by Artur Domosławski
Verso, 2012, 464 pp.
Maybe it’s because Ryszard Kapuściński told so many stories about himself that little is actually known about him. We meet him in the alleyways of Dakar and the bazaars of Tehran, the trenches in Angola and the sidestreets of Tegucigalpa, just as the city is being attacked. He doesn’t so much describe these places as invites us to taste them, and we can do so through his perfect vignettes about his interactions with the people and the physical surroundings. Despite all this intimacy, we never know who he is. For he doesn’t write about himself but about “Ryszard Kapuściński,” the hero of his books who has all these revealing encounters.
Now we have a guide who tells us of the man, not the hero, in his context of communist Poland. Artur Domosławski, himself a Polish journalist who modeled himself on Kapuściński—he calls him his “mentor” or “master”—tells us two stories: one about Kapuściński, and one about the Poland that made him.
How did Kapuściński come to be who we was? Where exactly did he go? How did a Polish reporter during the communist period get there? What did he really believe? Kapuściński was famously elusive, so questions about him quickly turn into questions about journalism, writing, veracity, boundaries. Were his books journalism? Were they about what they were supposed to be about? Can we know? What of his legendary encounters with world-historical revolutionaries? Were they real? Where did he exaggerate? Or was this a matter of embellishment, illustration, poetic license in the service of deep understanding? What is truth in journalism, anyway? What is journalism? What kind of writing did he do? Why does it move and mesmerize us so?
Domosławski spent years researching the book, traveling the world in his mentor’s footsteps. He spoke with friends, fellow journalists, subjects of Kapuściński’s reports, and spent many hours with the “master” himself. The result is a spectacular piece of literary investigation that takes us on an exploration of the meaning of journalism and tells us more about political life and choices in Poland during the communist years—and, in particular, how a leftist could maintain himself as a leftist during that time—than perhaps any book that has appeared to date.
Ryszard Kapuściński entered western letters as something of an outside-our-life figure, and then became a rather mysterious one, with questions raised on all sides as to who exactly he was. He surged onto the world stage in 1983 with the English-language publication of The Emperor, his book based on his journalistic investigations in Ethiopia about the collapse of Haile Selassie’s dictatorial regime. And yet, was it really about Ethiopia? Was it really journalism? Made up of a series of vignettes ostensibly told by former members of the emperor’s court, the book reads like a modern version of A Thousand and One Nights, and no less enchanting, too, with its depiction of a regime fearsome, yes, but also megalomaniacal and absurd. Without notes, dates, identified informants, or anything else from the traditional reporter’s toolkit, it was hard to identify as journalism. It read instead as a combination of inspired reportage, moral philosophy, and phantasmagorical storytelling, offering us a glimpse into the depravity of power and the spark of individuality that is able, despite all odds, to resist it. The razor-sharp observations on everyday complicity and self-serving sycophancy, within a dream-like narrative not clearly bounded to any particular terrain, seemed to suggest it was a play, a ploy, a ruse.
“Silly me,” wrote New York Times reviewer Xan Smiley. “I set out to review a book about Haile Selassie called The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, foolishly thinking it would be all about…well, Haile Selassie and Ethiopia.” Who was this author, wondered the reviewer? When calls to the publisher revealed that Kapuściński came from Poland—a country much in the news in 1983, still reeling from martial law imposed by the communist government to repress the Solidarity movement—and that the book had oddly enjoyed considerable success at home, the reviewer decided the book was little more than fantastic allegory.
But where Smiley condescended, others were enthralled. Salmon Rushdie waxed lyrical, John Updike found it “stunning,” Susan Sontag hosted him at parties. Gabriel García Márquez dubbed him, simply, “the Master”—high praise from the founder of magical realism, but Kapuściński seemed to one-up García Márquez by injecting magic into real politics, and elucidating thereby the human tension and bewilderment connected to power that traditional journalism left hidden.
Three years later came his book about the fall of the shah of Iran, perhaps his masterpiece. Once again the story is told obliquely, in this case through vignettes about, and ostensibly related by, people not directly connected to the book’s subject. Some of the deepest insights of the book come through reflections on photographs, interpretations of what’s there and what’s missing. It’s as if we have instant social history here, in which the big political events become clear through the side stories of regular people, their normal lives somehow reflecting the power and politics that prevail.
