Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Travels with Kapuscinski, Travel Writer Extraordinaire

by Alastair M. Johnston

Ryszard Kapuscinski: a Life, by Artur Domoslawski, Verso, 2012, 456 pp., cloth in d.j.

You know who makes my blood boil? Rick Steves, the twerp with a travel show on American public television. A TV crew follows him around Europe while he stumbles into local museums and fancy hotels with a yokelish manner that yells, Look out natives, it's those culturally deprived Yankees again! He thinks if someone doesn't understand him all he has to do is raise his voice. After all if they don't understand English they should. Well, I suppose there's an audience for his banal brand of travel.

I am more of the adventure travel type: I've been lost in the Nubian desert, pursued by armed bandits in Southern Sudan, attended a Candomblé ceremony in the slums of Brazil (with fireworks to get the Gods' attention), and got so disoriented at a Voodoo ritual in Port-au-Prince that I wandered lost in the backstreets of the Haitian capital half the night until I found the sanctuary of the Oloffson hotel. In my teens I was held at the Bulgarian border, suspected of being an Anarchist because I had long hair. I was freed after a humiliating haircut done with tiny surgical scissors that left long wisps and bald spots, giving me even more of the air of an escaped lunatic. A Sikh man wept as they cut off his beard.

So my kind of travel journalist is always coming across armed roadblocks in the Third World and thinking he is about to get blown away.
"I was waiting for them to set me on fire... I felt an animal fear, a fear that struck me with paralysis ... My life was going to end in inhuman torment." (The Soccer War, pp. 133-4)

Ryszard Kapuscinski is my kind of writer, coming from a tradition that connects Orwell and Marquez. He travels to unusual locales with a purpose: to report on a revolution or insurrection, and while I wouldn't intentionally go into a war zone, it's thrilling to read about it. Like him, I contracted malaria in Africa, and, like him, felt it was the price to pay for the incredible experiences I had there. For years I would scour Granta magazine looking for pieces by Kapuskinski while waiting for an addition to his slim shelf of books (there are but seven of his cultural travelogues). I got the news he had died from the dustjacket of Travels with Herodotus (2004), and it was a sad blow.

Ryszard Kapuscinski was born in 1932 in Pinsk, which was in Eastern Poland then. After the Nazis invaded and killed the Jewish population, the Red army took possession and it became part of Belarus. Kapuscinski had a mother who idolized him and a father who didn't understand him. When his father saw him sitting up late, reading and underlining a book, he told his son: Go to bed, son, by morning I will have underlined the entire thing for you.

But that is later: during the War the father was about to be deported to Siberia so fled to German-occupied Poland and joined the Resistance. Maria, his wife, and children followed — out of the frying pan into the fire. Young Ryszard, 7 years old, experienced terror, poverty and hunger. The War was horrific but he survived by blending in, not trying to be a hero. He was a good Catholic, then a good Communist. So, the author asks, is this how he survived in all his fantastic adventures as an adult? Is the real Ryszard just a writer creating the mythic Ryszard in books about wars & revolutions in Angola, Congo, Iran, Ethiopia and Latin America?

The central question at the core of any biography is, Who was this person? Kapuscinski was a reporter and therefore a good listener and observer. Even those who seemingly were his closest friends only remember him listening. The book is a series of "snapshots," but they are as enigmatic as the close-up of that Polish face with a cigarette and querying eyes, scrutinizing the reader from the front cover.

RK grew up in a Totalitarian system. The way to survive is to keep secrets, to lie constantly, to reinvent oneself. We must not judge people who lived through the War and Stalinism: they did what was necessary. RK was a party member, a keen one; but calling him a "collaborator" is pointless. He was a youth activist, a reporter and a poet. His literary activities were in line with party orthodoxy. Revolutionary propaganda was second nature to him, so it is interesting that we know him as a reporter seemingly outside all the revolutions he witnessed and wrote about in his magisterial works. However one reason the state machines of Iran, Latin America and Ethiopia were so familiar was that he could have been writing about home.

1956 was the year of a great thaw in Poland, a turning point in its history: A youth festival attended by hundreds of thousands of young people saw an influx of Western Europeans who brought jazz, cool colorful clothes and an eagerness to get it on. People were becoming more critical of the regime and changes began to occur. There was still censorship but the truth began to seep out. RK began his career as a foreign correspondent and consequently would miss most of the changes that occurred in his homeland, but he preferred life on the road to being behind a desk.

