Parody, Pastiche, and Poignant Observation: On Polish Journalist Ryszard Kapuscinsi’s Insight

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

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.

No New Ideas Ever Arose From Old Facts

New ideas require imagination, and imagination requires an ability to bend and shape facts to see not what is, but what might be.

Most of Kapuscinski’s reporting that exists in English translation comprises his coverage outside of his native Poland. He’s often described as the key reporter who covered the era of decolonization in Africa, Central America, and elsewhere — and the myriad wars which followed — but in between these stints abroad he also covered events in his home country of Poland. Nobody Leaves: Impressions of Poland offers some of these pieces in English translation for the first time.

These articles are quite distinct from the remainder of his translated body of work. If anything, they’re far more literary in form; so abstract at times that it’s occasionally difficult to figure out exactly what he’s talking about. That doesn’t diminish the experience; there’s an innate aesthetic pleasure to the way Kapuscinski draws together his words and thoughts, and an article can be appreciated just as much for its literary quality as for what it is trying to say about the world.

It’s curious to compare these pieces to his other work. Whether due to the translation or stemming from his desire to appeal to a broader international audience, his other work appears more accessible and more universal. It’s still deeply literary and at times almost fantastical, but the selections in Nobody Leaves present as some of the most literary and complex items in his oeuvre. Some of this is due to their grounding in obscure and little-known twists of Polish politics, history, and culture; the introductory notes from the translator, while scant, prove quite useful in navigating these pieces.

There are gems in this collection. “The Taking of Elzbieta” is one, and it demonstrates classic Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski rarely deigns to overtly take sides. He sympathizes with the weak and the powerless, but he does so by observing and depicting the reality of their plight. He reveals the contradictions that underscore the situations he reports on: the double-standards of those he is sympathetic toward; the mute sympathies of those he is critical of. In doing so, he draws out the innate humanity of protagonists and antagonists alike; renders his coverage an illustration of the struggling complexity of human nature.

“The Taking of Elzbieta” is the story of a poor peasant family who toil and struggle to send their daughter to college. She becomes a schoolteacher. On the verge of turning out a success story, suddenly tragedy strikes: instead of going to university, the daughter decides to run off and join a convent instead.

Kapuscinski’s style erupts as he looks at a photo of the family, pre-convent.

“I pick up a picture taken in those days. In this picture, Elzbieta is smiling, but the man with the two heart attacks and the tall woman stand there very solemn. They are solemn because they are bursting with pride. Leave aside for a moment your admiration for the creators of electronic machines, for the constructors of rockets and the builders of new cities. Think about the mother who left her lungs to rot and the father who wore out his heart so that their daughter could become a teacher.”

He interviews the family and hears a timeworn story about how Elzbieta found comfort, warmth, and kindness from the nuns as a child. Her mother, suffering from tuberculosis, now realizes that even then the nuns were taking her daughter from her. Kapuscinski’s interrogation hones in on Elzbieta.

“Sister, in those times did any of the nuns ask the sister whether her mother had a glass of water at her bedside?”

“She responded: ‘no.’

‘And did any of the nuns tell the sister: “Daughter, before you come to us to nibble at the chicken, at least bake your mother some potatoes in their jackets”?’

She responded: ‘no.’

‘Thank you,’ I said, in order to maintain civility within the framework of general state policy towards the Church.”

Take a close look at that dialogue. His approach is not about relations between church and state, but about the cruelty and casual indifference of the church toward the family whose daughter they were luring in. He acknowledges his own positionality at the same time, with a wry and almost joking nod to the fact that his critique of the church lines up with the ruling (communist) regime’s frowning on organized religion. He’s acknowledging that his story is a politically correct one; an awkward admission for a reporter who cleaves to his own professional standards.

Yet at the same time, his story is deeply and implicitly critical of that regime. The supposedly atheistic (communist) state regime allows these things to happen — children to be stolen by the church and abandon their families. Despite all the state’s rhetoric and posturing, ultimately it fears confrontation with the church. There’s also the fact of the family’s deep poverty and misery, the mother’s tuberculosis — all an implicit critique of the state’s handling of the economy and social justice.

