Ryszard Kapuscinski: Man with a mission

Autor:Shefa Siegel

Last month I was travelling Nicaragua with two Polish friends. As new
friends do, we were fumbling for things to talk about, points of
commonality, shared interests. „Shefa loves Kapuscinski,” one told the
other. An approving look. „But Kapuscinski,” the friend asked, „he is
dead?” I shook my head vigorously no, insisting he had a new book
waiting to be published in English. Later, when I returned to Vancouver,
I opened talks with the owner of a bookstore to bring the Polish travel
writer for a signing once the book was published. „I must meet him,” I
told the storeowner.

Now the press agencies are reporting that in fact it is true, that
Ryszard Kapuscinski has died at the age of 74, supposedly after a long
illness. I gather there is much afoot in the world at the moment. Bombs
in Baghdad, nukes in Tehran, the Democrats on the march; all the front
page stories to which I have become immune in six long years of global
insanity; six years in which I feel like I have been holding my breath,
waiting to live. But the death of Kapuscinski makes me cry out to the
walls of my empty apartment. This is news. This is sadness. This is a
loss, a man I knew only from the six or seven books of his that are
translated to English, and somebody who clearly never waited to live,
nor for his life to begin.

For Kapuscinski was no mere travel writer, no mundane reporter. He
revived the sagging, inert genre of traveloguing — a form that had the
vitality sapped from it a century ago when the British and American
readership commercialized imperialism. Kapuscinski combined two rare
attributes: courage and poetry. The obituaries will all record the same
impressive resume: that as a reporter he witnessed 27 coups, reported
from all over post-colonial Africa in the 1960s, put himself in mortal
danger and later wrote books that were well received. But this will
explain nothing. For any knee-twitching journalist in Addis Ababa can
salivate over the prospects of an imminent war in Somalia, and work over
his editor at Reuters to get him on the last flight in before the bombs
drop. There is an endless reservoir of humans who derive pleasure from
seeing other people cast into man’s deepest darkness, and finance this
need by reporting the facts from the interior of hotel rooms in war

Risked all

Kapuscinski definitely had the daredevil gene. For no good reason, he
would drive sacked roads in war-torn Nigeria to find out exactly who was
controlling what areas, and be beaten and have gasoline poured over him
before escaping with his life (a story for which his editors berated
him by writing him with the curt message, „Ryszard, we must request you
stop doing such things”). He definitely had stones. When he was
temporarily positioned behind a desk and war broke out in Congo, he
finagled a posting to Nigeria, changed the ticket to Cairo, flew to
southern Sudan, bought a car, and drove to the Congo without permission,
protection or pleasure. (Indeed from this experience he wound up
imprisoned and hours from execution.)

For what defined Kapuscinski was not his ability to manage his heart
rate, but his reflection, and the poetic attention to words, to
understanding people and situations, which no longer exists in any
mainstream literary medium. The proof of his genius is simply the weight
of his books. For example, there are countless sources to read about
Ethiopia and Haile Selassie. But look at the footnotes to Michael
Ignatieff’s reportage from Africa in The Warrior’s Honour, and you will
see that at the end of it all, he says something to the effect of
nothing else claims the mantle of Kapuscinski’s rendering of the fall of
Selassie in The Emperor. Because in this book about majesty,
Kapuscinski took the reader back through the ages, all the way to
biblical stories of court intrigues chronicled by the Book of Esther or
the feud between David and Saul narrated in the Book of Kings. And the
technique was so simple, it is a miracle nobody did it before. He found
the former courtiers of Selassie’s last days (not a simple task of
reporting), then recorded their monologues in their own voices. He let
the places and the people he was experiencing and interviewing speak for
themselves. Kapuscinski did what journalists were invented to do, which
is give humanity to those who are different from ourselves. He was, in
the most subtle form possible, an emissary for peace and for justice in
the world.