The publication of the second book demanded a rethinking of the consensus that Kapuściński was “really” just writing about Poland. Poland couldn’t carry all the weight of these far-reaching accounts. He obviously brought to his understanding of other countries reflections on authoritarian power that he had gathered at home—and which he wrote about earlier with acuity while reporting from provincial Poland, creating in the process a new style that transformed journalism at home before it traveled abroad. But the breadth of insight and the level of specificity made it clear this was more than allegory. Just what it was, however, remained unclear.
Domosławski takes us through all the debates about Kapuściński’s work, and the barrage of challenges he encountered once the initial fascination wore off. In the West, criticism ran along three main lines: that his stories weren’t true, that what he wrote wasn’t journalism, and that his obvious deep empathy with the third world was infused with an unwitting orientalism.
Domosławski investigates the first charge thoroughly. Too thoroughly, according to some critics, who say that by devoting such space to the slip-ups and exaggerations, he demeans the man and his accomplishments. Indeed, Domosławski shares with us his own doubts on his approach. Yet since such charges have long been out there in the public domain, not dealing with them would render the point of a biography moot.
And what does Domosławski find? That in many cases Kapuściński stretched the facts, let literary aims shape accounts of people and situations when reality was less poetic, and aggrandized his own role in order to heighten his authority and build his mystique. He didn’t know Che or Lumumba, as he allowed publishers to claim on dust jackets and reviewers to gush in reviews. His accounts of being close to execution appear, on close examination, to be something else. He twisted the stories of some interlocutors in order to make them fit a narrative, or just more entertaining. Ethiopia did not have only one bookstore.
Kapuściński’s genius was his dissection of comportments, his insight into politics that derived from conversations and observations of regular people. Clearly, his books were something other than traditional journalism, and he never claimed otherwise. Indeed, he was acclaimed in both Poland and the West precisely for offering a new kind of journalism. Domosławski relates the various criticisms, but suggests that the Catalan critic Luis Albert Chillón probably had it best when he wrote of Kapuściński creating a “formerly unknown symbiosis” combining “the information-gathering techniques that belong to investigative journalism, the art of observation that is typical of reportage, and a quest for a kind of poetic truth, which through a narrative mode that is closer to myths, legends and folk tales than to realistic novels, transcends the boundaries inherent in simple documentary truth.”
The charge of orientalism was first leveled by John Ryle in a review of Kapuściński’s The Shadow of the Sun, his 2001 account of his travels in Africa. After citing various misrepresentations and simplifications, Ryle fires this salvo: “Despite Kapuściński’s vigorously anti-colonialist stance, his writing about Africa is a variety of latter-day literary colonialism, a kind of gonzo orientalism…in the name of humane concern, that…homogenizes and misrepresents Africans even as it aspires to speak for them.” Domosławski’s response is to note that Kapuściński was writing for a Polish audience that had few other sources of knowledge on Africa, and that some simplifications came from an effort to galvanize sympathy.
In 2002, Maxim Waldstein made a similar critique of Kapuściński’s book on Russia, Imperium—though this, for Waldstein, is orientalism with a twist: Kapuściński as a Pole is an “oppressed Orientalist,” possessed of the collective memory of humiliation at Russia’s hands, with the simultaneous belief of representing a superior culture to that of his oppressor. Domosławski appears to agree with this critique. He sees Imperium as Kapuściński’s effort to legitimize himself to a right-wing, postcommunist Polish milieu. Broadly dismissive views of Russia served to elevate his position by highlighting his own westernness.
What is new here is Domosławski’s focus on Kapuściński as a man of the Left, yet a very different kind of leftist than was common in Eastern Europe: neither party stalwart not liberal oppositionist. Today we are most familiar with the latter, who played such a major role in the Polish upheavals from the rise of Solidarity to the collapse of the old regime. They called for democracy and demanded freedom of speech. They were political liberals in the 1970s, became economic liberals in the 1980s, and have added on cultural liberalism today. For this group, the political horizon almost never extended beyond the West, and here is where Kapuściński was so different.