His first foreign assignment was India (he writes about it in his last book Travels with Herodotus): throwing off the yoke of colonialism meant a lot of countries were turning to the Soviet bloc for ideas, for support and materials; so he also went to China, but cut short a side-trip to Japan when he had to resign from his paper in solidarity with the other reporters who had walked out. His passion for the Third World was stoked and his anti-colonial outlook meant he would become more than a journalist covering politics abroad: he would become an interpreter of cultures.

But while many of us go in search of the exotic, this is not RK's aim:
"The so-called exotic has never fascinated me, even though I came to spend more than a dozen years in a world that is exotic by definition. I did not write about hunting crocodiles or head-hunters although I admit they are interesting subjects. I discovered instead a different reality, one that attracted me more than expeditions to the villages of witch doctors or wild animal reserves. A new Africa was being born — and this was not a figure of speech nor a platitude from an editorial. The hour of its birth was sometimes dramatic and painful, sometimes enjoyable and jubilant; it was always different (from our point of view) from anything we had known, and it was exactly this difference that struck me as new, as the previously undescribed, as the exotic." (The Soccer War, p. 21)

Kapuskinski identified with Africans' struggle under colonialism, but Africans found it hard to believe that whites had colonized other whites, just as they found it hard to understand him when he talked about tramcars or snow. Snow recurs in his work, especially in a wonderful passage about frozen corridors in the mist found in Imperium which can be reread like parts of Dickens, proving ultimately that Kapuskinski is a sensual rather than an intellectual writer. 

He interviews 10-year-old Tanya in Yakutsk:
"One can recognize a great cold, she explains to me, by the bright, shining mist that hangs in the air. When a person walks, a corridor forms in the mist. The corridor has the shape of that person's silhouette. The person passes, but the corridor remains, immobile in the mist. A large man makes a huge corridor, and a small child — a small corridor… Walking out in the morning, Tanya can tell from these corridors whether her girlfriends have already gone to school…
   "If in the morning there are no corridors that correspond to the stature of students from the elementary school, it means that the cold is so great that classes have been canceled and the children are staying home.
   "Sometimes one sees a corridor that is very crooked and then abruptly stops. It means — Tanya lowers her voice — that some drunk was walking, tripped, and fell. In a great cold, drunks frequently freeze to death. Then such a corridor looks like a dead-end street."

But Kapuscinski was known for embroidering his tales and although his friends took his stories with a pinch of salt, he invented a gonzo persona for himself: the death-defying journalist who faced firing squads without flinching and was lucky when someone bought off the commandant with liquor, etc etc. The problem is, according to his biographer, Ryszard began to believe these myths too.

After witnessing the tragic collapse of the revolution in Congo in 1960, RK wrote cynically about the prospects for the nascent state in which the "most backward country in Africa came under the control of the most worthless, insignificant people in Europe" (Belgium) and was carved up by imperialist Western powers, notably the USA. His reports in the press raised nearly 3 million zloty for the Lumumba Fund in Poland. In 1962 RK became the only foreign correspondent of the Polish Press Agency and the whole world became his beat. It really sounds like a classic Polish joke: How many Polish reporters does it take to cover the foreign beat? One.

But that one is astonishing. He witnessed 27 revolutions, civil wars or coups d'etat. He thought it was good to know two or three languages but carried on learning until he knew seven or more. This helped him in Angola and even Gdansk. His African reports are published as "Special bulletins" by the Polish Press Agency, which means high-ranking party officials can read them but their candid analysis of affairs cannot receive wide circulation in the daily press. This puts him in a privileged position: he can speak his mind, but then knows his work is not reaching the widest audience. But these were not all political or economic reports, RK took a delight in meeting everyday people and writing about them. His boss loved his style so didn't chide him when he vanished for weeks on end or turned in short pieces. He used his skill brilliantly. When he was sent to Russia to cover the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution in 1967, "he writes from the viewpoint of a man who is surprised. This permits him to tell us things about the Soviet system that he couldn't say in any other way. It's a masterpiece — to write so much truth without necessarily being critical. The wolf is fed, and the sheep is still in one piece."

Off to Chile he hears rumors of a coup and sends them home in a not-for-publication special bulletin, but the header gets lost and his article appears on the front page of a daily paper. Salvador Allende looks out for him so instead of arrest he is only deported to Brazil.

