An Interview by Bill Buford

Autor: Bill Buford
źródło: Granta magazine
data publikacji: 1987-01-01

Bill Buford: Your first book to be published in English was The Emperor, and that appeared only four years ago. But you had been writing for nearly thirty years before your two translators, an American and a Pole, took it upon themselves to translate your book and submit it to an American publisher. What do you feel we should know about those years before the writing of The Emperor?

Ryszard Kapuscinski: You know, for years, I have been building up a small collection of books, newspapers and photographs about Pinsk. I would like to show it to you. Pinsk, you see, is the town where I was born and where I lived until I was eight, when the entire area, originally part of Poland, came under Russian control.

Buford: The collection is material for an autobiography?

Kapuscinski: I don’t know, maybe. No: it’s merely part of a landscape, my landscape, the landscape that I came from. It is the landscape of a flat, a very flat, country, a marshland, and there are two things that are important to me about Pinsk.

First: that here in this very provincial town, this town of dirt roads, cut off from everything, was in fact an extraordinary cosmopolitan gathering. Many of the founders of the State of Israel came from my town. There were Jews, Poles, Byelorussians, Ukrainians, Armenians, and every kind of religion,from Judaism to Catholicism to Islam, and we all lived together. The people were called Poleshuks, meaning merely 'people born in the district of Polesie,’ and they were a people without a nation and without, therefore, a national identity. And, second, while Pinsk was very international or, if you like, very 'nationless’ it was also very poor.

Buford: How?

Kapuscinski: Poor in the most elementary things. During the war we ate very primitive pastry flour and water. That was our diet. We never had shoes: we covered our feet with bark. I remember while there were lecturers in philosophy, the only philosophy they could teach was bourgeois philosophy, and the university was therefore prohibited from hiring them. A Marxist philosophy hadn’t developed yet.

Buford: How much were you aware of the machinations of the government at the time? Of how its members had been trained in Moscow during the war, or of the rigged election in 1947?

Kapuscinski: Well, I was an activist at the time. We were all activists. Kolakowski, other writers, intellectuals some of them later emigrated in fact. I can’t think of anyone who wasn’t. I myself had joined one of the communist youth organizations in 1948.

Buford: Because communism was seen as an unequivocally good thing?

Kapuscinski: Yes. Of course. Among young people, a very good thing. We all thought we were doing the right thing, and we were very committed, very enthusiastic. We were full of hope.

Buford: And what was it you hoped to achieve? What were you hoping a Communist government would bring? That the land would be re-distributed or

Kapuscinski: Everything. Everything good. Yes, yes, we were full of confidence. You must remember how young we were. It is hard to explain this to young people in Poland today, because they are so much more informed that we ever thought possible: they have access to history, to information, to news. We had none of this. We had no tradition and no books; we were poor really, very, very poor and inexperienced and uneducated. And the little education that we did have came from Stalinist texts. Don’t forget that I entered university in 1950: the height of the Stalinist era, in which everything was pure, uncompromised Stalinism.

Buford: An interest in philosophy, a grounding in history: these are not the obvious disciplines for training a war correspondent. Were you tempted by academia?

Kapuscinski: I had actually been asked to stay on at the university to teach, but for me scholarship was tedious, a burden. By then I had done quite a bit of writing. I had had my first poem published in Slowo Powszechne, a Catholic daily, and had had a number of poems published in the leading literary magazine. On finishing university in 1955, I was twenty-three years old, and I began working for Sztandar Mlodych, a youth journal, at the most militant time in its history. It was the age of investigative reporting.

Buford: And the most important piece to emerge in that time was in fact written by you.

Kapuscinski: That would be 'This Too is the Truth of Nowa Huta’. Somehow, our paper succeeded in getting my article passed, and it was extremely polemical. Nowa Huta was the showcase steel factory being built near Cracow. It was meant to be our economic triumph. But I had worked there as a student. I had friends there. I knew what the conditions were like, and they were appalling: the plant was mismanaged and the supervisors were frequently drunk. The moment the article appeared, there was a great uproar, and I had to go into hiding.

Buford: Hiding?

Kapuscinski: Yes, the workers, who were my friends, protected me. Eventually I was apprehended, fired from the paper and punished.

Buford: What kind of punishment?

Kapuscinski: It is complicated. The uproar, in any event, continued, until finally a commission was appointed to investigate my allegations. It confirmed everything I said, and I was awarded the Golden Cross of Merit. I was still twenty-three.

The experience was an exciting one for me. It illustrated that writing was about risk�about risking everything. And that the value of the writing is not in what you publish but in its consequences. If you set out to describe reality, then the influence of the writing is upon reality.