As it happens, I came to know these liberal leftists well when I was in Poland in the early 1980s, doing research for my first book on Solidarity and writing articles for In These Times. In 1982, I interviewed the famous Polish economist Edward Lipiński. Already in his nineties, still lucid, Lipiński had been a socialist since 1906, and after a stint in the Polish ruling party had left it in 1975 and become a prominent member of KOR, the Workers Defense Committee. I asked him why he was a socialist, and he said it was because he believed in social justice, and that nowadays “western capitalism is more socialist than we are.” He meant, of course, the social welfare state that social democrats and the labor movement had fought for, and that had reigned in Western Europe since the end of the Second World War. Socialism, in other words, was really modern capitalism, and his leftism was a preference for that over state socialism. Adam Michnik also called himself a socialist at this time: his intellectual hero was John Stuart Mill, and he too wished that Poland might become a social democracy. With social democracy as the supposedly “capitalist” alternative, these leftists could easily reject the Communist Party and all that it stood for. The global South basically did not exist in their worldview.
I conducted an informal experiment on this at the time. Tiring of telling people I was from the United States, about which everyone had so rosy a view, I started saying I came from Nicaragua or El Salvador, much in the news during that heyday of the contras and Ronald Reagan’s war on Central American radicalism. As it happened, I could pass. With my scruffy, rust-colored beard and a beret strapped on my then-full head of curly black hair, I affected a plausible Che wannabe; and with so few foreigners around, no one could distinguish accents. “You’re oppressed by the Russians,” I’d say to people I met on the streets, in taxis, at conspiratorial meeting points, “and we’re kept down by the Americans. It’s much bloodier for us, but your regime controls people’s lives more than ours. We really need to be in this together, fighting for freedom against the twin superpowers.”
Kapuściński knew differently. He was a leftist who experienced the West as the South. His reference point was not social democracy but neocolonialism.
Few went for it. They believed who I was, but my story was incomprehensible. How could Americans be enemies? And if there really were communists in my country, as the Americans said, then any action against them was justified. Neither in the opposition nor in society as a whole did people identify the West as having to do with anything other than freedom.
Kapuściński knew differently. He was a leftist who experienced the West as the South. His reference point was not social democracy but neocolonialism. Consequently, he also experienced communism differently. While one of the first to write poignantly and forcefully about its hypocrisies at home, as a reporter in Poland in the late 1950s and 1960s, he saw that in Africa and Latin America communism meant something else. There it was not just “on the side” of those fighting against colonialism and in the name of equality. So many of those doing the actual fighting were communists themselves. Had I come upon Kapuściński during one of my random encounters in 1982, he would have accepted my exhortation to international solidarity at once (and exposed me as a fraudulent Central American).
This was a completely untypical leftism at the time. Official communists in the Soviet bloc piously professed solidarity with third world struggles while denouncing democratic oppositionists at home as agents of imperialism. They had no trouble defending the imprisonment of Solidarity activists while decrying similar treatment of trade unionists abroad. Liberal democratic leftists, meanwhile, denounced oppression at home but tended to belittle it in the areas where western powers dominated. In 1982, I remember the pro-Solidarity activists struggling to react to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, till it became clear that the Americans supported and the Soviets opposed it. Suddenly everyone was rooting for Israel, unfazed even by the massacre at Sabra and Chatila. Had the Soviet-supported side slaughtered a fraction as many, they would have denounced it as a historic crime. Western New Leftists, of course, did tend to oppose both Soviet domination in the East and American escapades in the South, but they also belittled Soviet support for third world struggles. In their view, Brezhnev had long been selling out the global South in return for détente.
Supporting democratic reform in the East and social revolution in the South, mocking state socialist power at home while finding it a progressive force in the Third World, Kapuściński was an unusual East European leftist during the Cold War, and often found himself in a lonely position.
How did he get there? Born in 1932 to schoolteacher parents in the borderland city of Pi´nsk—then in Poland, now in Belarus, and unlike the Kapuścińskis mostly Jewish—he moved to Warsaw with his family soon after the outbreak of war, and afterward, as an eager high school student, he became a communist. The postwar era was a time not just of rebirth but of grandiose possibilities. The Party was sailing toward a brand new future—all aboard!—and aboard they came. His first published poems—Kapuściński began as a poet and in a fundamental sense never ceased being one—were odes to Stalinism, written while he was still a teenager. (I once saw an old Czech paperback by a young Milan Kundera filled with the same kinds of verses.)
