Lila MacLellan

I met the great Kapuściński in the spring of 1999, when he gave a journalism workshop at a Montreal university. His first day on campus, the Polish writer held the attention of a hundred or so students for nearly four hours: He spoke of African death squads and middle-of the-night rendezvous with rebel fighters who would not risk lighting a cigarette in the dark for fear they’d be spotted speaking to a foreigner, a reporter. He told us about the bar where he shared drinks with Mugabe when Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia. When he finished his talk, a few of us approached the legendary writer and asked him to join us for drinks at a Crescent Street bar. He turned us down with a bashful smile. “My friends, always more stretched canvases,” he said, gesturing toward a worn leather attaché. The reference was from a Milosz quote he had cited during his lecture: “In the morning at breakfast don’t think about anything except that you’ll go to your studio where the stretched canvases are waiting.”

“Ah, but it’s not morning,” said the petite, dark-haired Helene, a student from one of the French schools and a natural flirt. Kapu, as we called him, adjusted his smile. It was obvious that he had not noticed her until that moment. “A bright girl,” he said. He had time for an outing after all.

Ah, but if only this much was true. 

In fact, I’ve committed several journalistic (or review writing) sins with this opening. For one, I’ve fabricated the venue – I’m not sure Kapuściński ever visited Montreal, a city that, in any case, I had left before ‘99. I’ve also ignored what was said about Kapuściński as a public speaker – that he was awkward, unable to bring the drama of books like The Emperor, The Soccer War, The Shah of Shahs or Another Day of Life to the stage as he had on the page. In reality, I’ve never met the writer. But all the rest is true, in essence, at least. Kapuściński did lead literary reportage workshops for young journalists, though he began teaching in 2000 in Cartagena at a school founded by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (later he launched his own workshops in Mexico City). Adoring students really did nickname him Kapu. He was misogynistic, often attracted to smart young women, ready to launch short-lived affairs well into his late middle age. He was also dedicated to his work; he had used the Milosz line to remind himself of the need for unwavering devotion to one’s craft. 

My goal with this opening is to recreate the experience of reading the new biography, Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life, by Polish journalist Artur Domosławski, whom Kapuściński had mentored. The controversial account of Kapuściński’s life and work -- a meticulous investigation into how much of the Polish writer’s reporting from war zones was fact and how much was gorgeous, allegorical fiction – was finally published in English this summer, two years following its Polish release. It is full of tantalizing, intimate details about its enigmatic subject. At the end of the book, for example, Domosławski brings the reader inside the den where Kapuściński worked, a room left untouched since the master’s death in 2007. The Milosz line and a few other similarly inspiring or contemplative pieces of prose are discovered there, tacked to the wall and scattered on the desk. 

With this biography, what Domosławski has made painfully clear to Kapuściński’s somewhat cult-like fandom is that the latter writer’s habit of mixing facts with a little fiction to recreate what he called the “higher truth” was actually more like a process of mixing fiction with a few facts. Kapuściński rarely mentioned dates, but he used names and places almost as mileposts; they gave his metaphorical tales some grounding in reality. 

A history of the historian

Kapuściński worked as a foreign correspondent for PAP, the Polish press agency, covering numerous coups d’état and civil wars in Africa through the ‘50s, then travelled throughout Latin America in the ‘60s and ‘70s. For many years before his death, he was criticized by historians, anthropologists and some journalists for describing events or circumstances inaccurately, inventing scenes and mischaracterizing political leaders for dramatic effect. The writer and poet, who sent dispatches to Warsaw by day and wrote about the “real” Africa or Latin America by night, was known for defending his version of reality by claiming it a reporter’s duty to interpret events and get to the heart of the matter. As Domosławski tells us, Kapuściński would publish even outlandish rumors because he felt that their existence said something about the mental and social landscape of a people. 

So-called facts about Kapuściński’s life become almost ridiculously elastic as the biographer-reporter trudges on, interviewing family members, friends and colleagues. Domosławski learns that Kapuściński was not in Mexico City for the 1968 massacre – he arrived there one month after the event. Nor did Kapuściński witness the 1973 putsch that put Pinochet into power, though he had been to Chile in the years before and after the coup (Kapuściński, in discussions, had used a vague phrase – “I was there then” – regarding both events, previously leading Domosławski to believe that the older journalist had been an eyewitness in both cases). Kapuściński also allowed his British publisher to print, and reprint, a blurb on his books that said the author had befriended Che Guevara, when in fact the two had never met. One of Kapuściński’s most outrageous fibs was about an episode in Burundi, described in The Soccer War, in which the journalist and four other US accredited reporters were apparently caught in a conflict and faced execution by Belgian soldiers. An account from one of the other journalists at the scene suggests Kapuściński was exaggerating a more benign situation, perhaps taking some of the mouthy Belgians’ jokes too seriously. 