Buford: I find this all a little curious. At the age of twenty-three, you wrote an article, extremely political in its implications, dealing specifically with a Polish subject, which had such an impact that it actually changed government policy. You were then to go on to write a series of stories, some of the most elegant you’ve written, about life in rural Poland, The Polish Bush, that became an immediate best-seller. But you seem to have spent the rest of your writing career avoiding Poland. Why?

Kapuscinski: It’s not that I’ve avoided Poland. It’s just that there are others writing about Poland, and they do it very well. My subject is a different one, for I became fascinated by something else.

Shortly after I was reinstated, I approached the editor of the paper. I had won a prize, and I asked if I could go abroad. I wanted to get out of Warsaw. I wanted to see the world. He asked me where I wanted to go, and I said I wanted to see something different, something exotic.

Buford: Like?

Kapuscinski: Like Czechoslovakia.

Buford: Czechoslovakia?

Kapuscinski: Yes, because for me Czechoslovakia was the big world, was foreign, was far away. Instead, the editor sent me to India.

Buford: Had the paper ever sent a correspondent abroad?

Kapuscinski: Never.

Buford: No foreign correspondents?

Kapuscinski: I was the first.

You mustn’t forget that for my generation the outside world did not exist. There was no outside world, or, if there was, we knew little about it. A place like India wasn’t a country. Africa wasn’t a continent. They were fairy-tales. And I wanted, really, nothing more than the opportunity to see what the world was like.

Buford: And after India?

Kapuscinski: After India, there was Pakistan and Afghanistan. My reports were liked, and so I was then sent to the Far East, to Japan and China, where for a time I worked as the resident foreign correspondent for the paper, and eventually to Africa. It was exciting because I was discovering the world. It is for this reason that years later, in 1968, while compiling a number of pieces that would eventually be published as The Soccer War, I insisted they be arranged in the historical order in which they were written. It was important to me to illustrate the experiences by which a foreigner enters a new world especially the world of Africa. He is, for instance, at first frightened, then surprised and then he discovers the pleasure, the fun, the exhilaration.

I also remember, while compiling that book, that during my time in Latin America I was always missing my Africa.

Buford: Why?

Kapuscinski: I’m not sure. In part, because Africa was my youth, and, perhaps in saying I miss my Africa, I am actually saying that I am missing my youth. It was in Africa that I really came into my own as a correspondent, for I had very different responsibilities from those of your traditional correspondent.

For a start, I was by then working for PAP, the Polish Press Agency. And I chose to work for a press agency for very specific reasons, because in every other respect working for an agency is pure slavery.

Buford: 'Hardened cynical men,’ as you describe them in The Emperor, 'who have seen everything and lived through everything, and who are used to fighting a thousand obstacles that most people could never imagine just to do their jobs.’

Kapuscinski: No other journalist working for a paper or magazine or television has to put up with the horrors of a press agency writer. One day I will write about them, my friends, these anonymous markers of events, these terrible victims of information, working day and night in the worst of all possible conditions. But I took on this job voluntarily, because I knew that working for a press agency I would see more things, meet more people. A mercenary, a revolutionary, a general is not going to waste his time on a journalist from an obscure newspaper in Poland that he has never heard of�even if it were possible for that obscure newspaper to send a correspondent to see him. But he might grant an interview to a journalist who is reporting to the entire country.

And I also knew that, working for the agency, I could travel more than if working for someone else. Poland is a poor country. It cannot afford many foreign correspondents. Reuters, Associated Press or Presse France have a correspondent in nearly every African country; working for Poland, I was asked to be the correspondent for the entire continent. I could not only go wherever I wanted, but it was my job to go wherever I wanted: if there was trouble, I was meant to be there to see it. I am often asked how was it possible that I could have seen so much as a j journalist. I have personally witnessed twenty-seven revolutions. It seems impossible, but that is precisely what my job required: I was responsible for fifty countries; I was bound to come across something at least once a month, in at least one of those countries. I was full of stories.

Buford: I get a sense that you must have been quite an operator.

Kapuscinski: You had to be; you had to be because the job required it and because, working for a poor agency, your greatest resource was never money�it was information: contacts: who you knew, what you knew.

A journalist working for a wealthy agency can hire a car or an aeroplane at a moment’s notice, but I never could. So, for instance, when trouble erupted in Zanzibar, I had to get there, but had no transport. Unlike the journalists from the big agencies, however, I knew some people involved in the revolution. They were my friends. One of the big agency journalists asked for my help: he had the aeroplane but no permission to land. So I made a deal: 'Okay, Felix, I have no money to hire a plane. But if you take me with you, I’ll arrange the clearance you need to be able to land.’

Buford: I know you don’t want to talk about Amin right now, because he is the subject of the book you are writing, but I wonder how it was that you came to meet him?

