Ryszard Kapuscinski, Polish Writer of Shimmering Allegories and News, Dies at 74

Autor:Michael T. Kaufman
Źródło:The New York Times

Ryszard Kapuscinski, a globe-trotting journalist from Poland whose
writing, often tinged with magical realism, brought him critical acclaim
and a wide international readership, died yesterday in Warsaw. He was
74. His death, at a hospital, was reported by PAP, the Polish news
agency for which he had worked. No cause was given, but he was known to
have had cancer.

Mr. Kapuscinski (pronounced ka-poos-CHIN-ski) spent some four decades
observing and writing about conflict throughout the developing world. He
witnessed 27 coups and revolutions. He spent his working days gathering
information for the terse dispatches he sent to PAP, often from places
like Ougadougou or Zanzibar. At night, he worked on longer, descriptive
essays with phantasmagoric touches that went far beyond the details of
the day’s events, using allegory and metaphors to convey what was

“It’s not that the story is not getting expressed” in ordinary news
reports, he said in an interview. “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 thousands and thousands of elements
that are part of the events you read about in 600 words of your morning

From the 1970s on, these articles appeared in a series of books that
quickly made Mr. Kapuscinski Poland’s best-known foreign correspondent.
They later drew international attention in translation. The books
included “The Soccer War,” which dealt with Latin American conflicts;
“Another Day of Life,” about Angola’s civil war; “Shah of Shahs,” about
the rise and fall of Iran’s last monarch; and “Imperium,” an account of
his travels through Russia and its neighbors after the collapse of the
Soviet Union.

The book that introduced Mr. Kapuscinski to readers and critics beyond
Poland was a slim one, ostensibly about Ethiopia, which he wrote in 1978
and which appeared in English five years later under the title “The

Subtitled “Downfall of an Autocrat” (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), the
book on one level portrayed the lapsed life of Haile Selassie’s imperial
court by citing the recollections of palace servants, like the man
responsible for cleaning the shoes of visiting dignitaries.

A number of critics noted that despite the book’s documentary form, it
provided an allegory of absolutist power everywhere. Writing in The New
Yorker, John Updike said the book emphasized “the inevitable tendency of
a despot, be he king, ward boss, or dictator, to prefer loyalty to
ability in his subordinates, and to seek safety in stagnation.”

His fame growing, Mr. Kapuscinski began writing for The New Yorker, The
New York Times Magazine and the British journal Granta. Though each of
Mr. Kapuscinski’s books was distinct, they all shared a sense of
shimmering reality. There was, for instance, his account of the
departure of Portuguese settlers from Angola as independence and civil
war settled on the country. He described how everything of value, from
cars to refrigerators, was leaping into boxes and floating off to

In preparing these articles he never took notes and used memory to
stimulate his poetic imagination. In “Imperium,” he evoked the wintry
cold of the old Soviet penal colonies by quoting a schoolgirl who said
she could tell who had passed by her house by the shape of the tunnels
they had left in the crystallized air.

Mr. Kapuscinski, the son of schoolteachers, was born March 4, 1932, in
Pinsk, a city now in Belarus. In an interview in Granta in 1987, he
remembered Pinsk as a polyglot city of Jews, Poles, Russians,
Belarussians, Ukrainians and Armenians, all of whom were called

“They were a people without a nation and without, therefore, a national
identity,” he said. That quality, along with the poverty of Pinsk,
inspired his empathy for the third world.  “I have always
rediscovered my home, rediscovered Pinsk, in Africa, in Asia, in Latin
America,” he said. Mr. Kapuscinski was in elementary school when the
Nazis marched into western Poland and the Soviets took the eastern part
in 1939 at the outset of World War II. His family eventually made its
way to Warsaw, where Mr. Kapuscinski’s father fought with resistance

Mr. Kapuscinski received a master’s degree in history from the
University of Warsaw. On graduation he joined the journal Sztandar
Mlodych, The Flag of Youth, a Communist publication, and quickly became
embroiled in the upheavals of 1956, when hard-line Stalinists were being
challenged within the party. Mr. Kapuscinski wrote an article
describing the misery and despair of steel workers at a new steel plant
outside of Krakow that the party bosses had extolled as a showpiece of
proletarian culture.

The article provoked such an attack from the hard-liners that Mr.
Kapuscinski was fired and forced into hiding. After party reformers
later prevailed, however, the young journalist’s findings were confirmed
by a blue-ribbon task force, and he was awarded Poland’s Golden Cross
of Merit for the same article that had gotten him into trouble.

In 1962, PAP, the news agency, appointed him its only correspondent in
the third world. He came to know Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Ben Bella
in Algeria, Che Guevara in Cuba and Idi Amin in Uganda. He covered the
bloody uprising on Zanzibar in 1964 and the war between El Salvador and
Honduras in 1970. He was in southern Angola in 1975 when South African
forces invaded.

 He would travel for months at a time and then return to the
two-room apartment in Warsaw that he shared with his wife, Alicja
Mielczarek, a pediatrician. His daughter, Zofia, emigrated to Vancouver,
British Columbia, in the 1970s. There was no immediate information on
his survivors. In 1981, after he had committed himself to the Solidarity
trade union movement, the government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski
stripped him of his journalistic credentials. He then began working with
underground publishers, contributing poems and supporting the dissident

Eventually, as his reputation abroad grew, foreign royalties and
commissions enabled him to move to his own house in central Warsaw.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, he traveled to Moscow, Siberia,
Georgia and Armenia, observing life there and recording the ravages of
the Soviet era. Those travels yielded “Imperium,” published in the
United States by Knopf in 1994.

“There is, I admit, a certain egoism, in what I write,” he once said,
“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.”