In those unbelievable times ordinary Poles got up at dawn to stand in
line in front of a bookstore, to hunt down their dream book. They
followed world politics avidly, and knew more about the Third World than
the British and French combined.
You could say that in communist Poland, people hunted for books because
everything was in short supply, while rooting for Patrice Lumumba,
concern for the fate of Allende or following the stormy life of Che
Guevara was a substitute for the complete lack of political attractions
in a country ruled by communists.
What was a hundred times more important, though, was that in the West’s
voracious discovery of Latin America in the throes of social paroxysms,
in learning about Africa at a time when a new independent country was
born every month and diplomats from the world powers had problems
pronouncing the names of the leaders they were backing in the race to
dominate the planet, Poles unexpectedly played a major role. Not Polish
politicians, of course, nor ethnographers, nor secret service agents,
but reporters. Poland of the 1960s and 70s was extremely lucky, as this
was where a group of extraordinarily talented reporters emerged.
Writing about Poland was restricted by the severe rules of censorship,
so these writers found refuge in reporting from other countries. One of
them managed to elevate reporting to the rank of literature of the
highest standard. And, something that was even more difficult for a
Pole, he managed to achieve world fame and commercial success. At home,
despite barking from the little mongrels of a dated conservative
revolution, he maintained the position of a moral authority—no mean feat
during times of political breakthroughs.
Today Ryszard Kapuściński is no longer with us, and we can only turn to
his famous books, translated into 20 languages: The Emperor, about
Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, Shah of Shahs, about Khomeini’s revolution,
Imperium, about Gorbachev’s Russia, and Ebony about Africa. But these
books are not only about the tyranny in Ethiopia, the nature of the
Islamic revolution of Iran, the hell of postcolonial disappointments and
the sources of Latin American radicalisms. In fact, whatever
Kapuściński described, he was always writing about the same thing: the
need to respect and understand others, and the need to remain on the
side of the poor and excluded.
Was Kapuściński a leftist?
Certainly Kapuściński was a man of the left. “The principle of moral
honesty is a quality of the Latin American leftists,” he wrote in the
well-known book Christ With a Rifle on His Shoulder.
He wrote with complete understanding about leftist guerillas and
disgust about American imperialism in Latin America. He translated Che’s
Guevara legendary Bolivian Diary with foreword by Fidel Castro, was
skeptical towards the free market and globalization, and criticized the
West for its hypocrisy towards the needs of the Third World.
It makes sense that someone for whom imperialism was not just a
catchword on banners during anti-American rallies organized by the
ruling communist parties in Eastern Europe, would favor the left.
Kapuściński observed and described imperialism every day. In Guatemala,
when the U.S. ambassador gave a list to the armed forces commander and
demanded that the people on the list be executed within 24 hours. “But
why?” asked the colonel. “Because they’re communists,” the ambassador
replied. In Africa, where successive countries won independence only to
drown it in civil wars upheld by the only technology that the
superpowers did not grudge them—weapons.
Kapuściński obsessively returned to the issue of silence, silence that
is just as much a political tool as the clash of weapons or a speech at a
rally. Silence is needed by tyrants and invaders, who make sure their
actions are accompanied by silence. “If I turn on a local radio station
in Guatemala and hear only songs, a beer commercial and one piece of
news—that Siamese twins have been born in India, I know that the station
is in the service of silence. Also in the service of silence are
successive dictators of this country, their protectors from Miami and
Boston, the local army and the police.”
Kapuściński was a man of the left, and his leftist views stemmed from
sympathy for the disinherited, hurt and humiliated in a world of money.
The phenomenon of Kapuściński lay in the fact that he did not describe
the destitution of the Third World from the position of a sympathetic
Victorian lady. He himself came from the pits of prewar Polish poverty,
from Jewish-Polish Pińsk, a town lost among the marshes of today’s
Belarus. In his last book, Travels With Herodotus, he described how,
aged 10, he cried half the tears of his life because he had to get money
for shoes by selling soap from door to door, and no one wanted to buy
it. Kapuściński the reporter looked at a barefoot Indian beggar, at the
outsider, and that person was close to his heart because he had been
carrying that outsider inside him from childhood and had never got rid
The boy from Pińsk also retained the conviction, shared by many peers
from Polish villages and towns, that it is certainly not capitalism that
can bring a change of fate to the disinherited.
Yes, if leftism means identifying with the disadvantaged and opposing
intolerance, xenophobia and religious fanaticism, then the greatest
Polish writer was a man of the left.
