A master’s missteps

Fixated on Kapuscinski’s flaws, a new biography misses the point
May 23, 2012

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!”

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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.

Domoslawski’s note of regret here, as throughout, is suspect. He refers to Kapuscinski as “the master” and his “mentor.” He calls him his “friend” and makes clear they had conversations over several years; but lots of people in the book are identified as Kapuscinski’s friends who, more likely, met him once or twice in a professional setting, and, truly, Domoslawski seems to be one of these.

Kapuscinski kept two sets of notebooks when he traveled—one for the day-to-day dispatches he filed for the press agency, another for his subjective impressions. The source of his fame, you might say, was in the value added by that second set of notebooks in which, as he once put it, he attempted to record “the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town, the smell; the thousand, thousand elements of reality that are part of the event you read about in 600 words in your morning paper.” Strict accuracy was not his paramount concern; when a friend who had been with him during riots in Dar es Salaam commented that he had misreported certain details, she says he shouted at her, “You don’t understand a thing! I’m not writing so the details add up—the point is the essence of the matter.” Thus he left a long list of embellishments for Domoslawski to catalog. When Kapuscinski wrote, for example, that fish in Lake Victoria became big after feeding on the corpses dumped there by Idi Amin, he was telling a good tale, but not one that was true.

Many stories from The Emperor, perhaps Kapuscinski’s most celebrated book, have come in for similar scrutiny: the famous anecdote about Haile Selassie’s servant, whose job was to wipe the shoes of visitors who had been peed on by Lulu, the royal lapdog, for instance. Domoslawski finds an expert who asserts it was unlikely that Kapuscinski ever entered the palace, and that he probably heard the tale at a dinner party of local foreigners. But observers have doubted the literal truth of this book for years. Reviewing The Emperor in The New York Times in 1983, Xan Smiley wrote, “I suspect it is all a shade hyped up, a little too cleverly processed from stumbling interview to sleek literary parable.” Others say that Poles immediately recognized in The Emperor an allegory to the Communist clique that ran the country pre-Solidarity, with Kapuscinski criticizing them as best he could.

Now it has all been definitively weighed, from Selassie’s lapdog to whether Kapuscinski actually witnessed the massacre at Mexico’s Tlatelolco Square in 1968—and a whole lot of less-momentous questions as well. I suppose it was a necessary exercise.

But it is not especially enjoyable to read. One imagines “the master’s” ghost uneasy as his reputation is challenged once again by ideology—this time the ideology of factuality, of literal-mindedness. It happens to be an ideology to which I subscribe. So why do I flinch upon seeing Kapuscinski subjected to its rigors? Maybe because I like a good story, and enjoyed reading those books, and never assumed them to be perfectly true.

This book won the Grand Press prize, Poland’s top journalistic honor, but also prompted legal action by Kapuscinski’s widow Alicja, who tried and failed to stop publication. Domoslawski agonizes over the damage he correctly predicts his book will do to the dead man’s reputation. “I catch myself fearing that, without meaning to write an exposé, I am discovering facts about the master’s life which I would rather not know at all, and that I am creating a platform for massively negative opinions of him,” he writes. Still, he continues, “a portrait of Kapuscinski in which frailties and flaws are visible is more genuine than a beatified icon…isn’t this version of Kapuscinski more interesting than the one that is flattered to death?”

Who would disagree? It’s better not to admire a fantasy. But in focusing on a single metric—factuality—in assessing Kapuscinski’s life and work, the biographer has reduced his subject unfairly. Passages of Shah of Shahs and The Soccer War deserve to be read for how they enlarged readers’ awareness of and empathy for the world. Kapuscinski crossed the globe in search of oppressed people demanding a better way to live. He sought new ways to make revolution intelligible, to explain to those of us who might not have seen it ourselves how the future opens up when the oppressed reach a point when they can submit no longer. In Shah of Shahs, he wrote,

All books about all revolutions begin with a chapter that describes the decay of tottering authority or the misery and sufferings of the people. They should begin with a psychological chapter, one that shows how a harassed, terrified man suddenly breaks his terror, stops being afraid.

Domoslawski cites it as an example of Kapuscinski foretelling the rebellion of Polish shipyard workers. But to me it’s a through-line for Kapuscinski’s best work. He wanted to hear those cries and amplify them. To do that, he worked out a new language for reportage. Newcomers should appreciate the asterisk that’s now attached: Warning! Contents may be embellished! But then, I hope, they’ll read Kapuscinski anyway.

Ted Conover is a distinguished writer-in-residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. His latest book is The Routes of Man, about roads.