Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life
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Controversial biography of the twentieth-century master of literary reportage
Definitive biography of one of the most significant journalists of the twentieth century.
Reporting from such varied locations as postcolonial Africa, revolutionary Iran, the military dictatorships of Latin America and Soviet Russia, the Polish journalist and writer Ryszard Kapuściński was one of the most influential eyewitness journalists of the twentieth century. During the Cold War, he was a dauntless investigator as well as a towering literary talent, and books such as The Emperor and Travels with Herodotus founded the new genre of ‘literary reportage’. It was an achievement that brought him global renown, not to mention the uninvited attentions of the CIA.
In this definitive biography, Artur Domosławski shines a new light on the personal relationships of this intensely charismatic, deeply private man, examining the intractable issue at the heart of Kapuściński's life and work: the relationship and tension between journalism and literature.
In researching this book, Domosławski, himself an award-winning foreign correspondent, enjoyed unprecedented access to Kapuściński's private papers. The result traces his mentor’s footsteps through Africa and Latin America, delves into files and archives that Kapuściński himself examined, and records conversations with the people that he talked to in the course of his own investigations. Ryszard Kapuściński is a meticulous, riveting portrait of a complex man of intense curiosity living at the heart of dangerous times.
from the review in Guardian
"Kapuściński" has long been one of Poland's few internationally recognised names, comparable to "Miłosz" or "Polanski". His vivid literary reporting of the uses and misuses of power, in the books The Emperor, The Soccer War and Shah of Shahs, was widely read in the 1980s and beyond, partly because of the author's unique position (a star reporter emerging from the darkness of communist Poland, then in the midst of martial law after a failed workers revolt) but mainly for its unusual style – personal, meticulous, literary, digressive. His wasn't the typical way of writing journalism and, similarly, Artur Domosławski's book is not a conventional biography. Both the author and his "hero", friend and mentor stand out from what was acceptable during the cold war, and today.
The book caused much controversy when it was published in Poland two years ago (with the title Kapuściński – Non-Fiction). For foreign commentators, the main interest was in discovering how its subject had embroidered the truth in service to style or politics – the fabulations involved his meetings with Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Idi Amin and Salvador Allende. (The Guardian ran numerous pieces in his defence, including by Neal Ascherson and Timothy Garton Ash.) In Poland, the issues were different. Kapuściński's widow tried to stop the book's publication because of its unembellished descriptions of the writer's private life (in particular, his extramarital affairs). But more important than these revelations was Domosławskii's confirmation of the reporter's close connection with various aspects of the communist order, including the intelligence services; his belief in socialist ideology; and his uneasy adaptation to post-1989 realities. In engaging with all this, Domosławski has produced a rare and subtle portrait of the People's Republic of Poland.
threat of ‘fraternal aid’ from Moscow?) Kapuściński’s wish, to some extent, comes true – the Party does not disintegrate. However, it does not become stronger by rebuilding credibility or by coming out to meet the Solidarity movement halfway, but by increasing discipline and entrenching itself in positions that for this revolutionary era are conservative. Following the congress, the enthusiast changes into a pessimist. From conversations he had with Kapuściński at the time, Werblan
he is afraid. ‘I could see the fear growing in him that eventually they’d drag out his connections with the intelligence service,’ says Osiatyński. ‘Did you ever talk about it?’ ‘Yes. He said, “I’m sure to have something in my documents.” ’ In the final months of his life, rumours reach him that in one of its features programmes the public television channel intends to reveal his connections with the PRL’s intelligence service. He doesn’t know exactly ‘what they’ve got on
service? I have tried to determine whether the CIA holds any material on Kapuściński. Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, who has often fought battles with the agency for declassification of its documents, tells me I shouldn’t waste my time and energy. The CIA does not provide information about people and never answers questions about specific individuals. In addition, the CIA has won several precedent-setting cases, in which attempts had been made, based on
criticism of 236, 363 post-1989 32–3 post-war 46–8 pre-war, foreign policy 220 See also Polish People’s Republic Poland. Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MSZ) 119, 148, 238, 364 Department I 369–70 head office 374 lustration 367, 369 Poland. Ministry of Internal Affairs 275 Poland. Ministry of Public Security 49 Poland. Ministry of Public Security. Department X 84 Pole Mokotowskie (Warsaw) 65, 67, 68 Polesie 9–10, 11, 13, 164, 246, 295,
the world. ‘He used to come and see us at the Central Committee – I can remember having conversations about the rivalry between the Soviet Union and China on African territory, and of course about decolonization. He was an idealist, always emotionally involved, sometimes a little uncritical. He also had an emotional approach to his leftist convictions and his Party membership, wholly and utterly.’ I ask Werblan for character sketches of Kapuściński’s remaining political friends (apart