Students of “new journalism” will be surprised to learn that Kapuściński likely invented the dog Lulu, introduced in The Emperor. Lulu, according to the book, belonged to Ethiopian “King of Kings” Haile Selassie. A small Japanese breed, Lulu would leave the King’s lap during ceremonies, often choosing to pee on the shoes of visiting dignitaries without any fear of being reprimanded. In fact, the dignitaries whose shoes and pant cuffs were being violated were expected to act as if nothing were happening. This we learn from a man whose job for ten years was to follow the dog with a satin cloth, wiping up the pet’s urine. The pee-wiper, however, is an unnamed source whose interview appears in The Emperor, and whose existence is doubted by Kapuściński’s acquaintances who lived in Addis Ababa at the time. Writing classes have analyzed the Lulu passage  ever since the Emperor was published (in 1978 in Poland and 1989 in the US).  

Only a writer of Kapuściński’s talent could be forgiven as much as he has for mucking up the “non-fiction” category so thoroughly. Admirers – fans and friends included Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez – have compared the writer’s journalistic abilities to those of George Orwell and Joan Didion. One critic Domosławski quotes said that the Polish journalist offered “Shakespeare’s insight into the heart, the narrative flow of Dickens, the existential distance of Camus, and the simplicity of Orwell and Hemingway.” Few writers have charted the impacts of corruption and power, and especially the lives of ordinary people living under oppression, with as much empathy or with sharper observations. Here, for example, is Kapuściński in The Emperor, in a section Domosławski used to exemplify his mentor’s skill for writing about Poland under the guise of writing about the Third World, a slight of hand used to dodge communist censors: “To protect themselves from the plague of informers, people learned . . . another language, mastered it, and became so fluent in it that we simple and uneducated folk suddenly became a bilingual nation . . . One tongue served for external speech, the other for internal. The first was sweet and the second bitter, the first polished and the second coarse, one allowed to come to the surface and the other kept out of sight.”

In the Shah of Shahs, Kapuściński describes a photograph of a bus stop saying, “People waiting for a bus look the same all over the world, which is to say they have the same apathetic expression on their faces, the same posture of sluggishness and defeat, the same dullness and antipathy in their eyes.” Reporting a story in Poland, he notes, “People who stare to one side have something to say, but they are choked by fear.” In these ways, Kapuściński brought towns and villages caught in violent upheaval into clear focus, showing European and Western readers how they - the young men and women cradling rifles, or a fearful old man in Tehran - are us. Does it matter whether these observations were triggered by actual events? 

Fortunately, for those who read Kapuściński for its moments of sensitivity, and not as much for the grenades and tracers, Domosławski is curious about the personal history that created both Kapuściński, the poet, and the other – the courageous literary character starring in his own narratives, as the biographer describes him. One of Domosławski’s earliest discoveries about the writer’s family history offers a clue as to why Kapuściński lied so often to make his sufficiently dramatic life experience – he had seen frontline battles, and had even picked up arms to join in the combat when necessary – appear even more daring. 

Kapuściński was born in 1932 in Pinsk (now part of Belarus) to parents who had moved to the remote region as teachers. His father, we learn, was a stern mathematics and technological studies instructor who had no appreciation for writing. His mother worshipped her only boy, Domosławski reports, but the father, Jozef often tormented him:

The father, by contrast, enjoyed making fun of his son. Whenever Rysiek was keenly studying something, he always underlined important sentences in books – a habit he continued throughout life, initially as a renowned reporter and then as a world-famous writer – and his father would provoke him by saying: ‘Go to bed, Rysio. I’ll have the whole book underlined for you by morning.’ He also used to joke that Rysiek was of medium height.... 

Rysiek could not look to his father for inspiring conversation about culture, books, politics or the world. For years he suffered from feeling he was a poorly educated provincial who had been given little at home and had had to achieve everything through hard work. Once he told me that as a young reporter, whenever he used to meet his fellow writers Kazimierz Dziewanowski and Wojciech Giełżyński, both of whom came from truly intellectual homes, he was ashamed to speak up. ‘They knew all about everything; they used to exchange names and book titles I had never even heard of,’ he said, perhaps with a note of pride at having outdistanced these colleagues. Yet many years earlier, as he sat with them not knowing what and how to contribute to the conversation, he must have felt pain rather than pride.

To be fair, Jozef Kapuściński is also a sympathetic character in this biography. During the war, he took extra jobs soldering pots and collecting taxes to buy what food he could for his family.  When the Russians took control of their city, Jozef, a reserve office of the Polish army, had to live on the run lest he meet the same fate of neighbors like those little Ryszard saw tortured in the street; one man was dragged by a car until his skin had peeled off his body. 