Kapuscinski: That was in 1962. I was in Kampala and had contracted cerebral malaria and was very, very ill. I was unconscious for three weeks, when one day, just when I was starting to recover, I looked up and there he was at my bedside.

Buford: You were, I understand, the model for the journalist in Andrzej Wajda’s film Rough Treatment. And Wajda describes you as a man who can’t sit still. You depart and then you return, tell a few stories and then disappear again. To what extent were you using your travels to collect material for the writing you would later do?

Kapuscinski: No, you don’t understand. I was there in Africa because I found it so compelling. I was aware that I was seeing something unique, for I was there at an important historical moment: the liberation of Africa�when African nations everywhere were declaring their independence.

I wish I could convey what Africa was like. I have experienced nothing like it. Africa has its own personality. Sometimes it is a sad personality, sometimes impenetrable, but always unrepeatable. Africa was dynamic. It was aggressive, on the attack. And I liked that. Afterwards, now, finding myself in quiet surroundings, amid conditions of stability, in Europe, I become bored.

Otherwise I wasn’t in Africa to collect experience. I was merely a journalist, working for an agency. It is true that I saw myself as a writer, but I always had�as a poet, having been a published poet for years.

Buford: You’re living in a country which, on the whole, seems to believe that it has a Marxist government imposed upon it against its will; on the other hand, you have witnessed a number of revolutions, with which you have often shown a great deal of sympathy, that were in the name of Marxism. Do you feel a genuine revolution is possible? Have you not seen too much to believe in the hope that a revolution offers?

Kapuscinski: It was in the nineteenth century that faith in science invited an analogous faith in history: that history had laws, that it could be known, that it followed a pattern. What we believe now�certainly what I believe�is very different. History is impossible to penetrate, and that is its great richness.

Yes, there can be revolutions, revolutions that begin in the name of justice, and bring about some version of just reform. Salazar in Portugal, for instance. And there are others which do not succeed. But I am much more interested in the mystery of history, why a revolution ever takes place in the first place. In Ethiopia, the revolution began because of the increases in the price of petrol. But the price of petrol had been increasing for years. Why suddenly a revolution?

Buford: It is easy to point to the parallels between the political situations described in your books and the political situation in Poland: the corrupt court of Haile Selassie suggests the corrupt bureaucracy of Warsaw; the mad, irrational modernization of the Shah recalls Gierek and the uncontrolled spending of the seventies. In your travels through Africa, were you aware of the Polish parallels?

Kapuscinski: In Africa, you find a population fighting for its independence, and trying to preserve its traditions to establish its national identity. But I wasn’t looking for parallels.

Buford: Are you aware that readers here in Poland see the parallels, and read your books almost as allegories?

Kapuscinski: No, they are not allegories. But there are bound to be parallels, of course.

Buford: What kind of relationship do you have with your readers in Poland? Or, to put it another way, is the experience of being a writer in Poland different from what you believe it would be if you were living in western Europe?

Kapuscinski: Yes, yes, I think it’s a very different experience. I’ll give you an example. Not so long ago I was asked to a town outside Warsaw to give a reading. It was scheduled to begin at five o’clock, and I arrived about half an hour early. But it was impossible to get in. The hall was packed. In fact, it was so packed that no one, with so many people squeezed up against the door-frame, was able to get out. By the time I succeeded in reaching the podium, I had been crushed and pressed and pulled by so many bodies that all my buttons had popped off. My shirt was torn, and I had lost my glasses. At around five-thirty, I began reading.

Buford: It’s ironic that western writers, especially Americans, have always envied the writer living under a politically repressive regime, who enjoys what George Steiner has described as the 'muse of censorship’. Your work does not presuppose a muse of this sort at all. Even so, you have what few western writers could ever hope to enjoy: stories to tell, and a readership that’s desperate to hear them. You could almost be described as a story-teller of the most traditional sort: a voyager returning with the stories of his voyage.

Buford: I am curious about how you made the transition from being a press agency journalist to a writer. What made you want to write books?

Kapuscinski: Again, my work as an agency journalist is important, because all my books developed from the experiences I had. My responsibility was always to cover an event: to locate the geopolitical story, and as quickly as possible send a cable down the line with its details. It was straightforward journalism, nothing more, nothing less. But once I had sent the cable, I was always left with a feeling of inadequacy. I had only covered the political event, and not really conveyed the deeper, and, I felt, truer nature of what was going on. And this sense of dissatisfaction remained with me each time I returned to Poland.

You can always find two versions of my work. The first version is what I do when I’m in the field: it’s all in the cables, the stories filed. The second version is what I write later, and that expresses what I actually felt, what I lived through, the reflections surrounding the simple news story.

You know, a press cable is a very conservative medium for conveying news. We are always limited: by the number of words, by the time we can get on the machine, by the money, by the information that the newspapers back home want to receive. But the realities we face, especially in the Third World, are so much richer, more complicated, than a newspaper will ever allow us to report.

