The Illuminated Letters Of a Polish Journalist

Autor:Neely Tucker
Źródło:The Washington Post

Maybe there’s something about those brutal winters on the high northern
plains of Eastern Europe, stuck defenseless between Berlin and Moscow,
the peasant huts and concrete apartments smelling of dank clothes, lost
hope and boiled cabbage.

Maybe there’s something that, every so often, kicks a young writer in
the gut, and produces great wanderlust or literary genius or, in the
case of Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski and his literary predecessor
Joseph Conrad, both.

Kapuscinski died back home in Warsaw yesterday. He was 74. He wrote
stuff you just couldn’t believe. (Perhaps literally. We’ll get to that.)
He was a journalist, sort of. „The reporter . . . must experience
everything at his own cost,” he wrote while stuck in Lagos with blood

He was a deity in Poland, where I lived and reported for about half of
the 1990s, and he was a deity among correspondents in Africa, where I
spent the rest of the decade. Correspondents in Africa have two authors
on their shelves: Graham Greene and Kapuscinski.

He filed dispatches from upheavals in dozens of countries across Africa
and Latin America, plus the Mideast, then turned them into
diamond-perfect books such as „The Soccer War,” „The Emperor” and „The
Shah of Shahs.” These are about totalitarian despair and poverty and
maybe human nature. You hold them to the light, I swear they glitter.

Kapuscinski used his Polishness as a lens to look at the rest of the
world. Poland is a nation that has appeared and disappeared on the maps.
It can be more a state of mind than a political reality. Kapuscinski
translated its effect on the soul to the Third World nations he wrote
about, and thus both the source and product of his particular brand of


„I must explain to you, my friend, that in those days thinking was a painful inconvenience and a troubling deformity.”

That’s one of the palace workers speaking in „The Emperor,” a book
about Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia. He was describing insane
totalitarianism to Kapuscinski. He might as well have been describing
Poland during its post-World War II communist rule. Poles reading
Kapuscinski understood that nuance and delighted in its subversive
insight. Kapuscinski didn’t just write on one level. The great ones
never do.

He was born in Pinsk, which was then in Poland and is now in Belarus
(see above, „Poland is a state of mind”). His parents were
schoolteachers. When they moved to Warsaw, they lived near the Jewish
ghetto. He saw executions, his father was active in the underground and
young Ryszard wound up writing for communist journals.

Officially, he often worked for the Polish Press Agency, PAP, which was
sort of a down-market Pravda. Beginning in the 1960s, they sent him to
cover things in Africa and Latin America — the end of colonialism and
defeat of the Evil West and such. He was the foreign bureau — their
only correspondent. Off he went, working with a budget just a little bit
less than what you might expect official state journalists from Eastern
Europe to have in, say, Luanda.

He was outflanked by Western reporters with more money, more time and
more influence, and it did not matter. He gained access to the lowly and
the lowly servants of the elite, or just wandered among the soldiers
and the killers.

On the border between Ethiopia and Somalia, 1976:

„The airplane took off, leaving us alone in the sun with the pesticide.
We covered our heads with newspapers so that we could stand the molten
heat, so that we wouldn’t fall over, it was so hot. The Ogaden desert
burned all around and now, high noon, there was no sign of life. We were
looking at the most uncomplicated of images, reduced to two planes: at
the bottom, a band of earth; higher, into infinity, the expanse of sky.
In the middle, two drops of sweat, Marcos and I.”

He arrived at political and personal insights by possessing steel
nerves (he was once nearly set aflame by soldiers), a cast-iron stomach
(you wouldn’t believe the food), great narrative skill and a unique view
of the web of life.

Death approaching, in the war between Honduras and El Salvador that followed a soccer match:

„Everyone was absorbed, silent, concentrating on the sight of the
wounded man. He was drawing breath more slowly now, and his head had
tilted back. The soldiers sitting near him grasped their hands around
their knees and hunched up, as if the fire was burning low and the cold
creeping in. In the end — it was a while yet — somebody said: 'He’s
gone. All he was is gone.’ ” They stayed there for some time, looking
fearfully at the dead man and afterwards, when they saw that nothing
else would happen, they began walking away.”

Kapuscinski never could have happened in America. We’re too literal. We
want facts to be things that, you know, actually happened. Not rumors,
which he reported. And we want our characters to be real human beings,
not composites, as he often made them (without telling readers this was
so), and then quoted them at length. He acknowledged that he never
really bothered with notes.

„I don’t write down conversations,” he told Vanity Fair in a 1991
interview. „If I am talking to somebody, I am trying to remember only
one thing that he says, maybe two things. And then I’m finished —
forget about the rest.”

In rural Africa, in urban Latin America, in a book written in Polish
years after the fact, who was ever going to say you got it wrong, the
quote from the unnamed soldier at the hellish checkpoint?

But Salman Rushdie was right when he said that you don’t read
Kapuscinski for the facts. You read him for the way he turned a
misbegotten part of the world on its edge, then showed you how it all
really worked, like opening a watch and showing you all the little gears
rolling around one another.

One complete Kapuscinski chapter:

„Pack the suitcase. Unpack it, pack it, unpack it, pack it; typewriter,
passport, ticket, airport, stairs, airplane, fasten seat-belt, take
off, unfasten seat-belt, flight, rocking, sun, stars, space, hips of
strolling stewardesses, sleep, clouds, falling engine speed, fasten
seat-belt, descent, circling, landing, earth, unfasten seat-belts,
stairs, airport, immunization book, visa, customs, taxi, streets,
houses, people, hotel, key, room, stuffiness, thirst, otherness,
foreignness, loneliness, waiting, fatigue, life.”