No reporter ever brought the world’s trouble spots to life with the
vividness of the great Ryszard Kapuscinski. To mark his death this week,
Ian Jack recalls his late friend’s 'passionate curiosity', and we
publish the opening chapter of one of the Polish writer’s most acclaimed
works, 'The Soccer War'
A few years ago a party to celebrate the publication of Ryszard
Kapuscinski’s book on Africa was held, properly enough, in the Polish
Club in South Kensington. A few of us then walked to dinner with him at a
restaurant in Kensington High Street; no more than a luxurious toddle,
but someone complained that a taxi would have been a better idea, that
it was really quite far. Obviously, said Kapuscinski of the complainant,
he never went on a route march with the Polish army in Stalinist times.
A lot of Kapuscinski’s passionate curiosity about the world can be
explained by the circumstances of his childhood. He was born in Pinsk,
now in Belarus, an isolated town of unmetalled roads. He was seven
before he saw his first train and 30 before he owned a telephone. During
the terrible hardships of Poland’s German occupation, he and his family
subsisted on pastries of flour and water and wore tree bark on their
feet rather than shoes. Shoes were always one of his enthusiasms. In
1987, in an interview with Bill Buford, my predecessor at Granta, he
said, „I’m obsessed with footwear.”
As Pinsk was to Warsaw, so post-war Poland was to the rest of the
world. „Don’t forget that for my generation the outside world didn’t
exist,” he told Buford. „Africa and India were fairy tales.” It’s useful
to remember this when we think of Kapuscinski’s writing. He came to
places fresh, without the preconceptions and cultural baggage of an
English or American writer, and he was determined to describe what they
were like as vividly as he could.
As a foreign reporter for the Polish Press Agency he saw an awful lot –
Africa, South America, Asia, 28 revolutions in the wake of European
de-colonisation – but his quick reports couldn’t begin to describe the
rich complexity of the reality in front of him. Agency reporters, filing
daily, were, as he described them, „terrible victims of information”.
His books could never have been written without this experience, but
their success as literature is owed to a different side of Kapuscinski.
Before he was a reporter, he was a poet and short-story writer: his
sentences, with their rhythms and images and careful selection of the
persuading detail, could have been written by a fine novelist.
He used to wonder where the novelists were when he covered riots, wars
and coups. Why were they all back in Europe tinkering with their „little
domestic stories” about marriage and divorce? Why weren’t they here in
the thick of it, grappling with the events that mattered? Very few
writers answered this call, and he had few rivals in the business of
depicting the troubled reality of poor countries and people. (VS Naipaul
is one of them, and, perhaps not coincidentally, is from another place,
Trinidad, which was well off the beaten track.)
The world to Kapuscinski was silva rerum, the forest of things, and he
believed that „to capture it you have to penetrate it as completely as
possible”. He came to be known as a literary reporter, but often saw his
work more accurately as „literature by foot”. The long march has ended
for him, but he has shown us unforgettable views.