A few years later he is sent by the communist youth paper to Nowa Huta to report on the glorious construction of the socialist steel mill that is supposed to mobilize a new generation, and while he does write of its great possibilities, he writes chiefly of the young workers’ despair. The story is published, he and the editor get fired, but as the Party itself is in the midst of a crisis—this is 1956—he gets reinstated. Soon he is asked to go to India to study the burgeoning rising of the third world, where he reads about the return of Wladyslaw Gomułka to power and the expulsion of the old Stalinists. The “thaw,” however, soon refreezes, and Kapuściński voluntarily leaves the paper, with most of his colleagues, when Gomułka bans a flagship liberal journal. Thanks to another correspondent he met in India, Ryszard Frelek, who will assist Kapuściński numerous times in the future as Frelek rises up the Party ranks, he gets a job as a desk reporter with the Polish press agency. He hates it.
He doesn’t leave the Party, however, because the Polish Party still has room for dissent. This is one of the key features of communist Poland, essential for understanding why it is there, and not elsewhere, that opposition movements kept appearing, finding new avenues for expressing themselves, developing new strategies of resistance.
In 1958, he is hired by the new weekly Polityka, which is carving out a niche as the organ of critical but pro-Party opinion. He writes many essays expanding on the theme that got him into trouble earlier: the hardships of workers in the Polish workers’ state. He develops his style of saying things about the big picture while his words discuss only the sideshow. Many believe that this is what enables him to get his critical essays past the censors, and in part this is true. It is also, however, a way of enabling the censors to OK his works for publication. Poland was one of the few communist states to have official censors, unlike the Soviet Union, where editors themselves had to police the content, and would pay with their jobs if higher authorities thought they had slipped up. The censors had their guidelines, and if these were not violated, an essay could pass. The writer and editor could say that, because the censors accepted a piece, it was by definition not anti-socialist. The censor could say that if a piece did not explicitly transgress the rules, it was by definition pro-socialist. The entire system worked symbiotically to ensure that critical work could be published, as it was throughout the communist period.
Polityka sent Kapuściński to Ghana to report on Africa’s first postcolonial independent state, where he developed his lifelong addiction to the third world. He gets his chance to return to Africa in 1961, just after Congo declares independence.
He wrote some of his best work during this period, and for the rest of his life, Africa in the early 1960s serves as the setting for his moral and philosophical reflections. As befits a man from the borderlands, he feels comfortable in the world of the downtrodden and marginalized. While other journalists interview government officials, Kapuściński speaks with the kitchen staff, the drivers, farmers, the men hanging out on the local equivalent of stoops. Despite his eventual fame, he never became comfortable with power. He avoided personal conflict, loathed criticism, and refrained from polemics. He saw himself in the marginalized people he met, and his journalistic style grew out of this projected interaction. His works become famous inside Poland, at least among intellectuals. And when he travels to Latin America soon after, Kapuściński becomes the country’s chief interpreter of the third world, of which there are, it should be said, few competitors.
Poland was one of the few communist states to have official censors, unlike the Soviet Union, where editors themselves had to police the content, and would pay with their jobs if higher authorities thought they had slipped up. The censors had their guidelines, and if these were not violated, an essay could pass.
Kapuściński spent most of the 1960s outside of Poland, always able to publish his essays at home. While critical of developments inside Poland, he saw eye to eye with Polish officials abroad, both of them on the same side in supporting national liberation movements—something that plays a crucial role in explaining the events that become public knowledge only after Kapuściński’s death in 2007. In 1968, Kapuściński stays more loyal to the Party than most of his friends. Poland’s 1968 refers both to student protests supporting democratization and to the capture of the Party by a national-communist faction that then led the subsequent repression against the supposed “Zionists” and “anti-socialist elements” leading those protests. Universities and scientific institutions were purged, and didn’t recover for years, in many cases not till the rise of Solidarity in 1980.
