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The first casualty

29 September 2012

9:00 AM

29 September 2012

9:00 AM

Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life Artur Domoslawski

Verso, pp.464, 25

Some years ago, I was included in a round- robin from a group of African writers trying to whip up support for an anti-Ryszard Kapuscinski campaign. The plan, as I recall it, was that members of the African intelligentsia should loudly denounce the legendary Polish reporter’s depiction of their continent at the readings he was due to give during a US book tour.

I ignored the email, which had the tang of a witch-hunt. The determination of a group, whose members presumably embraced the principle of free speech, to crush a colleague’s work had echoes of the Rushdie affair. A colleague, what was more, who was old, ill and clearly reaching the end of his productive life.

I’d be curious to know whether those campaigners felt any more kindly towards Kapuscinski after reading this superb biography. They just might, for Domoslawski has pulled off a feat all biographers aspire to but few manage. While unflinchingly exposing Kapuscinski’s flaws — his tendency to ‘confabulate’ (i.e. make things up), his womanising, his wily skill at playing Polish politics — he leaves us grudgingly sympathetic rather than repelled, convinced we have glimpsed a man in all his unhappy complexity. Not a hero, but no creep, either.

Perhaps this book could only have been written by a Pole. Domoslawski’s instinctive understanding of the political context in which Kapuscinski operated — a mystery to the many western readers who marvelled at Shah of Shahs, The Emperor, or Another Day of Life — allows him effortlessly to illuminate the influences that shaped Kapuscinski’s moral and creative vision.

A teacher’s son, ‘Kapu’ had seen what occupying powers could do, as a boy growing up in the town of Pinsk, now in Belarus, during the second world war. For any journalist writing in the post-Stalinist years, when Poland’s communist party was haunted by the fear of Soviet military intervention, direct criticism would be a recipe for a short career. So Kapuscinski developed his own survival technique.

He took up foreign assignments whenever they were offered, keeping himself well away from the domestic political storm: India, China, Dar es Salaam, Lagos, Chile, Mexico. And he developed a surreal, highly personalised writing style, which ignored set-piece events and looked instead from the perspective of the put-upon and ignored. Laced with allegorical meaning for a self-censoring Polish audience, the impressionistic approach came naturally to someone who initially dreamed of being a poet.

As Domoslawski recalls, Kapuscinski’s reputation fell victim to two batterings, one during his own lifetime and one immediately after his death. The first was an attack on his accuracy. John Ryle probably made the most devastating case in the Times Literary Supplement, unraveling one inaccurate claim after another in Kapuscinski’s writing on Africa. Domoslawski is even more unforgiving, picking away quietly at the collection of tall tales. No, he concludes, Kapuscinski’s father did not narrowly escape execution by Stalin’s secret police at Katyn. Kapu almost certainly never met Che Guevara or Patrice Lumumba, as the cover of The Soccer War claimed. He flew in to Chile a month after Pinochet’s coup, and also missed the massacre in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Square. The ‘confabulations’, the author suggests, were rooted in low self-confidence, and Kapuscinski then became trapped, forced to repeat them long after he stopped needing such reassurance.

His fundamental mistake was one of categorisation. When he described an emperor who ruled vast regions yet could not write (The Emperor), a conflict triggered by a football spat (The Soccer War), or a continent bereft of written records (The Shadow of the Sun) he surely never expected to be taken literally. At such moments he entered the sphere of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, Frank Herbert and J.G. Ballard, where fantastical exaggeration is used to explore universal truths of human nature. That’s fair enough, but don’t then describe your writing as ‘journalism’, or scold contemporaries — as Kapuscinski occasionally did — for not checking their facts.

The second onslaught came four months after Kapuscinski’s death, when it was revealed that he had co-operated with Poland’s intelligence services throughout his career. Having witnessed the ‘lustration’ of prominent communists in post-Solidarity Poland, Kapuscinski knew what was coming, and his last years were overshadowed by his terror of this approaching humiliation.

Here the biographer jumps to his subject’s rescue. He cites a 1977 investigation by Carl Bernstein which revealed that more than 400 American journalists co-operated with the CIA during the Cold War era. The New York Times, ABC, Associated Press, UPI and Reuters had no qualms about helping out the CIA, and Domoslawski quotes several US journalists who proudly declared it a patriotic duty. No public immolation there.

To suggest — as many do — that Kapuscinski probably fobbed off Polish intelligence with inconsequential detail is to misunderstand the man, he argues. Kapuscinski was a card-carrying Communist party member for nearly three decades. He never abandoned his belief that western capitalism, like its colonial precursor, was premised on exploiting the poor and that socialism — hopefully in a form that had learnt from Europe’s mistakes — would eventually liberate oppressed citizens of the developing world.

A true believer, he would have regarded spying for his country as entirely morally justifiable, while knowing such views, in modern Poland, were no longer fashionable. It will be interesting to see how his readers and country judge him in 20 years’ time.

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