Autor:Frank Bajak – Associated Press Writer
Ryszard Kapuscinski’s chief metier was Africa and Latin America in the
throes of violent revolution. As a roving foreign correspondent for
Poland’s state press agency for more than two decades, he likely
witnessed more tumult than any of his peers. But Kapuscinski, who died
Tuesday at age 74, was much more than a man who took great risks to get
the best insights – heading into the bush when colleagues were fleeing
on the last planes out.
In the early 1960s, when Africa was shaking off colonialism’s shackles,
he got frustrated with the limitations of daily journalism and began to
write books, establishing himself as a poetic chronicler of the human
Along with the likes of Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Gabriel Garcia
Marquez, this charismatic, probing Pole with a philosopher’s gravitas
and a bon vivant’s lust for life has been credited with creating a „New
Journalism” – literary reportage.
Garcia Marquez once called Kapuscinski „the true master of
journalism.” As well as anyone, Kapuscinski (pronounced
‚Kah-poosh-CHIN-skee’) found pithy insight in daily encounters. With
economy and delectable metaphor, he could capture a nation’s soul, a
universal human trait, the genesis of revolution.
The starting point is observation, travels, that which I see, that
which I encounter, people, what I myself live through,” Kapuscinski
told me in a 1994 interview. „But all of that is to be able to impart
universal truths, to lead to wider reflection, historical reflection.”
Grab the author’s „In the Shadow of the Sun” for a fond appreciation
of Africa – in sketches, for it would have been foolhardy to attempt to
comprehend the continent as a whole, Kapuscinski told me. Pick up
„Imperium” for a sympathetic portrait of „Homo Sovieticus,” that
paradigm of humanity beaten into submission by a heartless state.
Or marvel reading „Another Day of Life” at Kapuscinski’s derring-do
and willingness to submit to physical depredation to chronicle the
outbreak of Angola’s civil war.
This man who witnessed 30 coups and revolutions and counted Che
Guevara, Salvador Allende and Patrice Lumumba among his friends, was
also a passionate advocate of journalism’s role in human discourse and
devoted much of his later life to training young reporters. Better than
anyone I’ve met, he could explain the value of the profession to which
I’ve dedicated my life.
We first met in Warsaw in 1982 when he was about to have his first book
published in English. „The Emperor” details the fall of Ethiopian
ruler Haile Selassie and is a meditation on the mechanisms of
authoritarian rule and the retinues of unpopular regimes.
It was a shrewd way of writing about communist Poland, in which we were both living at the time.
Kapuscinski had just ended his long association with the official
Polish news agency PAP to protest the government crackdown on
Solidarity, the independent trade union.
I was fresh out of college, a wide-eyed apprentice, and Kapuscinski
graciously agreed to sit with me for a series of interviews. I’d ask him
questions in English, and he’d answer in Polish. I don’t know why
exactly, but he took to me. When the communists forced me to leave
Poland in early 1983 – I had been working on a student visa – he saw me
off at the airport.
We kept in sporadic touch and met again a decade later for another few
hours of interviews when „Imperium” was about to be published in
English. Kapuscinski kept circling back in those discussions to what he
thought was going to be the biggest human story of the 21st century –
Born March 4, 1932 in Pinsk, then part of Poland, Kapuscinski himself
became a migrant at age 7, forced into hunger and wandering by the
Soviet invasion. His father, a teacher and Polish army officer, was
interned by the Soviets but escaped to fight in the Polish underground.
Kapuscinski could not return to Pinsk, now part of Belarus, until
Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization made it possible in 1989. Emerging
from World War II’s devastation, he became a poet in his teens and
earned a history degree at Warsaw University. He married a pediatrician,
Alicja, and they had a daughter.
But Kapuscinski told me he was never much of a family man; he was
simply too devoted to his craft. After he left PAP, this short, modest
man with a shy smile would spend half the year traveling and return to
his book-crammed study in Warsaw to think, read and write.
Though he’s been translated into 19 languages – known to millions of
readers on all continents – most of Kapuscinski’s two dozen books are
not available in English. In his „Travels with Herodotus,” due to be
published in the United States this year, Kapuscinski offers tribute to
the Greek historian he considered the world’s first great reporter.
In a 2003 speech, Kapuscinski explained Herodotus’ formula for
successful journalism: First, be willing to submit to hard, painstaking
travel to get information first hand. Then, be able to listen carefully
and respectfully to people. Third, do your homework, be investigative
and precise. Journalists must be „missionaries, translators and
Kapuscinski owed much of his success as a reporter to his empathy for
foreign places and peoples and for a self-effacing style that helped win
him over revolutionaries typically distrustful of the Western press.
An impressive polyglot, Kapuscinski imparted his wisdom of the trade to
scores of young Latin American journalists he taught under the auspices
of Garcia Marquez’s Ibero-American New Journalism Foundation. Every few
weeks, in my current job as chief of Andean News for the AP, I meet
people who once had a class with Kapuscinski and who also count
themselves among his disciples.
We marvel at this man whose heart gave out at an age we baby boomers
tend to easily surpass, at this indefatigable seeker of truth who as a
reporter was forever boarding that last bus to Hell.
AP writer Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.