Parody, Pastiche, and Poignant Observation

On Polish Journalist Ryszard Kapuscinsi's Insight

by Hans Rollman

9 October 2017

Kapuscinski's journalism reminds us that the boundary between truth and fiction is one that needs to be pushed at more often.
 
cover art

Nobody Leaves

Ryszard Kapuscinski

(Penguin)
US: Sep 2017

cover art

The Emperor

Ryszard Kapuscinski

(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)
US: Mar 1983

cover art

The Shadow of the Sun

Ryszard Kapuscinski

(Vintage)
US: Apr 2002

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The Other

Ryszard Kapuscinski

(Verso)
US: Sep 2009

Kapuscinski was cynical but never hopeless; ever aware that his ability to observe and describe ought to be used to help the powerless.

The short pieces contained in Nobody Leaves: Impressions of Poland by eminent Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski were never really forgotten; they merely avoided translation into English until now. Translator William Brand acknowledges in his opening comments that the pieces are well-known in Kapuscinski’s native Poland.

But the general point remains: many contemporary English readers have forgotten Kapuscinski, and those who care about good journalism, do so at their peril. Kapuscinski’s work concerned itself with conveying the essence of things, and sometimes conveying the honest essence of something requires a reporter (or writer, or artist) to take liberties with the facts.

Professional journalism has deteriorated since Kapuscinski’s day. Its emphasis on dry facts and objective analysis—never wholly triumphant and still resisted quite capably by many good journalists, yet also hammered in unrelentingly by the bureaucrats of journalism schools and corporate media - -this obsession with dry facts has sullied the discipline, which has always worked best when it acknowledges its own subjectivity, and which only ever really existed to help people understand what’s going on in the world around them.

Kapuscinski realized early on that explaining to people what’s going on around them means more than ‘just the facts!’ Indeed, facts can detract from conveying an accurate essence of the experiential and subjective dimension of history as it unfolds. Facts register on different frames of meaning for different people in different social, political and cultural spaces. The real trick lies in creating a sense of empathy and understanding for the other; a glimmering of what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes, to share the fears and hopes of the other. This can never be accomplished fully, but some skilled writers can bring us closer to that point of mutual understanding than others.

Kapuscinski realized early on that as a journalist—as a writer—evoking this sense of sympathetic understanding could more effectively be achieved with the aid of myriad literary techniques. He weaves descriptive, literary reportage with idiosyncratic dialogues (some real, some imagined); jumps around chronologically; enters into profound and complex reflections on mundane, everyday objects. Much of his classic 1982 account of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Shah of Shahs, takes the form of reflections on photos spread around his hotel room as he’s packing up to leave the country. His 1978 account of the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, The Emperor (later made into a stage play), takes the form of dialogues with nameless court subjects he encountered in the regime’s dying days, parts of which he was accused of making up.

His work has not been without its critics. John Ryle, Anthropology Editor for the Times Literary Supplement, was critical of Kapuscinski’s unorthodox approach. “It falls short,” he wrote of The Emperor, “of both scholarly and journalistic standards of verity, even of verisimilitude.”

Ryle, who describes Kapuscinski’s style as ‘tropical baroque’, was critical of the approach, calling it “literary colonialism, a kind of gonzo orientalism, a highly selective imposition of form, conducted in the name of humane concern, that sacrifices truth and accuracy.”

The criticism, had Kapuscinski read it (which he might have: he died in 2007), might have stung. His relationship to colonialism was a complex one, in relation to which his Polish identity served him in unusual ways. It helped him distinguish himself from other white reporters. More than once his articles describe the confusion of militants at roadblocks, who invariably let him go his way because they had never encountered a Polish person—let alone journalist—before, and had no idea where Poland stood in the grand geopolitical scheme of things.

The concluding essay in Nobody Leaves—“Dispatch from Ghana”—finds Kapuscinski sitting in a Ghanaian village, as his African friends introduce him to village elders by explaining he comes from a country of colonized white Europeans. He is quickly befriended and gives a short hopeful speech on throwing off the shackles of colonialism. Today’s identity police would probably give this opportunistic identity a more critical reception.

