Ryszard Kapuściński

more than a year ago
He didn’t win any wars, and his role in the downfall of communism was peripheral at the very best, yet when it comes to making lists of the greatest Poles of the 20th century, few come out ahead of Ryszard Kapuściński. Known primarily as a journalist, a foreign correspondent in those pre-internet days when news stories had to be researched and pursued first hand, in his own idiom he was in fact less a journalist and more a 'literary reporter,' who made Third World reportage his own. Nobody documented the end of empire in South America, the Middle East and especially Africa with more matter-of-fact objectivity - incredible given that Kapuściński was present in these places as the correspondent of the Polish News Agency; and Poland at that time was a staunch ally of the Soviet Union.

Indeed, this apparent freedom with which Kapuściński wrote inevitably led to accusations of collaboration with Poland's secret service. Yet neither these accusations (as yet unfounded) nor the publication of a highly unflattering biography in 2010 have failed to damage Kapuściński's reputation as the finest journalist of the century. His legacy today endures in his reportage and his travel writing (and the two need to be split, for Kapuściński carried two notebooks - one for news dispatches to Poland, the other for his books), both of which are timeless and unsurpassed masterpieces.


Kapuściński was born in the city of Pinsk, on March 4, 1932. Then, in those heady days of the Second Polish Republic, the city was in Poland; today it lies in Belarus. He describes his childhood - especially when the world as he knows it comes to an end in 1939 with the Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland and the outbreak of World War II - in the one book that perhaps comes closest to a formal autobiography, Imperium. Born to little more than poverty, the changes in his everyday life (teachers suddenly disappear, portraits of Stalin taking pride of place in the classroom) are described with his characteristic matter-of-factness that would set his journalism apart. For while Kapuściński could never be accused of cheapening the value of human life, his experience of growing up in a war zone clearly brought home its transitory nature.

More than his abilities as a gifted pupil, it was the immaculate working class credentials of his family which meant that Kapuściński had no trouble bagging a place at Warsaw University in 1950, at the very height of the Stalinist period. After cutting his teeth in domestic journalism (and becoming a member of Poland’s Communist Party in 1954) Kapuściński was appointed in 1956 (shortly after Władysław Gomułka had become Polish leader, and had begun to pursue a policy of relative de-Stalinization) as the Polish News Agency’s first - and only - foreign correspondent. As Kapuściński himself liked to joke, ‘my beat was the whole world. I was responsible for 50 countries.’ His first trip in his new role was to newly-independent India (described in detail in Travels With Herodotus), and would set the tone for the next 40 years: Kapuściński became obsessed with the pursuit of self-determination in the Third World, and the subject of oppressed masses fighting off imperial domination was one which found approval with his bosses at home in Poland. Kapuściński also reminds us of the nasty Empire closer to home as he describes his return (via Moscow) from India:

“When the plane from Moscow started to descend over Warsaw, my neighbour trembled, squeezed the arms of his chair with both hands, and closed his eyes. He had a gray, ravaged face, covered in wrinkles. A musty, cheap suit hung loosely on his thin bony frame. I looked at him furtively, out of the corner of my eye. Tears were flowing down his cheeks. And a moment later I heard a suppressed but nevertheless distinct sob. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said to me. ‘I’m sorry, but I never thought that I would return.’ It was December 1956. People were still coming out of the gulags.”


Though his first forays as a reporter were to Asia, near and far (and his Asian travels are covered primarily in his book Travels With Herodotus - the first Polish translation of Herodotus’s Histories appeared in bookshops only in December 1955, and Kapuściński read it as he travelled), the majority of Kapuściński’s life as a reporter was spent chronicling the independence struggle of what appears to be the whole of the African continent. Of his many gifts, Kapuściński made great use of his unique position as a Polish correspondent: one which is often underplayed.

In Africa at that time, where there was much anti-British, French, Belgian and anti-Imperial sentiment in general, there was similarly much suspicion of the Soviet Union and its growing empire. Kapuściński played the Third Way card brilliantly, garnering access to all sorts of politicians and revolutionaries by positioning himself as neither a member of the old imperial order, nor the new. To this extent he was following the Polish Communist Party line of the 1950s and 1960s, which set out to portray itself as independent as possible from the Soviet Union (whether of course it was or not is beyond the scope of this feature).

Kapuściński’s first visit to Africa (on a shoestring budget: the man was perennially beset by a lack of funds and often resorted to charming better-paid colleagues into helping him out) was to report from Ghana (which until a year before had been the British Colony 'Gold Coast') in 1958, as the country came to terms with its new independence. Within days of arrival he had befriended the Minister of Education, and this ability to quickly make friends in high places would remain with him for the remainder of his career.

Kapuściński’s African adventures make up the bulk of his legacy, not least the two remarkable books Shadow of the Sun and Another Day of Life. Amongst a great deal of fine writing, Shadow of the Sun contains the flawless Lecture on Rwanda, written shortly after the Hutu massacre of Tutsis in 1994. It is the finest, most succinct explanation of Rwanda’s fall into genocide ever written:

“Estimates of the number of victims vary. Some say half a million, others one million. No one will ever know for sure. The most terrifying fact is that people who only yesterday were guilty of nothing were today murdering other completely innocent people. And so even if the number of victims was not one million but, let us say, just one, would it not be proof enough that the devil is among us, and that in the spring of 1994 he just happened to be in Rwanda?”

