European Affairs

For almost 30 years, he was a roving foreign correspondent for the state-run Polish Press Agency, witnessing scores of revolutions and coups. Delving deep beneath the headlines, his writings brought unique immediacy to the Third World’s sufferings and dictatorships, wars and revolutions. For readers in Europe and North America, his vivid, telling reportage conveyed a tangible reality about life among people struggling for daily survival in dire conditions far removed from anything in the contemporary West. This quality made international bestsellers of his books, starting with The Emperor and The Soccer War (1978) – translated into 30 languages – and subsequent books such as The Shah of Shahs (1982) and The Shadow of the Sun (1998). Named Poland’s “journalist of the century,” his writings were widely recognized as work that went far beyond the “first draft of history,’’ as is commonly said of journalism. In fact, they had compelling literary value, and Kapuscinski was several times put into consideration for the Nobel Prize in literature.

The American and European public might have wondered how an author from Poland – at that time a communist, Soviet-dominated country – understood so well the plight of the impoverished Southern hemisphere. After all, it seems to be a realm better known to Westerners, particularly from countries with an imperial past, such as Great Britain, which produced great storytellers who immortalized the colonial world: Rudyard Kipling, Graham Greene or E.M. Forster. Poland has never been a colonial power, of course. (It has had enough trouble defending its own space in Europe.) But Kapuscinski was able to penetrate these exotic places partly because he was a product, not of the imperial nations, but of a 20th-century country that, in his time, was similar in crucial respects to the “other” world he was describing.

Kapuscinski grew up in one of the poorest regions in the poorest part of east Poland, in the little town of Pinsk (part of Belarus since 1991). As a child he witnessed the ravages inflicted on Poland by World War II – the death of 20 percent of the Polish population, widespread destruction and occupation, first by Nazi Germany, then by the Soviet Union. He was a student under a Stalinist regime in his homeland.

As the Polish Press Agency correspondent in Africa, Asia and Latin America, Kapuscinski did not spend his time enjoying expensive hotel luxuries or socializing at embassies. He preferred to chat with local people in shantytowns, Indian pueblos or jungle villages. And of course being a reporter for the Polish state-run agency, he enjoyed a mixture of handicaps and advantages in his situation compared to his colleagues from what was then called “the West.” Lacking hard currency, he had to travel in ways that brought him into contact with the ordinary people in the countries he covered and often had to stay on a while after the headlines had died before moving on – an extra degree of exposure that helped him see and learn more than his Western colleagues. As a journalist, he was as competitive and determined as they were, and perhaps more resourceful. But his attention, perhaps encouraged by his upbringing in a socialist context, was drawn to the lives behind the stories of local people. He understood them because their lives of everyday deprivation, repression and fear were similar to the experiences of his own youth. Poland’s armed resistance and struggles – the primal collective experience of his nation – were vivid in his reactions.

The journalist’s account of the fall of the Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie titled The Emperor (Cesarz in Polish) was interpreted in Poland as a hidden metaphor of the communist tyranny. Shah of Shahs, about the overthrow of the last Shah of Iran, describes the (ultimately doomed) dynamic of a police state – all too well known to Poles. The book appeared in 1982, three years after the Shah’s fall and in the midst of Poland’s martial-law crackdown between 1981 and 1983.

But for Kapuscinski, freedom was not the only important value: social justice was equally cherished by him. In his book, The Christ with a Rifle (Chrystus z karabinem na ramieniu), a collection of reports and essays from Latin America, he had some unpleasant things to say about the United States and its policies in that continent. He believed that “Yankee imperialism” was responsible for dictatorships in banana republics. For these reasons, it is not surprising that in post-communist times he has been anything but a darling of the Polish right. Sources in that camp were the origin of leaks – “for the sake of historical truth,” of course – from state archives that even as a famous writer Kapuscinski cooperated with Poland’s secret police. The evidence shows that he did so occasionally, but only to provide his analyses of the situation in the countries where he had traveled – and not to inform on Poles abroad, who could find themselves within the reach of the Polish authorities. All foreign correspondents had to accept such compromises: it was the price for the passport.

How did he manage to write so masterfully? It was not merely literary talent, but also the result of great dedication. Prior to each trip, Kapuscinski made thorough preparations, devouring books on his destination, especially historical ones. While reporting, he never used a tape recorder and only rarely even took notes while talking to people, relying instead on his memory. He famously explained that what he had not remembered was probably not worth remembering. That process of editing by memory is perhaps the secret of why his books, on top of being important journalism, are such a delight to read.

Kapuscinski was not just describing the world: he was constantly looking for some synthesis, striving to find a deeper meaning to social and political developments, searching for some higher truth combining history and a philosophy. Even though he loved Hemingway and learned English from reading his work, the overall climate of Kapuscinski’s prose is most reminiscent of the French existentialist, Albert Camus. While reading Kapuscinski’s stories and essays, particularly those from Africa – this “heart of darkness,” as it was called by another Polish author, Josef Conrad – one recognizes literary nuances and themes from Camus’ work, notably a tragic sense of the absurdity of the world, where the only salvation is a heroic deed for the sake of solidarity with the protagonist’s fellow men. Although Kapuscinski is analyzing concrete historical events and processes, what seems to interest him most are not so much the laws and theories of historical development but more the universal truths about human nature and behavior in history. In this quest, he manages to capture a philosophical dimension of human condition. His works transcend the genre of non-fiction to become great literature.

Despite their relativistic, existentialist pessimism, his books also convey a very positive leit-motif: human beings, regardless of their cultural or historical differences, are the same everywhere, in Africa or Asia, as well as in Europe. Therefore they should be able to understand each other and coexist in peace, according to Kapuscinski. With his globetrotting experience, he did not believe in the “clash of civilizations,” and his last public appearances feature calls for tolerance and respect towards “the other.”

I had the honor to know Ryszard personally. I hesitate to add “and privilege” because this I had to share with hundreds of others. He had many friends like me. Despite his status and fame, he always found time to talk, give advice and share his thoughts with younger journalists, at least when he was home from his usual treks to a desert or rain forest thousands of miles away. His generosity went hand in hand with a natural curiosity about people. He loved them and loved to talk to them. But another part of it was humility: he was famous for his conviction that even he, with his enormous knowledge of the world, could not truly comprehend it or grasp it in its totality.

Tomasz Zalewski is Washington bureau chief for the Polish Press Agency.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 9, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2008.