The entire poignant story is classic Kapuscinski — pointing out the humanity shared by all; the cruelty inflicted by all despite themselves. Kapuscinski acknowledges this in his closing remarks to the daughter, to whom he speaks through a grille at the convent gate.

“That’s why I told Elzbieta: ‘I really don’t know what I’ve brought you. Maybe only your mother’s scream.’”

“A Survivor on a Raft” is another piece in classic Kapuscinski style, this time demonstrating his more whimsical, parodic touch. He travels with a group of intellectuals on holiday in the forest, and humorously depicts the ridiculousness of how taken they are with the rustic woodsman who rafts them down the river.

Together, these pieces reflect what made Kapuscinski such a great journalist: that ability to always remain slightly detached from humanity; ever an observer, able to note the humour, the parody, the human foibles enacted by everyone in varying circumstances. He was cynical but never hopeless; ever aware that his ability to observe and describe ought to be used to help the powerless, but that this was to be accomplished more effectively through parody, pastiche, and poignant observation than through polemic or preaching.

Meeting the Other

Translator William Brand writes in his opening remarks that the pieces in Nobody Leaves are about people who “have — or had — a chance to shape their own fate, to make something of themselves. Many have squandered that chance, or never even noticed it when it came along. They become spectators, extras, losers, outsiders who will never rise above the ground floor.”

This may be true, but there’s a deeper theme that links these pieces together and places them in context with Kapuscinski’s broader work. One of his final published works was The Other, which is a collection of lectures he gave on the topic of the cultural Other.

“The theme of the ‘Stranger’ or ‘Other’ has obsessed and fascinated me for a very long time,” he writes, going on to note that it has occupied most of his professional work. But he is also careful to distinguish between the Other and “my Other”. There’s a difference between the abstraction; the cultural construct; and the reality that we encounter on a day-to-day basis, he observes. It’s an important point because it is how we react to and engage with our Other that shapes our relations with the people around us. We do not engage with abstractions; with concepts. We engage with real people, always particularized by the present — and his work as a reporter has been to reflect that.

“Encountering the Other [is] the challenge of the twenty-first century,” he wrote. And a fundamental problem — indeed the same problem which has plagued humanity since the written word first began documenting encounters with Others — is humanity’s tendency to perceive the Other as a threat, and to respond to it with fear. Kapuscinski’s lifetime of experience in engaging with the Other — sometimes under the most trying and threatening of circumstances — boils down to this simple observation: “The experience of spending many years among distant Others has taught me that friendliness towards another human being is the only attitude that can touch a chord of humanity in him.”

The characters that Kapuscinski describes in Nobody Leaves — the “spectators, extras, losers, outsiders who will never rise above” — are not really just losers; they are Others. What Kapuscinski achieves in these writings is not just to demonstrate their humanity, but to remind us that the Other exists even within our own borders and our own cultures. And wherever we encounter Others, “friendliness… is the only attitude that can touch a chord of humanity in him.”

Kapuscinski was cynical about humanity’s foibles, but never hopeless. If we look at our long history of engagement with the Other — especially if we look at Europe’s encounters with the non-European world — “the mutual balance is tragic and sets a pessimistic tone, but we must not allow it to have a discouraging effect on us,” he writes.

Kapuscinski’s work is as crucial now as it was half a century ago when the world he covered was throwing off the shackles of colonialism. Beyond the appreciation of its literary aesthetic, his work still conveys important lessons to us on how to grapple with this uncertain, fragile world we have mutually created. History’s lessons are depressing ones, he admits in The Other, but they also contain glimmers of hope, of moments when peoples “tried to build bridges of understanding with Others. Referring to these efforts and carrying on with them is not just an ethical duty but also an urgent task for our time in a world where everything is so fragile and where there is so much demagogy, disorientation, fanaticism and bad will.”