Photo Credit: Verso Books
Detail of the book cover. Photo Credit: Verso Books

While the usual fare here at Russophile Reads tends to focus on the history and literature of Russia, it seemed worth making an exception for Artur Domosławski’s unusual and highly intriguing biography, Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life (Verso, 2013). And why? Because Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007) became arguably the most famous journalist of the 20th century, and he achieved his success while working as a correspondent for Poland, then a part of the USSR. In creating a new form of literary journalism in famous works such as The Emperor, Shah of Shahs, Another Day of Life, and The Soccer War, Kapuściński dared to push the boundaries of what reportage can do, to the extent that, as his sometimes-bewildered devotee Domosławski admits, it can be hard to figure out exactly where — and most crucially, why — the lines between fact and fiction become blurred.

This is not a typical biography, which is to say that although of course Kapuściński remains very much at the centre throughout, I came away from the book still feeling that I had very little sense of the details of most of his trips or even of his working methods, and his personal life — messy, to say the least — remains largely off-stage apart from a couple of chapters. Instead, Artur Domosławski uses Kapuściński’s life as a way of exploring the broader worlds of the Polish media under the USSR, the decades of the Cold War, and the ideological struggle that played out both within the Soviet Union and in the third world conflicts Kapuściński covered as a journalist. And throughout his quest to follow in the footsteps of the man he hails as a master and personal mentor, Domosławski doggedly tries to separate the truths from the myths and embellishments Kapuściński was prone to, constantly asking questions and voicing his doubts to the reader as he goes. Having known Kapuściński personally and admired him professionally, Domosławski’s sense of inner conflict as he attempts to recreate “the Master” in all his unvarnished (and often unflattering) glory is authentic, and adds a sense of unresolved tension that crackles throughout the book.

But first, the man himself: Kapuściński was born into relatively humble beginnings as the son of two schoolteachers, and the formative years of his childhood were spent witnessing the horrors and deprivations of World War Two and its aftermath. An idealist at heart, he soon became swept up in the revolutionary fervour of the Soviet system, and spent most of his working life as a proud member of the Polish Communist Party. As an unknown twenty-something journalist he was sent by his editor to report from India, and his fate was sealed: within days of his arrival, Kapuściński knew that he had found his calling as a foreign correspondent.

Kapuściński was sent abroad at a time when the third world was becoming increasingly volatile as former colonial empires collapsed one after the other. Large swathes of Africa, South America, and the Middle East became theatres for the proxy battles for influence and acolyte states waged by the USSR against its main rival, the United States of America. But for Kapuściński, the appeal of all the revolutionary fever in the air was less about the day-to-day realities of realpolitik, and more about the perennial problems of unchecked power and the miseries of global poverty and inequality. Lacking the plush budgets and creature comforts of the Western reporters on assignment, Kapuściński instead made a name for himself by living rough and gathering information from ordinary people in the countries he visited: the downtrodden, the forgotten, the voiceless.

As Domosławski reveals with subtlety and empathy, Kapuściński managed to remain a True Believer in the Communist cause for so long because he was one of the rare journalists who saw for himself what it meant to be the loser in both colonial and capitalist systems. While famous masterpieces such as The Emperor and Shah of Shahs are portraits of absolute power slowly disintegrating, his impetus for writing them seems to have been driven by a sense of the chronic injustice he found all over the world, inspiring within him a fascination for all the ways in which power is seized, misused, and lost, over and over again. Revolutions, Kapuściński liked to insist, erupt when the ordinary man can no longer bear the violation of his dignity — a dignity which Kapuściński believed in and defended to the end.

Depending on who you ask — and Domosławski asks a lot of people — some will argue that Kapuściński’s portraits of power are allegorical commentaries on the failings of the Soviet system itself, suggesting a dissident streak deep within Kapuściński that remained carefully hidden so long as he worked for the Polish Press Agency and other journals in the Polish press. Such an interpretation strikes me as unconvincing, if only because Kapuściński defected from the ranks of the Party very late in the day, and ultimately remained committed to left-wing ideals towards the end of his life.

What is far more fascinating is watching Domosławski gamely confront, again and again, Kapuściński’s cozy relationships with members of the Party elite, and some of his less appealing characteristics that get revealed along the way: his craving for acceptance and approval, his willingness to switch sides and dump old friends as soon as the winds began to change. Most maddeningly of all for his biographer, Kapuściński never managed to confront his own Communist past in his writing, and seemed determined to bury it as much as he could after the fall of the regime: “I am not demanding remorse or self-criticism — I just want to understand,” Domosławski writes at one point, “But instead of his voice — that most exceptional voice — there is silence.”

The other great controversy that haunts the book is the vexed question of the “liberties” Kapuściński took when writing the works that made him famous. How you will feel about such liberties will depend a lot on how you choose to interpret and categorize Kapuściński’s oeuvre. When Domosławski asks the detractors — many of whom are academic experts in the regions Kapuściński covered — the criticism centres upon Kapuściński’s rampant inaccuracies and ahistorical bent, his tendency to weave tall tales in place of sober reportage in his full-length works. But his admirers see it differently: Kapuściński was writing something more deliberately literary than factual, creating works that could speak to the broader themes of power and society that interested him. And even his detractors are usually ready to admit that Kapuściński was, if nothing else, a master stylist.

Domosławski’s biography inspired much lively debate upon its original publication in Poland, with some critics accusing him of tarnishing the Master’s legacy. But what Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life actually gives us is something far more complex than either hagiography or a hatchet job: Domosławski’s portrait of his hero is humane but honest, exposing the contradictions at the heart of not just Kapuściński’s own life, but the lives of his contemporaries and the times in which they lived. History is only ever simple in hindsight, and literature is never quite simple at all. Ultimately, Kapuściński remains a mystery. As Domosławski writes,

In fiction, poetry, and drama, we have no choice but to trust the author; he or she alone knows the whole story from start to finish, and the protagonists’ motivations; there is no room for alternative scenarios or different endings. In non-fiction — whether historical, journalistic, or biographical — there are always some questions that remain unanswered. What were our hero’s motives? What was he thinking? Could history have turned out differently? There is always something else we have not discovered or cannot grasp in full.

Get the Book:

  • Domosławski, Artur. Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. London: Verso Books. First published in paperback in 2013, and currently in print.

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© Brandy Harrison/Russophile Reads 2020

4 thoughts on “Just the Facts?: “Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life”, by Artur Domosławski (Review)

    1. I read a collection of his writings on Poland called “Nobody Leaves” a couple years ago, but have yet to read his most famous works — “Shah of Shahs” is definitely on my list, although I’m hoping to start with “Another Day of Life”.

      Liked by 1 person

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