had perfect preparation for his work chronicling the Third World’s emergence from colonialism into the Cold War that reached fever pitch in a myriad proxy conflicts between the superpowers.
Details that dished up a furore
The Soccer War, his legendary account of a bloody clash that broke out between Salvador and Honduras in the wake of riots over qualifying games for the 1970 World Cup, contains a vivid vignette of an illiterate soldier risking his life to strip dead combatants of their shoes. Few of his readers could relate to that peasant’s desire for his first-ever pair of shoes in quite the way that Kapuściński could: as a child, it was his dream to get a pair of boots before winter (in Poland, the 1940s were a decade of particularly vicious winters).
Kapuściński’s books sparkled with such vignettes, with attention to detail of ordinary lives caught up in history. His writing inspired many, the present writer included, to take interest in the world beyond Europe, and he mentored a whole generation of reporters. But, as Artur Domosławski, one former protégé, documents in a 600-page biography titled in Polish Kapuściński Non-Fiction, much of that detail was fanciful, failing to live up to the highest standards of the reporter’s trade. The book has been the story of the year thus far in Poland, thanks in part to Kapuściński’s widow, who provided much free publicity with her unsuccessful effort to block its publication in court. She has apparently forced publishers abroad to drop plans for publication of translations, by threatening to withhold rights to reprints of her dead husband’s own works.
Yet the controversy has spilled over the borders. Ironically, given that no translations are available, some of Kapuściński’s critics have been quick to jump into the fray. Jon Snow, a British journalist, found in The Guardian’s headline “Poland’s Ace Reporter chronicled wars and revolutions. Fiction, says biographer”, confirmation of his suspicions that the Polish reporter had never been to many of the events he reported from. In all his years covering the same beat, Snow says, he never once met the Pole “on the road”. But, if there is evidence of poor journalism here, it is not Kapuściński’s. In truth, Domosławski finds plenty of evidence of his mentor’s extensive travels, and the “fictions” he documents are not outright inventions – rather cases of sloppy fact checking, of sacrificing precision for “colour”, of choosing the most poetic version of events over the most accurate one.
Take The Emperor, a poetic account of Haile Selassie, the last in the line of emperors of Abyssinia, the world’s longest-reigning dynasty. Written at the time of an exceptionally vicious famine and civil war in Ethiopia (as the country was renamed by the regime that helped give communist dictatorships a bad name), the book purports to relay recollections of former courtiers. Under the circumstances, you would expect such characters to lie low; instead, they apparently gave the reporter (from Poland, an ally of the regime) lengthy interviews in flowery, Biblical language replete with irony and unapologetic nostalgia for the good old days. The book, his first masterpiece that won him international renown, opens with the recollections of a servant whose sole responsibility was to wipe dog urine from the shoes of dignitaries: Haile Selassie loved miniature dogs and allowed his favourite, Lulu, liberties inconsistent with most people’s idea of courtly ceremony. But the story’s veracity has been questioned as, more seriously, has his depiction of the emperor as a man of little education, unused to the written word.
But the imperial court of Ethiopia, one of the world’s oldest Christian cultures, could be presumed to have been steeped in Biblical eloquence. To any reader of the book, it is obvious the courtiers’ accounts are stylized. Kapuściński never pretended to speak Amharic. As for the inaccuracies, Haile Selassie’s most famous biographer speaks of an “insufficiently critical approach to sources” – not a very serious crime, perhaps, in a book ostensibly about the workings of authoritarian power and mechanisms of courtly intrigue, rather than a biography of Abyssinia’s last emperor.
Then there is the story of the gargantuan fish of Lake Victoria, supposedly fattened on the corpses of the victims of Uganda’s dictator Idi Amin. In fact, as Domosławski documents, the fish grew because of the introduction of a new Nilotic species. And how about the Peruvian hack Kapuściński described as making a tidy profit out of slander and blackmail? As his biographer found in Lima, he was a respected politician and newspaper proprietor, manifestly a victim of slander himself.
Neal Ascherson, a famous Scottish writer of non-fiction, excuses such inaccuracies on the somewhat worrying grounds that “almost all journalists” exaggerate, adding that, “perhaps they should not”. The celebrated author is quite right, of course: they shouldn’t, not without telling the reader. More plausibly, he points out that all the inaccuracies are found in Kapuściński’s books – a different genre, he says, from the news-agency dispatches that Kapuściński authored without generating similar controversies. A friend of Kapuściński’s simply calls The Emperor the greatest Polish novel of the twentieth century – though it was never marketed as such. Kapuściński’s apparently carefree approach makes him a poor example for young reporters, but not a fiction writer.
Indeed, one is tempted to conclude that Snow’s evidence of Kapuściński’s dishonesty is in fact what made him such a great reporter. In a memorable passage, a colleague remembers elbowing aside other reporters to get a word from the commanders of some rebellion or other, a comment on inconsequential, hopeless peace talks in one of Africa’s interminable wars. He looks back to find Kapuściński aside from the crowd, smoking with rank-and-file insurgents, chatting away, asking about their dreams and their fears, gathering material for the only report from that place that was to prove memorable. If Snow failed to meet his Polish colleague, perhaps he was looking in the wrong places. In fact, the British reporter specifically cites his experience of Angola’s civil war, where he met many journalists from the Soviet bloc but not Kapuściński. Yet Domosławski meets Angolan Communist veterans who remember not only Kapuściński, but his fighting on their side, shooting at their American-backed enemies. Thus, while clearing his mentor’s name, Domosławski exposes him to another line of attack – one taken by most of his Polish critics.