Unlike most of his pro-democratic leftist friends, Kapuściński did not protest the crackdown. For one, he was trying to maintain his good standing that allowed him to work abroad. Domosławski offers an overly generous additional interpretation as well: that Kapuściński might have initially seen the rise of this faction as a progressive development, since it did, after all, claim it was trying to finally get beyond Stalinism. The simplest interpretation is perhaps the one that is evident, though unsaid, through the book’s pages: Kapuściński was far too immersed in other things. This was the moment the third world became the center of world politics, with Kapuściński one of its best-informed observers. There is no need to search for “excuses” to make sense of Kapuściński’s distanced and indecisive relationship to Poland’s 1968. He was simply busy doing other things.
Though he was not involved in the Polish events of 1968, developments at the time changed his attitude to his country profoundly, which is probably why he spent more and more time away from it. The gap between the heady revolutionary fervor he saw in the third world and the dull, bureaucratic state socialism of the People’s Poland became too much for him to bear. The differences were only heightened when Edward Gierek came to power following the shipworkers’ strike of 1970, offering the people consumer goods bought on credit and urging the elites to take care of themselves.
Even so, in the 1970s he did not break with the system or join the opposition. Still immersed in third world politics, he still believed in state socialism. Yet he longed for a progressive alternative to the existing regime, and when Solidarity arose in 1980, Kapuściński rushed to the Gda´nsk shipyard and proffered his full support. His article about the strike reads like one from his third world travels, full of awe for the authentic popular mobilization in which non-elites reclaim their dignity:
The workers on the Coast have smashed the old stereotypes of the “dumb prole.” . . . The young face of a new generation of workers has emerged: thoughtful, intelligent, conscious of its place in society, and most importantly, committed to drawing all the consequences of the ideological foundations of the system, according to which it is their class that plays the leading role in society.
He handed in his Party card for good when Solidarity was suppressed and martial law imposed in December 1981. It was he who suggested to his fellow journalists, then at the weekly Kultura, that they do the same. At this point, Kapuściński was not yet “Kapuściński.” That is, he wasn’t the world-renowned journalist who could call on high-powered allies from afar for support. It is only during that first year of martial law that he learns his book will be published in English with a big trade publisher. It is only now that he finds himself on a different stage, with a different audience, facing different kinds of questions. His life, his possibilities, his politics too—all of them will be transformed in this new period.
As he becomes a star, he moves away from the Left. Perhaps it was just the new Zeitgeist? The Khmer Rouge in 1975 led many to rethink hopes invested in the third world. The Iranian Revolution four years later showed widespread rejection in the global South itself of modern ideas of emancipation that the Left had always advocated. It was a time of Margaret Thatcher and Reagan, followed by François Mittérrand’s about-face, and then, by the middle of the decade, a “discovery” within the East European opposition of Friedrich Hayek and the market. Solidarity itself began claiming that its previous advocacy of “civil society” really meant an endorsement of “market society,” a reversal of its participatory ethos that had so galvanized the world. After 1989, even the official Left accepted marketization as new holy writ.
Yet Domosławski suspects that Kapuściński altered his views also in response to becoming a star: Kapuściński seems to have thought that he could be taken seriously only if he, too, demonstrated his non-leftist bona fides. And so he pens the book that bothers Domosławski most, Imperium, about Russia. Domosławski sees this as Kapuściński’s great opportunity to explain himself, and his generation and their choices, to a generation coming of age in a new era. This, after all, is his book about the system whose model he once championed. Here was the opportunity to talk about his evolution, to offer a reckoning, something all the more vital because a new Right was beginning to emerge in Poland, condemning all who had once believed in the system as traitors.
It’s not that he wishes Kapuściński would have defended the old regime; Domosławski himself is a fierce opponent, a leftist like Kapuściński who, because he grew up at a different time, had the good fortune of never having to cheer on Soviet power. (Domosławski’s first book, World Not for Sale, must be one of the best books on the “anti-globalization” movement in any language, as it questions radical western activists from the cautionary perspective of an East European, while confronting stock anticommunists from home with the realities of life in the global South.) But precisely because he is living at a different time, he needs someone with democratic and patriotic authority to explain how one-time support for official Soviet positions could be consistent with progressive democratic values. Without this, everything the Soviets ever officially supported—national liberation, women’s emancipation, antiracism, anticapitalism—could be tarred as communist totalitarian causes. Indeed, much of Eastern Europe’s contemporary Right does just this.