The Emperor, and controversy

Of all Kapuscinski’s African reportage, he is perhaps best known in the English-speaking world for his 1978 book The Emperor, which appeared in English in 1983 and was named that year’s 'Book of the Year' by the Sunday Times.

The Emperor is ostensibly the inside story of the downfall of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, told in three parts using a great deal of testimony from members of Haile Selassie’s court. As John Ryle put it in his review of The Emperor for the Times Literary Supplement, “This arresting picture of the accelerating collapse of an authoritarian regime had special resonance for his audience in Poland, where dissent against communist autocracy was growing.”

While The Emperor was the book that unquestionably established Kapuściński’s reputation as a writer of the highest order in the West, it is also the most questioned and disputed of his works. Accusations of inaccuracies and implausible situations have been many. John Ryle himself claims that while we are told Selassie ‘did not read, and had to be relayed every piece of information and news by word of mouth,’ it is in fact widely known that the emperor was well-read, both in Amharic and in French, and possessed a large library where he spent long periods of time.

The Emperor has since been placed in a Polish literary genre of the age where dissent masquerades as descriptive prose; and even Kapuściński himself subsequently endorsed this interpretation. The only problem is that we are not told to treat the book as allegory.

Perhaps the nastiest attack on The Emperor (and on Kapuściński’s reputation itself) was made by Jack Shafer in the online magazine Slate, not two days after Kapuściński’s death in 2007. In a piece called 'The Lies of Ryszard Kapuściński,' Shafer concludes that whatever the motives for Kapuściński’s style of writing, “The liberties he takes with events, places, and people matter for the same reason it would matter if an Ethiopian journalist had covered the Solidarity uprising but ginned up his story in order to speak allegorical truth to the authorities in Addis Ababa. Nice try, but not journalism.”

Harsh words indeed, and unfair. For Kapuściński himself never disguised the fact that his books should not be read in the same way as his news reports. In an interview in 1987, reproduced in some later editions of The Emperor, he says: “You know, sometimes the critical response to my books is amusing. There are so many complaints: Kapuściński never mentions dates, Kapuściński never gives us the name of the minister, he has forgotten the order of events. All that, of course, is exactly what I avoid. If those are the questions you want answered, you can visit your local library, where you will find everything you need: the newspapers of the time, the reference books, a dictionary.”


On March 3rd, 2010, a highly critical biography of Kapuściński was published in Poland, called Kapuściński Non-Fiction, by Artur Domosławski. Kapuściński's widow, Alicja Kapuścińska, had spent the preceding months unsuccessfully trying to bring an injunction against publication of the biography, claiming defamation and invasion of privacy. This time, the major controversy was not Kapuściński’s perceived failings as a reporter, but instead his alleged extramarital affairs and his strained relationship with his daughter. Polish National Radio reported in February 2010 that “Domosławski also addresses Kapuscinski’s alleged cooperation with Soviet intelligence, based on information from the Institute of National Remembrance” (a body created in 1999 for the purpose of documenting and prosecuting crimes committed by the Nazi and the Communist regimes in Poland). Domosławski was nevertheless honoured for Kapuściński Non-Fiction, with the 'Grand Press,' the most prestigious journalistic award in Poland, and the corresponding title 'Journalist of the Year 2010.'

Yet as Domosławski told The Guardian in an interview, he was a little shocked at the storm his biography had caused: “I think my book is fair,” he said. “The strange thing is I see the man as my mentor. I was writing with sympathy about Kapuściński. I wrote it with empathy.” English readers can decide for themselves thanks to an English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, more subtly titled Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life.

The Soccer War

What nobody would argue with is the brilliance of Kapuściński’s masterpiece, The Soccer War. Here, the reportage is watertight, the dates and the facts all present and correct. As the title suggests The Soccer War tells the story of a short conflict involving El Salvador and Honduras which broke out in the aftermath of a World Cup qualifying football match between the two countries in 1969. Though it lasted just five days, as many as 3000 people died, including a number of civilians.

Kapuściński’s book is a classic that is part foreign correspondent’s journal (he details the lengths he had to go to file copy from the battlefield) and part explanation of the complex politics which were the real causes of the war. The idea that it was all about a football match is little more than a myth. Kapuściński outlines what he calls ‘the real reasons for the war’:

“El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America, has the greatest population density in the western hemisphere (over 160 people per square kilometre). Things are crowded, and all the more so because most of the land is in the hands of fourteen great landowning clans. People even say that El Salvador is the property of fourteen families. A thousand latjfundistas own exactly ten times as much land as their hundred thousand peasants. Two-thirds of the village population owns no land. For years a part of the landless poor has been emigrating to Honduras, where there are large tracts of unimproved land. Honduras (12,000 square kilometres) is almost six times as large as El Salvador, but has about half as many people (2,500,000). This was illegal emigration but was kept hushed-up, tolerated by the Honduran government for years.”

Translated into English only in 1990, The Soccer War has since become Kapuściński’s best-selling book in translation.

There are currently seven Kapuściński books available in English (which we list in order of their appearance in Polish, with the original publication date: Another Day of Life (Jeszcze dzień życia) (1976); The Soccer War (Wojna futbolowa) (1978); The Emperor (Cesarz) (1978); Shah of Shahs (Szachinszach) (1982); Imperium (Imperium) (1993); The Shadow of the Sun (Heban) (2001); Travels with Herodotus (2007). Any good bookstore will stock the full Kapuściński range - usually (and not without irony) in the Fiction section...


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