Polish writer who turned reportage into literature

Autor:Stefan Wagstyl and Michael Holman
Źródło:Financial Times

Ryszard Kapuscinski, the celebrated Polish journalist who earned a
worldwide reputation for his reports from Africa, Asia and Latin
America, has died at the age of 74.

Polish and non-Polish journalists alike acknowledged that nobody
captured the mood of the developing world, especially of post-colonial
Africa, better than Kapuscinski, who died in Warsaw on Tuesday after a
long illness.

Whether pricking the pretensions of the court of Ethiopia’s emperor
Haile Selassie, or turning the spectacle of the decaying Angolan city of
Luanda into a metaphor for the continent, he brought a new dimension to
journalism, combining shrewd observation with sympathetic insights.
Together with fine writing, albeit sometimes idiosyncratic, these
qualities „raised his reportage to the status of literature”, as
long-time admirer Michael Ignatieff put it. He was nominated many times
for the Nobel literature prize, but the call from Stockholm never came.

His best-known works are The Emperor, the story of the fall of
Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie, told from inside the court and published in
1978, Shah of Shahs (1982), on the consequences of unchecked power in
Iran, and Imperium (1993), an account of the collapse of the Soviet

Kapuscinski was born in 1932 in the eastern Polish town of Pinsk,
where, as he said, his direct experiences of poverty helped him to
understand the poor of the developing world. During the second world
war, he fled with his family to a village near Warsaw. When he was later
asked about his fears about reporting wars, he said that his memories
of 1939-45 never left him.

After graduating in history at Warsaw University, his writing talents
were quickly spotted and he became a foreign correspondent of the Polish
news agency. It was the start of a lifelong fascination with foreign
parts, which over the next four decades would take him to Asia, Africa
and South America, befriending Che Guevara in Bolivia, Salvador Allende
in Chile and Patrice Lumumba in Congo.

He relished this freedom in the cold war, when a passport in an Iron
Curtain state was a rare privilege. From the start he scorned
journalistic conventions, shunned the hack pack and travelled alone –
making it difficult to check the accuracy of his many accounts of narrow
escapes from death. But no one doubted the essential courage of the man
– described by an interviewer as „at once very shy and very charismatic
… small, quiet, peculiarly charming”.

He generally refrained from writing about Poland, saying he did not
know enough about it. But twice his domestic reports made headlines. In
1955, he described the filthy conditions in the newly built steel town
of Nowa Huta, in an article which even the Communist authorities (at the
time of the post-Stalinist thaw) praised for its realism. In 1980, he
reported on the anti-Communist Solidarity movement in six-page piece
that captured the spirit of the time with the headline „Revolution in
the name of dignity”.

Kapuscinski continued to write and travel into old age, although he
said he no longer visited „the really wicked places”. His last book on
Africa, The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life, showed he had lost none
of his powers. It opens with an account of his arrival on the continent,
when he is immediately struck by the „the smell of the tropics  ¦
We instantly recognise its weight, its sticky materiality. The smell
makes us at once aware that we are at that point on earth where an
exuberant and indefatigable nature labours, incessantly reproducing
itself, spreading and blooming, even as it sickens, disintegrates,
festers and decays”.

For many critics, the book is Kapuscinski at his best – and at his most
suspect; rich in brilliant observations, full of embellished but
revealing truths and often painfully patronising in his treatment of the
continent and its people. However, as the British-Indian writer Salman
Rushdie, observes: „If you want just the facts, you go elsewhere …
One goes to Kapuscinski to penetrate to something deeper and stronger.”

Kapuscinski is survived by his widow, Alicja, who worked as his secretary.