I Had to Experience Everything for Myself

Autor: Andrew Nagorski
Źródło: Newsweek

Remembering Ryszard Kapuscinski, who left journalism to carve out a special place in the literary landscape.

In 1966 at the height of the Nigerian civil war, an unassuming-looking
Polish journalist by the name of Ryszard Kapuscinski set out on a
seemingly insane journey. He left the relative safety of Lagos and drove
straight into the region of the fiercest fighting, on a road where any
traveler could be summarily executed by trigger-happy, machete-wielding
guards at any number of improvised roadblocks set up by roaming gangs of
both warring parties. “I was driving along a road where they say no
white man can come back alive,” Kapuscinski wrote later in his book „The
Soccer War.” “I was driving to see if a white man could, because I had
to experience everything for myself.”

The former journalist turned literary superstar who died Tuesday at the
age of 74 lived by that credo of experiencing everything for himself.
He spent most of his life exploring many of the most dangerous places in
the world, never hesitating to jump into the next flashpoint. Wasn’t he
terrified at times, I asked him after getting to know him well. “All
the time, but I just can’t stop,” he replied with his typically
disarming smile. And he couldn’t stop churning out books that were
breathtaking in their imagery, poignant in their evocation of mood, and
electrifying in their sense of danger and dread.

It’s hard to imagine a more improbable career for someone who began his
life as a reporter in communist Poland, where journalism was a
claustrophobic profession crippled by censorship and chronic political
intrigue. But the young Kapuscinski caused a huge stir with a gritty
description of the woes of steel workers in southern Poland, which won
him the applause of the “reform communists” of 1956. Rewarded with the
rare chance to travel abroad, he was asked where he wanted to go.
“Czechoslovakia,” he blurted out. “It was such a dream come true that I
couldn’t think of a more distant country,” he told me.

Soon he had no such problems. Free to travel to report for the Polish
Press Agency on “countries which people did not know or care about,” he
felt liberated from his homeland, where the hopes for reform had quickly
faded. He covered coups, wars of liberation, civil wars, famines and
droughts—often disappearing for weeks and months into remote regions,
seemingly oblivious to the risks. Aside from dodging bullets and bombs,
he had a nearly fatal case of cerebral malaria and a bad bout with
tuberculosis in Africa. He could be moody, even depressed, but also drew
inspiration from a sunrise in the desert or the slow rhythms of a
remote village still relatively untouched by modern civilization.

Soon he left ordinary journalism behind altogether. His books, he
explained, were “literary collages.” “More than straight reporting is
necessary,” he said. “The other important element is reflection. The
pure account does not satisfy. The pure account is provided by
television.” He’d read voraciously before and during his travels, and
then allow himself to reflect on his own feelings and sensations
wherever he was. As he admitted over dinner one night, he preferred not
even to take notes during his journeys. He would write later, offering
his readers the memories of his experiences rather than transcribing
them directly.

The result was often deliberately impressionistic and unabashedly
allegorical. That was no accident. When he wrote about dictators like
Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie in „The Emperor” or the Shah of Iran in „Shah
of Shahs,” he was describing a system that felt all too familiar to his
compatriots back home in communist Poland. Even after the collapse of
communism, he continued his journeys far from home, losing himself for
long stretches in his old stomping grounds of Africa or Latin America,
where he had operated as a young journalist. The frequently petty
politics of the new Poland felt trivial by comparison, with none of the
magical allure that he always craved—and always found. He’d write in
Warsaw, but his world was wherever his imagination, and any means of
transportation, could take him.