A master of 'magic journalism'

 

BIOGRAPHY:Revered Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski may not have been the hero of legend but his best writing still endures

Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life By Artur Domoslawski, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones Verso, 456pp. £25

FIRST PUBLISHED in Polish in 2010, Artur Domoslawski’s biography of Ryszard Kapuscinski caused a furore among admirers of the legendary journalist. His widow, stung by its revelation of Kapuscinski’s prolific philandering and his estrangement from their only daughter, tried to suppress it.

Yet, strangely, this freshly translated biography has left me with a new respect for the author of such acclaimed works of reportage as The Soccer War, The Emperor and Imperium. Before I read it, I hadn’t rated Kapuscinksi much at all. To explain why, let me tell you about something that happened when I was an Africa correspondent in the 1990s.

I and several colleagues were flying out of the war-torn Congo when our aircraft landed in Burundi to refuel. There, hostile paratroopers surrounded us, locked us up and announced that they were going to shoot us. I was sure that I was going to die.

Actually, that didnt happen to me. I just made that up.

That story really belongs to Kapuscinski, an incident which he first described in The Soccer War and expanded on elsewhere.

Actually, it didnt happen to him either. He made it up, too.

Journalists arent supposed to make things up but, according to this fascinating, gently probing study, Kapuscinski often did so. For example, he did not, as he let the world believe, ever meet Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba or (most likely) Salvador Allende.

His numerous brushes with summary execution are unsubstantiated, and quite probably invented; he seems to have allowed an egoistic martyr complex to creep into his work (much as another brilliant self-inventor, TE Lawrence, inserted a rape fantasy into the supposedly non-fictional Seven Pillars of Wisdom).

When I first read Kapuscinski, in my early days as an Africa reporter (that part wasn’t a lie), it was clear to me that he was at best gilding the lily. His quotes were too good. His black and white narratives of noble anti-colonial heroes, evil Europeans and virtuous Third World proletarians did not sit well with the much more nuanced picture we were seeing decades later.

And his eagerness to insert himself into every story – often as a Tintin-like daredevil, always as a fearless voice of justice and wisdom – grated on my nerves. When you start writing about “I” then you automatically become the centre of the narrative, and that is a questionable step to take when reporting on people who are suffering and dying.

Save your ego for your novel. But Kapuscinski never openly wrote fiction. There is no performance-enhancing drug that can do for an athlete what the words “true” and “non-fiction” can do for a storyteller. As a writer, Kapuscinski was juicing.

His supporters – critics of traditional “pseudo-objective” reporting – defend his “magic journalism” by pointing out that objective truth is ultimately unknowable. Which is true (at least, so far as we know). On the other hand, it should not be at all hard for any sane person to know when they themselves are lying, and to stop it. On that count, Kapuscinski stands convicted.

So why should we trust any of the vivid character sketches, vignettes, anecdotes and conversations that have delighted Kapuscinski’s readers down the years? What exactly are we left with?

Oddly, quite a lot. Kapuscinski crossed the line between fact and fiction, but that not does make the man himself an utter fake. He may have cut corners to get at his “higher truths”, but the sincerity of his beliefs emerges unscathed from Domoslawski’s forensic yet respectful study.

This biography’s greatest achievement is to set its subject in his Polish context. Kapuscinski’s achievements seem all the greater, his failings more comprehensible, when we see how he was shaped by the turmoil of Poland in the years before, during and after the second World War.

Having survived invasion, displacement and starvation, the young Kapuscinski became an idealistic and active convert to postwar Stalinism. While he soon moderated his stance, he remained a loyal and trusted member of the Polish communist party for much of his adult life.

His carefully maintained connections in the party hierarchy enabled him to win the prestigious foreign assignments that made him, at the time of his death in 2007, a contender for the Nobel prize for literature.

He also had contacts with Polish intelligence, which were later used in attempts to discredit him after the fall of communism. But as Domoslawski suggests, Poland was not a simple place. Many Polish communists saw limited collaboration with Moscow as a price they had to pay to prevent a Russian invasion, such as happened in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Like many others, Kapuscinski turned in his party card when Gen Jaruzelski attempted to crush the Solidarity uprising in 1981.

By then Poland’s communist regime had long since shed all but the thinnest pretence of idealism. But by going abroad in the 1960s Kapuscinski had been able to cling to the Manichean leftist beliefs of his early years.

After all, Africa was the preserve of demonic Belgian colonials, brutally racist white regimes, cynically exploitative western commercial interests. The postcolonial leaders he idolised had yet to show their own capacity for corruption and evil, and the Soviet Union really was taking the lead in funding and arming the liberation movements. In Latin America, meanwhile, the CIA was sponsoring coups and death squads.

And Kapuscinski really was there himself, just as the legend has it, working the backstreets and byroads, talking to the little, forgotten people. He truly did see most of what he wrote about. His journalistic credentials will take a justifiable battering from this compelling biography, but his best writing, however labelled, will certainly survive it.


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