Even Ryle couldn’t deny the power of Kapuscinski’s literary technique, however. “Such criticisms do not rob Kapuściński’s writing of its bright allure, its illuminating moments, its often lively sympathy for the people of the countries he writes about,” he admits.

The Emperor had an added level of literary complexity; many have interpreted it as less of a reportage on Ethiopia and more of a metaphorical parable for the politics of Kapuscinski’s native Poland. Although Kapuscinski’s international renown gave him more room to maneuver than some, his critique of the more or less authoritarian (communist) regime ruling Poland at the time was often backhanded and couched in metaphor.

Xan Smiley, editorial writer for the Times of London, and writing for the New York Times, was also torn in assessing Kapuscinski’s work, particularly The Emperor. Writing in 1983, Smiley opens with the critique: “The problem is that one is never quite sure whether one is in the world of Ethiopian fact or Polish political fable… I suspect it is all a shade hyped up, a little too cleverly processed from stumbling interview to sleek literary parable.”

“Yet it is often the most fantastic absurdity, the quirkiest anecdote, that turns out to be true,” Smiley goes on to admit. “The mentality of a dictator on the way out is beautifully evoked… Mr. Kapuscinski has pulled off a clever coup.”

Artur Domoslawski, who described Kapuscinski as his “mentor”, published a controversial biography of the journalist in 2010 (Kapuscinski’s widow tried unsuccessfully to stop the book’s publication), in which he tried to centre this “debate over the relationship between truth and fiction”, as he put it in an interview with The Guardian.

“Sometimes the literary idea conquered him,” Domoslawski said. “Kapuscinski was experimenting in journalism.”

A Controversial Style

Kapuscinski has his admirers as well, of course. He won no shortage of awards (many of them literary). In at least one case (the Italian Elsa Morante prize) the uncertain award jury created a new category just for him. Gabriel Garcia Marquez called him “the true master of journalism”. “One Kapuscinski is worth a thousand grizzled journofantasists,” Salman Rushdie declared with cryptic enthusiasm.

A certain liberty with facts does nothing to undermine the power and truth of Kapuscinski’s reporting. If he sometimes bent facts or dialogues, he did so to convey the essence of a situation more clearly and presciently than any actual interview could manage. And they retain deep truths, garnered from his many dialogues under trying circumstances; circumstances in which jotting down conversations in notebooks might very easily have cost him his life (he is said to have escaped at least four death sentences during his reporting travels). As he wrote in the piece “In the Shade of a Tree, in Africa” (contained in The Shadow of the Sun, a collection of his articles on Africa), “The kind of history known in Europe as scholarly and objective can never arise here because the African past has no documents or records, and each generation, listening to the version being transmitted to it, changed it and continues to change it… As a result, history, free of the weight of archives, of the constraints of dates and data, achieves here its purest, crystalline form—that of myth.”

Kapuscinski’s approach to journalism was to experience life; to engage deeply and authentically with real people; and then to write about it afterward, in whatever form best expressed the authenticity of his experience. Paradoxically, we live in a world that needs more of this type of experimental and literary journalism, yet is less likely than ever to receive it. The growing fixation over ‘fake news’; efforts by governments to define what qualifies as journalism (the quickest route to controlling it, warn journalistic rights defenders); and fixations over the identities of who is writing what about whom, all have their merits but are double-edged swords. What they might gain for society in terms of objectivity and accountability, they lose in terms of subjectivity and creativity. Those who are quick to decry from their social media bastions any deviation from conventional forms of truth-telling fail to realize that no new ideas ever arose from old facts. That requires imagination, and imagination—the driving force of human creativity—requires an ability to bend and shape facts to see not what is, but what might be.

Writers of fiction harness the question of what might be in a forward-thinking direction—What might we create?—but people like Kapuscinski, with his literary, magical journalism, direct the question inward—What might we understand and be in relation to each other?, and the courageous question they pose is just as important. They don’t ask us to imagine our future but to re-imagine our present.

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