Obviously, Kapuściński wrote about politics.
He wrote about countries with no great private industry, where the
plantations belong to foreigners, the banks are owned by overseas
capital and the only way to make a fortune is a political career. Take
Akintola, prime minister of Western Nigeria. Five years before, he had
been a middle-class lawyer. After a year as PM, he had millions. He
simply transferred funds from the government’s account to his private
one. The poverty and disillusionment of those at the bottom and the
greed and voracity of those at the top created a poisonous, highly
charged atmosphere in which the army, calling themselves defenders of
the wronged, reached for power.
He wrote about modernization coming from the top. The Great
Civilization of the shah turned to dust because it was an alien graft
that never took root. It was an attempt to impose a certain model of
life on a society that was attached to completely different traditions
and values. The rejection of a graft is an inexorable process once it
starts. Society will never know peace until it purges itself of the
alien tissue transplanted by force.
He wrote about Liberia and the revolt of the slaves of former slaves
from America, and about the end of the corrupt President Tolbert, whom
the future president, Sergeant Doe, quartered in his bed, pulling out
his insides and throwing them to the dogs in the courtyard. Then there
was the death of Doe himself, which his successor ordered to be filmed
in every detail: the massacred face, the head swollen from blows, his
ears being cut off with a bayonet. All this so he would disclose his
Swiss bank account number. Every time a dictator is hunted down in
Africa, the entire investigation revolves around just one thing—the
number of his private bank account.
He wrote about how the almost half-million strong army of Ethiopia’s
Marxist tyrant broke down within hours, how soldiers armed with
kalashnikovs turned into beggars before the eyes of the capital city’s
flabbergasted residents, how they begged for food, and then—abandoning
their planes and guns—set off on foot, on mules, and by bus to their
Kapuściński went to the Third World for the first time in 1956. He got
to grips with it at the cost of catching malaria and tuberculosis, and
almost dying. He forced his way through to wherever new revolts and new
wars were flaring up. Then he stopped rushing forward and got to know
the Third World from within and through personal insight.
He wrote about politics, but also about waiting—the dead waiting that
Africans spend a sizable part of their lives doing. “He says nothing,
silent. The muscles loosen. The figure goes limp, slumps, shrinks. The
neck goes rigid, the head doesn’t move. The man does not look around, he
watches out for nothing, he is not interested.”
He wrote about time. For Africans, time is a much looser category than
it is for Europeans. It is open, flexible, subjective. Time depends on
people. In practice this means that if a meeting is to be held in the
village at noon and there is no one there, it is pointless to ask,
“When’s the meeting?” because the answer is obvious: “When the people
Kapuściński was a writer of the world’s disintegration and felt the
best wherever it was obvious that things would never be the same again.
But Ebony also features the beautiful tale of morning in the village of
Abdallah Wallo—a village where no hens cluck, no cows moo, where there
is no vegetation, greenery, gardens or orchards. People live face to
face with the bare earth. There are people and there is water. The men
pray, the women are busy cooking rice. There is a ritual of morning
visits and greetings, when everyone visits everyone else and asks
whether they slept well.
Before Kapuściński told Poles about the Third World, he told them about provincial Poland.
The Bush, Polish Style includes a description of a rural dance and
crowds of country girls. The reporter suddenly notices they are all
laughing with their lips tight shut. It is because all their front teeth
Later Kapuściński wrote about distant countries, but Polish readers
anyway recognized Polish communist leaders in the Asian and African
rulers. He wrote about Ethiopia and people saw the Polish reality:
servility, an ossified system, suspiciousness, fear of change. He wrote
about the revolution in Iran, but Poles reading about the Persians
rejecting a foreign system of values winked knowingly at one another and
thought about how communism had been imposed on them. The books were
perceived as allegorical images of the communist system’s decay.
In actual fact Kapuściński always avoided literalism and short-term
polemics on Polish affairs. It was enough that thanks to him, Poles
during authoritarian times and later, in a free Poland focused only on
itself, felt less parochial and less provincial. It is less important to
the Poles that, like Norman Mailer or Joan Didion, he turned reporting
into literature. The important thing is that he was one of the builders
of the Noah’s Ark on which educated Poles floated through communism in a
decent mental condition.
The important thing is that very few fail to recognize the first
sentences from his best book, The Emperor: “It was a small dog, a
Japanese breed. His name was Lulu. He was allowed to sleep in the
Emperor’s great bed. During various ceremonies, he would run away from
the Emperor’s lap and pee on dignitaries’ shoes.”