At home with the communists
As it’s transpired, the debate in Poland has not only been about the extent of licentia poetica permitted to a reporter. Rather, it has exposed once again the faultlines in the culture war being waged “for the soul of Poland”. Not entirely dissimilar to that in the United States, this war pits a minority of conservative intellectuals who view themselves as outsiders, if not cultural insurgents, against the liberal establishment and mainstream media, epitomized in their eyes by the top daily, Gazeta Wyborcza. As in the U.S., there is an influential – at least in the couple of streets adjacent to the Warsaw University’s main campus on Krakowskie Przedmieście – band of intellectuals who accuse Wyborcza of being insufficiently progressive, of ultimately capitulating to the evils of neoliberalism. Domosławski, a staff reporter for Wyborcza, maintains close links to that group.
Domosławski never tires of reminding the reader about his subject’s famous empathy for the marginalized, powerless, starving man of the Third World and of his unwaveringly left-wing sympathies. His sublime portrayals of the cruelties and paradoxes of despotic power and of the revolutions that bring it down – only to erect new bureaucracies, new cruelties and paradoxes – were informed, the biography shows, by his youthful experience in Stalinist Poland, where a tiny band of believers decided to “knock sense into Polish heads with Soviet bayonets”.
But there is a paradox here. For Kapuściński, ever on the side of the non-conformist idealists in the Third World, ever willing to resist oppressive power, was quite a different man back home. True, when Stalin’s death brought a thawing that rendered Polish communism one of the softest dictatorships anywhere in the world, Kapuściński penned a famous, critical reportage. And he made tentative noises in support of the 1980 dockyard strike that ultimately paved the way to the overthrow of communism in Poland and the subsequent fall of the Berlin Wall. But otherwise, this friend of the common man in the streets of Lagos or Tegucigalpa felt surprisingly at home in the corridors of power in Warsaw’s Central Committee of the Polish United Workers Party (PZPR). And, if he knew something about zealots imposing the despot’s will on the innocent populace, it is because he was one of them at the peak of Stalinist brutality in the early 1950s.
Kapuściński never came clean about his friendships with Communist Party dignitaries or his co-operation with the secret service. When writing with disapproval about Stalin’s henchmen, he never once mentioned anything to suggest he was not exactly a victim of their crimes. Domosławski excuses him, saying there was never “the right atmosphere”. He quotes approvingly an Italian journalist who ascribes the publication weeks after his death in 2006 of evidence that he worked for communist secret services, to envious “mediocrities in Warsaw’s refined society”, hell-bent on destroying his reputation.
Really? How about the fact – which Domosławski himself cites – that that publication was hedged with an explanation that his snooping was a necessary price that made all of those wonderful books possible? And indeed an earlier discussion of the entirely uncritical aura of adoration that surrounded Kapuściński in Poland.
The original sin of Poland’s still-young democracy was its failure to deal with the crimes of the recent past. Communist dignitaries and secret service agents took advantage of their pre-existing connections to carve out comfortable niches in the new capitalist reality. This was partly due to the pioneering nature of Poland’s peaceful transformation – when South Africa set up its “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” it was inspired by, among others, the Polish experience of “reconciliation without truth”. But the failure to hold secret service informers to account has led to a steady trickle of painful disclosures over the past two decades. Few but those right-wing “outsiders” have made a big deal of them.
After the fall of Communism, Kapuściński made his home at Gazeta Wyborcza. Domosławski documents the disappointment of his erstwhile protectors. “So, Ricky, times have changed and you no longer recognize old friends,” he quotes one. That particular “old friend” happened to be his secret service handler.
The incorrigible seducer
So what should we make of Kapuściński as portrayed in this book? Domosławski tells his story in chronological order, but he does not begin in Pińsk. No, he starts with photographs, arranged chronologically, but in reverse order – this technique, like so much of the reporter’s craft, Domosławski learnt from his mentor, his subject. In nearly all these photos, Kapuściński is smiling. So Domosławski does not even start with the pictures; no, his beginning is the smile, that disarming, shy smile that his subject used to get his sources talking; to get the powers that be to give him permits, passes, visas; to charm women or critics, or other, influential writers; to stop soldiers or rebels from shooting or immolating him. The smile that, as the biographer found travelling in Kapuściński’s footsteps to dozens of countries, he used to cover secrets. The smile that, Domosławski seems surprised and hurt to find, was part of his persona, his self-creation.
Behind that smile was a self-promoting opportunist; a womanizer who lied in public about his private life; jealously protective of his reputation and desperate to play up his role in exposing the crimes of dictators in various exotic locations even as he downplayed his own sometimes intimate involvement with a criminal dictatorship at home.
Behind that smile was also the man who wrote of a woman in Lagos whose sole possession was a wooden bowl. Every morning, she would buy some beans on credit, cook them in her bowl, then sell them at a tiny profit. One night, Kapuściński, who unlike most reporters refused to stay in the comfort of “white only” districts, heard a piercing scream: the bowl lady had woken up to find her only possession, the only thing that stood between her and starvation, stolen.