Ryszard Kapuscinski: the weaving of a subtle, insidious legend

Ryszard Kapuscinski: a Life – review.

Ryszard Kapuscinski
Ryszard Kapuscinski. Photograph: Getty Images

Ryszard Kapuscinski: a Life
Artur Domosławski
Verso, 464pp, £25

In a piece quoted in Artur Domosławski’s absorbing life of the celebrated Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski, Salman Rushdie wrote: “One Kapuscinski is worth 1,000 grizzled journofantasists.” He was reviewing Another Day of Life, Kapuscinski’s portrayal of Luanda in 1975 as the Portuguese withdrew from Angola and the city awaited the arrival of the rival guerrilla forces battling for power. Rushdie praised the combination of reportage and artistry that soared above the self-serving bombast of most war reporters. Earlier books translated into English on Haile Selassie (The Emperor) and the Iranian Revolution (Shah of Shahs) had vaulted Kapuscinski from obscurity to literary celebrity. The irony of Rushdie’s assessment is that this fine biography reveals Kapuscinski – a mentor and hero to its author – as a “journofantasist” in his own right.

“I catch myself fearing that, without meaning to write an exposé, I am discovering facts about the master’s life which I would rather not know at all,” Domosławski writes. Kapuscinski’s self-effacing smile concealed a lifetime of secrets, evasions, lies and confabulations. There was nothing he avoided confronting more than his personal history as a dedicated communist activist in his youth and a party member throughout his career until Solidarity’s breakthrough in the early 1980s. He was his own revisionist and censor, claiming to have taken his first job on a party newspaper during the ideological thaw that followed Stalin’s death when, in reality, he had worked there long before.

His career prospered and he was able to carve out a degree of independence and integrity because he was, in Domosławski’s words, “a master dodger”, never refusing to write to order but then delivering the kind of piece that would be subtly challenging and elusively unsatisfying to his political masters. “The wolf is fed and the sheep is still in one piece,” he would confide to his colleagues.

Yet he could not prevent this balancing act from tipping over into cynicism. In the midst of the fierce anti-Semitic campaign in Poland in 1968, Kapuscinski advised a close friend: “[D]on’t stick your neck out because it’s very unfashionable now.”

He was able to get away with much by spending most of his career as a foreign correspondent for the Polish news agency in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Living apart from his wife and child in Poland, he pored over local newspapers and wrote political analyses of revolutionary change often circulated to party officials back in Warsaw. All the while, he was travelling and observing and gathering the material for the books that would be written later in an entirely different register.

In the books, the facts of a war or a revolution, the mere events, receded into the background. Kapuscinski’s oblique narratives often had the feel of a fable. Often he was the only person present at the events he described. Who was to contradict his version of events?

There was something else going on as well – the creation of himself as the hero of his stories, not in the self-aggrandising manner of the well-travelled hack but through the weaving of a more subtle, insidious legend. Did Belgian paratroopers threaten to murder him in Burundi? Did he meet Che Guevara and Patrice Lumumba?

When his books were taken on, almost by accident, by a New York publisher in the early 1980s, the legend became the character. He was the man who had witnessed 27 coups and revolutions, who repeatedly escaped death by firing squad and befriended Guevara, Salvador Allende and Lumumba. Domosławski’s biography is especially good on the price of Kapuscinski’s literary fame. In the US, one of his friends observed, he realised that a writer had to build an image. He worked hard, through embellishment and exaggeration, to create the image of the fearless war reporter. The price he paid was the fear that one day he would be unmasked.

In June 1989, when Poland voted the communists out of power, I interviewed Kapuscinski in Warsaw for a television documentary. I was greeted with the self-effacing smile. He wanted to associate himself with Solidarity’s victory: “Our victory came after a very tough fight.” Invitations to reflect on his life story were politely brushed aside.

With the end of communism, his fear grew. Lurking in the archives was a file detailing his co-operation with the intelligence services over several years. By the time he died in January 2007, the pressure had become almost intolerable, although the file was not published until four months afterwards.

Kapuscinski’s story was by no means unusual. He belonged to a generation that put its faith in communism in the belief that, as the Polish opposition leader Jacek Kuron remembered, “Everything bad would disappear.” As Domosławski shows in this sympathetic but astringent biography, for all his gifts as a self-mythologist, Kapuscinski failed in making a convincing story from the truth.

Maurice Walsh’s most recent book is “The News from Ireland: Foreign Correspondents and the Irish Revolution” (I B Tauris, £12.99)