But Kapuściński declines the challenge. Instead of trying to make sense of his past, Kapuściński appears in Imperium as one more western observer commenting on the vastness, barbarity, and cruelty of Russia. Rather than grapple with his own history as a communist, Kapuściński uses the occasion to distance himself further from this Other, telling for the first time the story of his father, early in the Second World War, escaping from Soviet captivity, which later turns into the story of his father escaping from a transport to Katyn, where some twenty thousand Polish reserve officers would be murdered by the Soviets. Domosławski establishes from records, and conversations with Kapuściński’s sister, that the story cannot be true and suggests that it was told in order to ward off attacks on his persona in postcommunist Poland, and to forestall the secret that he so wished to hide about his occasional cooperation with Polish intelligence.
Domosławski chides his hero for not explaining his own relationship to communism in his only book explicitly on communism. He is upset that he, the biographer, has to try to make sense of Kapuściński’s choices, when what the new generation needs is for the “master” to have done so himself.
Not that Kapuściński’s new persona makes it easier when news of his collaboration comes to light, soon after his death. Commentators well-disposed to him explain it as the price Kapuściński had to pay for his great books, a pact with the devil that enabled his creative work, adding that he never actually harmed anyone. Domosławski confirms the last point, but the former he dismisses pithily as “the trap of anti-communist political correctness.” Kapuściński, he emphasizes, was not doing something he found repugnant. He was a leftist who spent years of his life reporting from a third world that found its efforts for emancipation consistently resisted by western powers. As someone with intimate knowledge of “capitalism’s colonial, post-colonial, and imperialist” incarnations, why not help fight this enemy? Kapuściński “had the right to regard passing on information about sinister CIA operations and its agents to his own country’s intelligence service and writing a few political analyses as a morally good deed, a patriotic one perhaps.”
The dossier consists of a limited number of notes and reports, all from his time as a reporter in Latin America, where Polish intelligence sought help in “identifying and reaching CIA and FBI cells deployed on Mexican territory.” Kapuściński had no special knowledge of such cells, but he passed along information on academic centers that might have ties to the CIA, and occasionally on people circulating in such circles.
Domosławski does not defend such reports, but neither does he rail in condemnation. He allows that one letter found in the archives, a report on a Polish Jewish woman who left Poland for Mexico in 1968, has the “tone of a denunciation,” though containing in fact nothing to cause damage to anyone. His chief gripe is not with Kapuściński’s sense of duty to his government, but to the problems such cooperation causes journalism. “By cooperating with intelligence even occasionally…Kapuściński wasn’t committing the sin of selling his soul to the ‘Red devil,’ as the anti-communist inquisition declares, but a completely different sin”—of sullying the reputation of journalism in a way that makes it difficult and potentially dangerous for reporters to do their work. It was no better and no worse, he adds, than all the debriefings and “casual” conversations with intelligence officials regularly engaged in by American correspondents during the Cold War.
“Passion, passion, passion!” Domosławski quotes Kapuściński telling a friend, speaking of the indispensable quality that makes for good creative work. The only serious weakness of this biography is that we don’t see the passion that is so clearly stamped into Kapuściński’s character. Domosławski focuses more on the logistics of his travels and the veracity of selected texts than on the passions that animated him. We get glimpses of these in descriptions of his encounters with friends and in the reminiscences of those friends. But something about the man remains a mystery. Kapuściński could sit for days with street people and guerrillas, listening but not writing. Other times, he carried a gun, in Angola apparently used it—yet the same man who often overstated banal events kept silent about this. There’s something here way beyond fascination with the third world that one wishes his pupil Domosławski had tapped into. Domosławski gives us a Kapuściński of the Left, but tells us too much about his relationship to the Party and not enough about the ardor in all his choices.
Yet this remains an extraordinary book offering a complex picture of a man and his time, and provoking in the reader the deepest reflections—on literature and journalism, the nature of political commitment, and the challenges to maintaining that commitment as the world changes around you.
David Ost teaches politics at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and has written widely on eastern Europe. His most recent book is The Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe.