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.

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.”

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