In one of his later books, Kapuściński wrote that his father had been captured by the NKVD, the soviet secret police, but that he had escaped as they were transporting him to Katyn, the prison where, in 1940, nearly 22,000 Polish civilians – many police officers or members of the intelligentsia – were massacred. Kapuściński’s sister tells Domosławski that, in fact, her father was never taken prisoner by the Russians. That leaves Domosławski guessing again as to whether this significant confabulation is more “self-creation” or political expediency. The Katyn tale was created when it would have been advantageous for Kapuściński to distance himself from Poland’s post-war Stalinist communist era.

Seeking a psychoanalytic reading of his mentor’s strange myth-making, Domosławski consults Renata Salecl, a New York expert on the theories of Jacques Lacan. Without knowing anything about Kapuściński’s father, she told the biographer: “In a son’s life, the father can be a figure prompting strong anxiety...The father’s absence, or his weakness, do not quell this anxiety at all. On the contrary, they can stir or provoke him into seeking a father substitute, who may for example be a cult political leader with whom he can identify.” About the Katyn fabrication, she says, “It is possible that in adding this strong element of Poland’s heroic, martyrological history to his father’s biography...Kapuściński as it were created him over again, built an authority which never existed, but which he so greatly needed.”

Kapuściński’s apparent lack of confidence (even after he became famous), and his desperate need to be liked are recurring themes throughout the biography. Alicja Kapuscinska, the writer’s wife, had tried to block the biography’s publication in Poland partly because of its revelations about her husband’s multiple love affairs. Kapuściński was not a loyal partner and he spent very little time with his daughter, who eventually ran away to live in Canada, where she changed her name. One of the writer’s friends, interviewed for A Life, explains Kapuściński’s infidelities saying, “A man who is unsure of himself – and Rysiek was that type – seeks acceptance and confirmation of his own value in various fields, including relationships with the opposite sex.”

In light of these early years, viewed against the backdrop of the war and suffering he witnessed, Kapuściński’s blend of machismo and keen perceptiveness begin to make more sense. 

The price of wounded dignity 

By all accounts, Kapuściński, as a colleague or fellow ex-pat, was highly likable, and so is this rich biography. The author’s determination to unravel a complicated life, to separate truth from myth about the writer he had revered, lends the book the atmosphere of a detective novel, its central mystery unsolvable. To be sure, the beginning and second half of the book are most captivating; I would argue that for readers who don’t share the author’s interest in Polish politics and journalism of the 1950s, there’s a chunk of the 423-page biography that feels tedious. Another nitpick, perhaps, but as other reviewers have pointed out, the author’s use of the present tense can be disorienting. Still, this is something a person can get used to. What’s harder to accommodate are the relentless - and somewhat disheartening - revelations about all the untruths. Even Pinsk was given a romantic gloss by its most famous former resident; in notes for a book that was never written, Kapuściński did not acknowledge the anti-Semitic attitudes held by the city’s minority Poles who did nothing to stop the removal and eventual annihilation of 11,000 Jews when the Nazis arrived.  

And what of his relationship to communism? By the end of the book, it’s unclear what Kapuściński knew of the brutalities committed under Polish Stalinism when he was a young, zealous party member, or whether his willingness to work with the Party (he remained a member until 1981) was mostly about protecting his own freedom to go overseas and write. Only his misgivings about Western-style capitalism and the superficial culture it creates are obvious. 

Domosławski is an intelligent decoder of Kapuściński’s changing, perhaps maturing view of the world’s conflicts as Kapuściński, an idealist, ages. The biographer values what Kapuściński does best: write about the poor, the hungry, the fearful and impassioned people of foreign cultures without condescension. When Kapuściński saw Poland’s solidarity movement coming to the fore, he was energized by its promise. Says Domosławski: “Kapuściński realizes that wages and economic issues are not at the heart of the Polish rebellion. The realization reconfirms his belief, formed by years spent in the Third World, that the main motor of most protest movements, uprisings and revolutions is not the fight for bread, but wounded dignity. A moment comes when people refuse to put up with any more humiliation.”

Though Domosławski drops the psychoanalytic line of inquiry fairly early in the book, each time a new deceit is revealed, it’s hard not to be reminded of the sensitive artist as a child, teenager or young adult, struggling to prove his worth to the head of his household, the indifferent or hostile father. The biographer must have been reminded of this, too, when near the end of his investigation, he reports on another scrap of paper found in Kapuściński's study. This time it appears to be one of the master’s musings. “Studies of child psychology are studies of human psychology. In actual fact, only in very few people does it change with age. Most of us remain children inside to the very end – except with more and more wrinkled skin.”

It’s more proof: Kapuściński may have been a man unsure of himself, but he was deeply knowing of us.  

Lila MacLellan lives in New York where she works as a web editor and freelance writer. She holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School and a BA in journalism from Concordia University in Montreal. She's also an adjunct professor at Pace University. An archetypal Canadian, she very rarely fibs.