Portrait maker

For his techniques, there are some who called Kapuscinski a liar (as a
journalist from National Geographic told me colleagues of his believed).
Indeed, he willingly admitted he did not take notes, that he believed
any form of recording changed what people said. But, he explained, in
the words that each person delivers, there is a unifying theme, a core
idea, a trope to which Kapuscinski honed his attention. And it was this
essence he later recorded from the relative quiet of his hotel room. But
this is simply where Kapuscinski transformed reportage from a mediocre
professional skill to a fine art. His goal was truth, not facts; he drew
portraits rather than assessments; in many cases, his canvas was

And much of the time he was so bang on it hurts as an aspiring writer
to see how good somebody can be. When I was travelling parts of Africa
as a UN consultant, and struggling with the feeling of having somehow
been separated from reality, it was Kapuscinski who illuminated for me
why I felt this way. „People from the United Nations form a club unto
themselves,” he commented in The Soccer War. „Many of them are
pretentious: they look on everything and everyone from a global
perspective, which means, simply, that they look down. They repeat the
word 'global’ in every sentence, which makes it difficult to settle
everyday human problems with them.”

Kapuscinski seemed to look down on no one, and was at his best with
everyday problems, like when the truck he was being transported by broke
down in the middle of Mauritania’s desert. Africa was his first and
only love. This is so clear from his collection of essays Shadow of the
Sun, and a book of war reportage from Angola called Another Day of Life.
Maybe it was the times, those early post-colonial days when a coup or
revolution could break out at any moment, but Kapuscinski also clearly
loved something about the contradictions of a continent at once so
broken and so whole. He loved its austerity and its joy just beneath the
surface. He did not care so much for Latin America, where he reported
for five years, satirizing its „baroque” sensibilities. Everything in
Latin America has to be the biggest, he wrote. If it has a river it is
the longest, a mountain it is the tallest (he never did seem to report
from Asia!), the plains the widest, a forest the biggest. He was not
afraid to criticize or to love, all of which opened Kapuscinski to
criticism, and even a certain kind of obscurity.

For although those who know him really know him, even my Polish friends
knew him only because he had become something of a Polish celebrity by
that point, coming as the special guest of an event where a statue was
unveiled for a Polish traveller who cycled around Africa. This is to
say, they were not terribly familiar with his books, much less his
mission. And this is the key point about Kapuscinski, with whom I am
obviously in love, passionate and partial: he possessed a profound sense
of mission.

Towards peace through understanding

He admitted as much in an interview given to Charlie Rose some years
ago, saying he had made a conscious decision to concentrate on history
in the making rather than the history of the past, and that he felt a
compulsive need to explain things to people with the hope that the
deeper we know each other, the more peaceful humans will be.

This mission was more delicately wrapped in an essay he wrote years ago
for Granta, which was later republished and used as the fulcrum for The
Soccer War, called in various forms something like „High time I started
writing the next book.” In this essay, he highlights all the things he
means to write about — a form which serves as the file I now keep
called, simply, „The Book I Mean to Write” — if only he had time. „I
would write a dictionary describing how different words take on
different meanings depending on where they are spoken in the world,”
Kapuscinski writes. „I would write about the time I was sent to Latin
America, but didn’t really like it. I would write about how hard it is
for a northerner to survive in the tropics, or what it feels like to
hide in a hotel room when all white men are being rounded up on the
streets, or the experience of being in motion so often, flying,
stewardesses, passports, hotels, typewriters, loneliness. I would write
about all this, if only things didn’t keep coming up. If only the world
would calm down for a moment. If only I could take a break from my
deepest sense of mission.”

A conviction so deep it becomes a mission is so rare for
non-ideologues, zealots or fanatics, that Kapuscinski deserves praise,
and respect, memorializing and dedications for holding so stoically to
his own purpose throughout his life. His words alone will survive him.
That is something. But more than his words a writer wants to be
remembered for his ideas, which have a way of seeping into the world,
and becoming part of the collective unconscious long after, in fact only
after their bodies have passed and just their lines remain. To feel
such gratitude and warmth for a person I only think I know, when in fact
all I know are his words, is a testament to the righteousness of
Kapuscinski’s core idea, that the more the lives of others are explained
to us, the less likely we are to fight. This is to say, the more likely
we are to love. This is a tribute not only to Kapuscinski himself, but
also to everyone who feels the inexplicable humanistic drive to put
thought to order, apply meaning to language, give life to words.

„You must choose your words carefully,” Kapuscinski said, „because
there are so many of them in the world.” It is a reassurance that the
humanistic will is still alive in humanity, no matter how troubled,
corrupt, or infuriating; no matter how desperately we need the world to
become calmer, so that we can release our clenched teeth, and remember
what it is like to breathe again.

Shefa Siegel is a writer, environmental consultant for the United
Nations Industrial Development Organization and doctoral student at the
University of British Columbia. He lives in Victoria