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January 2013

Rebuilding reality

by Carl Rollyson

A review of Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life by Artur Domoslawski

Arthur Domoslawski probes every aspect of Kapuscinski: the man, the writer, and the mentor. Domoslawski knew Kapuscinski and this proximity strengthens the biographer’s narrative, allowing him to measure his own memories against those of his subject’s sister, friends, and associates. I cannot say enemies, since Kapuscinski really had none. Indeed, one of this biography’s chapters is titled “Why Did Kapuscinski Have No Critics in Poland?” It was only very late in the day—really only as Kapuscinski lay dying—that the monumental authority he had accrued in his native land began to be challenged.

How Kapuscinski acquired such a hallowed reputation is the burden of the biographer’s narrative. Domoslawski suggests that, like many greater writers, Kapuscinski began to fashion a persona at a very early age. His stories made his family’s trials during the Second World War more harrowing than his sister’s more modest remembrances suggest. Indeed, Domoslawski sets these accounts side by side and suggests that no one can ever be entirely sure that the sister is more truthful than the brother. Perhaps the difference between them is that the sister had no agenda, whereas her brother, as his friends tell the biographer, was always shaping the past to accord with the heroic image he wanted to project. Kapuscinski’s stories also served as ideological armature. He wanted to portray his father, for example, as a victim of the Nazis. This tactic was a means of justifying Kapuscinski’s role as party man, supporting the postwar Soviet-style Polish governments, part of the imperium that had defeated Hitler.

Early on, the talented Kapuscinski was sent abroad to cover Third World revolutions (especially in the emerging postcolonial African countries), the defeat of the Shah in Iran, and the various revolutionary movements in South America epitomized by the execution and subsequent sanctification of Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928–67). In one of Kapuscinski’s typical sleights of hand, he implied—though never quite said—that he had been embedded with Guevara’s guerrillas.

Domoslawski exposes this ruse, and others, while also exploring the many instances when Kapuscinski put his life at risk and delivered powerful and verifiable reports that became masterpieces of journalism in books such as The Emperor (1978), Shah of Shahs (1982), and Imperium (1993), a riveting account of the Soviet Union’s last days. The first book in this trio is, on its surface, a study of Haile Selassie, but is also widely read as an allegory about the regime of Edward Gierek, which began to disintegrate in the summer of 1980 with the advent of the first Solidarity strike. The Emperor seems prescient, since it is about the decay and corruption of a court culture, a parable that can easily apply to communist Poland—and indeed to the whole creaky Soviet imperium, which remained in place so long as no one stood up to say the emperor had no clothes.

The irony of Kapuscinski’s story—as Domoslawski keenly appreciates—is that the journalist had been a true believer, a party man right down the line. He was anti-capitalist and pro virtually any national liberation movement that rejected Western—and especially American—help. But Kapuscinski spent very little time in Poland. He was usually abroad and thus never became directly implicated in the party’s machinations. And by traveling in the Third World, he kept the romantic myth of revolution alive even as it was failing in Poland. In other words, much of Kapuscinski’s reporting is a kind of displacement, a memorialization of the belief that somewhere on earth socialism would triumph and somehow vindicate his loyalty to the regime at home.

So long as there was no Solidarity movement, Kapuscinski was able to survive and even thrive on his contradictions. The test came in the Gdansk shipyards in the summer of 1980, when Kapuscinski was home and could not avoid one of the biggest stories of the century. At first, he did not join the strikers; indeed, he maintained his connections with party higher-ups who had always supported and protected him. Inevitably, however, he could not gainsay either the momentum of the movement or its just demands. A master of several languages, Kapuscinski began acting as translator for Solidarity. And thus he weaned himself from his communist comrades.

At the same time, Kapuscinski became a lionized figure in the West, taken up by Susan Sontag, Salman Rushdie, and Gabriel García Márquez, who virtually anointed him the writer of revolutions, the intrepid eyewitness who validated their own politics. These public figures, of course, were not fact checkers; biographers are—or should be. And Domoslawski has not shirked his duty. Indeed, Kapuscinski’s widow and friends have attacked him and even tried to block translation of his book, upset because Domoslawski has exposed significant instances in which his subject invented details to round out his pictures of personalities and events.

But Domoslawski is no disillusioned acolyte either. His affection and respect for Kapuscinski remain high because Kapuscinski wrote so well and so insightfully about the mechanisms of power. After all, Kapuscinski did see the inner workings of the political apparatus in Poland and abroad. If he did not actually visit Ethiopian homes as he claimed, he met those same people at embassies and other social gatherings and, in effect, rebuilt their stories into compelling narratives. I was taken with one of Kapuscinski’s phrases: the rebuilding of reality. A man with literary aspirations created a kind of magical journalism that parallels Márquez’s magical realism.

Domoslawski also addresses one of the most heated issues in post-communist Poland. Did Kapuscinski collaborate with Polish intelligence when abroad? Was he a spy? An informer? The biographer canvases every side of these questions contextually, taking into account the fraught conditions of lustration during a time when the Polish government wanted to out everyone who had contributed to the long, demoralizing period of their country’s subservience to the Soviet Union. And government files indicate that Kapuscinski was on record expressing his willingness to provide the party with information.

But what information did Kapuscinski provide? As Domoslawski points out, certain American journalists followed much the same course with the CIA. In fact, journalists have often traded information with government officials for all sorts of reasons: patriotic, opportunistic, and as a means of getting the whole story. You have to give up something to get something. Ultimately, the biographer discovered no evidence to suggest Kapuscinski’s “information” ever hurt anyone. In fact, most of the time he had nothing to offer and excused himself by saying he was too busy to fulfill assignments the government gave him.

While on a Fulbright in Poland, I knew many people like Kapuscinski: writers and academics who maintained contacts with government officials and, in one case, “informed” on me—simply describing what I was “up to,” which was not much. I was in Poland during the summer of 1980 when the ground began to shift, although no one knew what the eruption would look like, or what, ultimately, would result from the protests and strikes. Many still believed the Soviet Union would invade. And rightly so. One Polish colleague told me the Polish government would not last six days if it could be established that the Soviet Union would not invade. In this atmosphere, Kapuscinski made his decision—just as he always had when abroad, when the outcome of events could not be ascertained, and when he had to pick up his pen and write history from one point of view or another. He did not believe in objectivity. The man who often reserved his courage for his prose this time stood by those shipyard workers, even though doing so meant renouncing decades of loyalty to the very gang that had made it possible for him to become the Ryszard Kapuscinski who now chronicled their downfall.

Arthur Domoslawski has written an impeccable biography, one critical but also compassionate. Best of all, he situates his biographical narrative in the larger history that his subject helped to build and then tear down. Amidst ironies aplenty, the biographer remains steadfast in his determination to understand his subject—whatever the consequences.

Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, CUNY. He is at work on a biography of Amy Lowell.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 January 2013, on page 78

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