Book jackets always refer to him meeting Che Guevara and Patrice Lumumba but that is not true: however he never corrected those statements. He didn't have to lie — he was RK, but obviously, Domoslawski thinks, he lacked self-confidence.

What we learn from RK's work is that there is no such thing as objective reporting. He tries to give both viewpoints but you can always see where his sympathies lie. In Angola he gets the story of a lifetime. The Cubans have sent military advisers to the MPLA. This is a bombshell, but how does he know? Well, the Cubans are operating via Russian intermediaries and the only person who speaks Spanish, Portuguese and Russian is Kapuskinski, so he is drafted into the meetings to interpret! He is sitting there as a civil war is being hatched, but he cannot do anything about it. If he fires off a telegram to Warsaw as a "Special Bulletin" it might get intercepted; if the news leaks out then the Western powers may send in their troops. Clearly his sympathies were with the Marxists and that was more important than getting the scoop.

Africans are sometimes critical of his writing on Africa as simplistic, and borderline racist, but he has a passion that ignites his prose, and reminds us of the passion Germans in the 19th century had for the American Indian. Far from being objective he even takes up arms when he is with the MPLA at the front and caught in a firefight.

Back in Poland Socialism has evolved into consumerism, with money borrowed from the West, but the government is crumbling. RK writes his great book, The Emperor, ostensibly about the fall of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, but as it appears weekly people start to read it as an allegory about the corrupt "court" of Gierek, Poland's lax ruler. One reviewer says it's as if Kafka had written The Castle from inside the keep. The censors are afraid to touch it because that will show they really feel there is something to the fabled parallels between their own collapsing bureaucracy and Selassie's.

Poland changes; the Solidarity movement breaks out in the shipyards and Kapuskinski is sent to cover it, and of course writes the best reports, not covering Walesa's speeches so much as talking to the ordinary striking workers, many of whom are passing the time by reading his books! But Walesa inspires him and he sides against the government, losing his job. However his books have been translated and he is able to leave Poland and travel to Europe and the United States as a speaker. But all reports are that he is not very good on the podium: even as a teacher of journalism, his students expect him to regale them with anecdotes about Che Guevara, instead he discusses the finer points of Latin American Marxist theory. (As a former Catholic he was drawn to "liberation theology.")

And there are the famous missing pages (15 of them) from the American edition of Shah of Shahs, which discuss the CIA's role in the Iranian revolution and the overthrow of Mosaddegh in 1953. Domoslawski can find no evidence of any American editor asking for the cuts: only RK himself could have censored his own writing: perhaps he knew that although he was always a fierce critic of Yankee Imperialism he would be looking to America for prizes, awards and lectureships and so better retract his fangs a bit. Or perhaps he was afraid the CIA had files on him and could expose his role in providing information on Americans to his own secret service.

But one searing truth is, Kapuskinski couldn't handle criticism and was always taken aback by fact-checkers who critiqued his works on Iran and Ethiopia. He was creating a new kind of literature: a fictionalized reportage that has all the elements of truth but which are configured in a way to suit the author rather than reality. You might say it's magic realism applied to journalism as seen, for example, in the works of Bruce Chatwin. Rather than magic realism, Domoslawski calls it "tropical baroque."

At the end of his life, RK wrote out a quote from Mircea Eliade's diary: "My best books will be written by someone else." He had abandoned the third in his "power" trilogy — a biography of Idi Amin — to rush through Russia after perestroika and write Imperium, his masterful account of the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wanted to write a summing up of all his thoughts on Latin America in a book called Fiesta, but set that aside when he decided to retrace Bernard Malinowski's steps to the Trobriand Islands and write about that instead, one of the last "uncivilized" places on earth, but he became too ill.

He left behind a globe on his desk and on each continent were posted notes:
North America: community
South America: trust
Eurasia: Inquiring nature, openness, joy, friendship, sympathy, hope
Australia: no comments
Africa: LOVE


  1. Interesting guy. Could have, like Candide, said little after all he'd seen and done, and yet posted such positive things about the people and places he had passed along the way.

  2. I had never heard of him but was so captivated by your article that I immediately purchased and downloaded Travels with Herodotus and am reading it on my ipad. Fascinating. Thank you for introducing me to this author.


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