Buford: What kind of story was not getting expressed in a newspaper?

Kapuscinski: It is not the story that is not getting expressed: it’s what surrounds the story. The climate, the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town, the smell; the thousand, thousand elements of reality that are part of the event you read about in 600 words in your morning paper.

You know, sometimes the critical response to my books is amusing. There are so many complaints: Kapuscinski never mentions dates, Kapuscinski never gives us the name of the minister, he has forgotten the order of events. All that, of course, is exactly what I avoid. If those are the questions you want answered, you can visit your local library, where you will find everything you need: the newspapers of the time, the reference books, a dictionary.

Buford: Your sense of inadequacy as a reporter is analogous to the sense of inadequacy many modernist novelists felt when they said that the demands of the traditional plot or story inhibited the expression of the real story�the things surrounding the story.

Kapuscinski: Yes, that is what I am trying to express.

Buford: How, then, are you different from a novelist?

Kapuscinski: Ah, you have just touched upon an important point in my thinking.Twenty years ago, I was in Africa, and this is what I saw: I went from revolution to coup d’E`tat, from one war to another; I witnessed, in effect, history in the making, real history, contemporary history, our history. But I was also surprised: I never saw a writer. I never met a poet or a philosopher�even a sociologist. Where were they? Such important events, and not a single writer anywhere?

Then I would return to Europe and I would find them. They would be at home, writing their little domestic stories: the boy, the girl, the laughing, the intimacy, the marriage, the divorce�in short, the same story we’ve been reading over and over again for a thousand years. You know, the other day I was reading about the novels that won the annual French prizes. It was incredible. None of these books had anything to do with our world, our reality�nothing. There was one about an unwanted child, and another about a boy, a girl, the laughing, the intimacy�

Buford: Is it then that you find contemporary literature too self-referential, too obsessed with its own formal workings to�

Kapuscinski: No, it is simply that so much of our literature is so very traditional, even when seen as being avant-garde. And if avant-garde, it is only avant-garde because of its style�as if assembled in a workshop. It is never avant-garde for its subject; it is never caught actually looking out at the world. The writer is always looking over his shoulder, noting the position of his predecessor. Contemporary literature is a very private affair.

Buford: I am reminded of Joseph Brodsky’s essay on the Russian novel in which he says that the twentieth century will never produce a genuinely 'Russian’ novel, because so much of the literary imagination is dominated by the state�either in obeisance to it, or even in necessary resistance to it. Your work probably comes the closest to being freed from the constraints of the state. Its allegiances are to history.

Kapuscinski: I don’t know. I’m not forming a manifesto and certainly don’t want to appear dogmatic. But I do feel that we are describing a new kind of literature. I feel sometimes that I am working in a completely new field of literature, in an area that is both unoccupied and unexplored.

Buford: The literature of political experience?

Kapuscinski: The literature of personal … no, that’s not right. You know, sometimes, in describing what I do, I resort to the Latin phrase silva rerum: the forest of things. That’s my subject: the forest of things, as I’ve seen it, living and travelling in it. To capture the world, you have to penetrate it as completely as possible.

Buford:�But using story to make sense of this forest of things, to give it shape and coherence? For your writing certainly relies on narrative.

Kapuscinski: Yes, story is the beginning. It is half of the achievement. But it is not complete until you, as the writer, become part of it. As a writer, you have experienced this event on your own skin, and it is your experience, this feeling along the surface of your skin, that gives your story its coherence: it is what is at the centre of the forest of things.

The traditional trick of literature is to obscure the writer, to express the story through a fabricated narrator describing a fabricated reality. But for me, what I have to say is validated by the fact that I was there, that I witnessed the event. There is, I admit, a certain egoism in what I write, always complaining about the heat or the hunger or the pain I feel, but it is terribly important to have what I write authenticated by its being lived. You could call it, I suppose, personal reportage, because the author is always present. I sometimes call it literature by foot.

Buford: How is this different from New Journalism�the work of Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion or Tom Wolfe, who also put a premium on the first-person reporter?

Kapuscinski: That’s an important question. And while I knew nothing about New Journalism when I was in Africa, I can see now that New Journalism was the beginning, in liquidating the border between fact and fiction. But New Journalism was ultimately just journalism describing the strangeness of America. I think we have gone beyond all that. It is not a New Journalism, but a New Literature.

Why am I a writer? Why have I risked my life so many times, come so close to dying? Is it to report the weirdness? To earn my salary? Mine is not a vocation, it’s a mission. I wouldn’t subject myself to these dangers if I didn’t feel that there was something overwhelmingly important�about history, about ourselves�that I felt compelled to get across. This is more than journalism.