Celebrated for his reportage about world-changing events and leaders of his day—the Iranian Revolution, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia—the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski has remained in the headlines since his death in 2007 largely due to questions about his veracity: How accurate was his reporting? How truthfully did he describe his own life? Were his stories so memorable because he made them up?
A biography published in Poland in 2010 but only now appearing in English takes up these questions. In fact, in many places Artur Domoslawski’s Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life reads like a book written by a fact-checker: exhaustive and focused on the details, some of them significant but many picayune. If the reader of a typical biography might expect to come away understanding what made the subject great, the reader of this book finishes wondering if the hero is still standing: he has been subjected to a thousand doubts and quibbles, example after example of an assertion of Kapuscinski’s being contradicted by somebody who outlived him.
To those who value accuracy above all else, this result may gratify. And the granular parsing of his many writings and public statements may have been a necessary reckoning for Poland, where Kapuscinski remains a major literary figure. But for those unfamiliar with Kapuscinski’s pioneering reportage about the Third World—a New Journalism that engaged the world beyond the United States—this book might not be the best place to start.
The inquisition starts with Kapuscinski’s childhood in Pinsk; Domoslawski opens by comparing Kapuscinski’s writings to the memories of his sister, Barbara. Unsurprisingly, they diverge. This microscopic examination of Kapuscinski’s early life goes on for pages. Eventually, we glimpse the Poland Kapuscinski inhabited as a college student and adult—a Communist state where success as a journalist depended on not only intellect but one’s ability to move adroitly through the halls of power, delicately finessing relationships both with peers and with government officials. We learn when Kapuscinski joined the Communist party, whom he told about it, and whom he did not tell.
This is the most substantial and interesting part of the book, a real contribution to our knowledge of Kapuscinski and of Poland. For the great majority of his career, the writer’s travel was financed by his government, especially the Polish Press Agency. Domoslawski explains how that worked: what publications he allied himself with, and with what support from bureaucrats. He shows how Kapuscinski responded to the rise of the Solidarity trade union and the decline of the Communist regime. We see him awkwardly navigate social events attended both by party stalwarts and by progressives, see him walk away from old friends. Domoslawski even lets the Party guys tell how they felt betrayed by the new Kapuscinski as he (literally, at least in one scene) pretended not to know them.
The most damaging revelations about Kapuscinski appeared in Polish Newsweek four months after his death. Documents from the archives of the Communist intelligence service showed that the writer had collaborated with them for several years. Domoslawski parses the charges and concludes that the writer ultimately offered the spies very little of use—his main expertise, according to one of Kapuscinski’s intelligence handlers, was “at ducking and diving!”
In one area, however, Kapuscinski took a clear hit. This was in a report he sent his handlers after speaking with Maria Sten, an academic who “was sacked from her job on the wave of anti-Semitic purges of 1968 and emigrated to Mexico,” where the writer caught up with her. The dispatch, says Domoslawski,
contains clichés typical of the official, anti-Semitic propaganda (Kapuscinski calls Poles of Jewish origin who were forced to leave Poland at that time “Zionists”). By passing this information about Maria Sten to the intelligence service, could he have done her harm? Probably not. Sten was not planning to return to Poland, and Kapuscinski knew that. Despite this fact, does the note have the tone of a denunciation? Unfortunately, yes, it does.