Kapuściński by John May
"The way I understand the role of the journalist, serious journalist, is somebody who is looking at what he's doing not only as a way of how you make your money but also as a mission, a responsibility. For me. this is a vocation."
Who is this Ryszard Kapuscinski? This is a large question to which it is not easy to find an answer.
He is a man who has travelled the whole world, who has witnessed 27 revolutions in his role as a foreign correspondent, who has developed an important new style of writing which blends journalism and literature, scholarship and reportage.
Brilliant as they are, these books are just the tip of a mountain of material which his translators are busily preparing for the numerous publishers and magazine editors clamouring for his work. His writing has or will be featured in New Yorker, Granta, The
I first met Kapuściński in August for an interview that led to a long correspondence and further meetings in
A stockily-built man, he always arrives briskly, with a smile on his face. His deep-set eyes are kind and enquiring, his handshake strong and warm, his conversation intense, his manner unfailingly polite.
All of which is surface detail. To understand Kapuściński better, it is necessary to return to the geography and social conditions of his childhood which have marked him in a profound way.
He was born on March 4, 1932 in
His father was a very poor, semi-literate teacher in the village school until the war came, when he served as an officer in the Polish army before joining the armed resistance movement during the Nazi occupation.
Kapuściński says of his father, who died several years ago: "I loved him and admired him but he was a very simple man who never travelled. He never left
Perhaps this craziness could be accounted for by the fact that the war started when he was seven years old.
He says: "My generation in my country was very politicised from the beginning and we had a very hard experience as children. Our first understanding of the world was as a place where there is a big fight going on and the power is manifesting itself through force and there are social and political conflicts."
These two factors — poverty and turmoil — were to give Kapuściński a unique view and advantage in his work as a foreign correspondent.
He says of his home: "It was purely a Third World country so I found myself, being out of
"I met for the first time a telephone when I was already a teenager and not only was there no telephone in my place, the idea of telephones was foreign to me.
"The other thing is: I like very agitated situations and conflicts and there was a lot of this in the
In the spring of 1945, with the war at an end, his family moved to
In 1948, at the age of 16, he had his first poem published and seven years later he graduated from the
Almost immediately he began work for the youth journal Sztander Mlodych during the most active period of its history as an investigative publication. In one report he uncovered widespread corruption in the industrial city of
As a result, he began working for the Polish Press agency, in the beginning travelling around his own country, producing a series of reportages later collected in a book entitled The Bush Polish Style.
Then, in 1956, he made his first trip out of
"My motivation was I can't stay in one place. I have to move. I'm thinking when I am in motion. This was the starting point.”
He was in
He began to acquire a reputation of being in the right place at the right time. He says of this, with characteristic modesty: "Sometimes, yes. Sometimes it's experience. To do something you also need a stroke of luck. You need many other things. You need a certain ability. You have to know how to work hard. You have to be patient. You have to know how to suffer. Also you need a stroke of luck. It's something very difficult to describe, to define.
"I just feel I should be here. It's not that I'm always right. Sometimes nothing happens in certain situations in which I am sure something will happen.
“For example it was before the war between
The question he is asked most often about his experiences is: why is he willing to face death so often, to place himself in very dangerous situations to get his stories?
"You see, in the moment when you're working- and you know that something is going on at the front, your first thing is to go there. At this very moment you don't think about fear. You think about being there.
"Because this situation in which you found yourself requires from you a hundred different activities. Again you have no time to think. Only when you come out of this you think, "Idiot, stupid, why did you do this?'
"Once I was in this really terrible situation in the
Kapuściński's importance as a writer stems not from his news reports but from the fact that he has used all these experiences to develop a new form of writing — he calls his books "texts" to emphasise this — which blends literature and journalism. He wants to be there instantly but also to make a long and profound study of the situation.
Kapuściński shares with that other great Polish writer Stanislaw Lem and with the structural anthropologist I.evi-Strauss the thirst for exploring new worlds, of trying to find new boundaries. In his view it is important to go out of his tradition in order to perceive the world from another perspective.
"To explain my situation, I was always working in these
"What is a fact? Today, 8 August, is a fact but for me, if I'm going somewhere, the mood is also a fact; the way of thinking is a fact, the colour is a fact, the smell is a fact. So all these new facts don't fit the traditional way of writing but they are very important to the reality, how they influence the behaviour of the people, the events and everything. So then you have to find new ways of expression and this you can find only in a literary way."
After his official duties were over, he began writing for himself, exploring new forms.
"They are non-factual books in the traditional sense of the word. Reflections about experiences I had, people I met, a sort of lyrical writing but at the same time based on the realities and transmitting the cultural facts, social facts, psychological facts. This I call reflective writing, trying to use my knowledge but expressed in literary, poetic language.
"1 would like my books to give not only the impression of what I see but also to give to the reader knowledge of other worlds, other culture.
"The contemporary world is a world of many different traditions, cultures, languages, civilisations. You have to find how you can translate one culture and code to another culture and code, which is very difficult.
"At the same time it's very important to find what is universal in all cultures and what is universal in the behaviour of man in all cultural settings. So you have to see the world from different points, starting from analysing very small details and trying to find, in these very details, something which is universal; and the reverse, finding some universal laws of history, in the place of the man in a given historical situation.
"My own experience, and this is a large experience because I practically know the whole world, is the great similarity of human beings. There are some differences, which are differences of culture and education but generally, if you take the main behaviour of man, his reaction and feelings are very similar, independent of all culture. I think this allows humanity to exist. "
In Kapuściński’s books it is possible to travel through time, to observe all shades and periods of power, from the Royalist to the Ruritanian, from the baroque to the bestial. For power is the major subject of his work and his analysis and understanding of it has rarely been equalled.
"You can have a sort of technical progress," he says, "it's visible in history. But if we still read Plato, Machiavelli and Shakespeare like contemporary books it means that there is no ethical progress. Suddenly you find groups of people behaving in the way that has already been described in literature five thousand years ago in
"You see the problem is that culture is in very big danger, culture in the broad sense of the word, because there is no possibility of coexistence between the primitive, totalitarian power and the culture. These are two big powers which cannot exist in one place.
"This totalitarian power wants to destroy the culture because the real danger to them always comes from there — from the students, from the intellectuals — but also from the force of traditional culture, transmitting the values of democracy, of freedom, of human dignity. '
This is the problem of history, or the future, as he sees it, and the one that fascinates him most. Being Polish has, of course, enabled him to observe such processes at first hand and many read his books as metaphors of his own country's problems.
Kapuściński's position is that he now finds himself faced with a new problem — fame, and its accompanying demands. The Emperor has already been translated into 20 languages, Shah Of Shahs into twelve in the first year and his readership is growing rapidly. As a modest man with scholarly devotion to his craft, this new pressure is difficult for him to bear.
"I'm trying to escape somehow but it is very difficult," he says. "It's the changing role of the writer in contemporary society. Society asks him to be more and more involved in the problems of the world. Be active, be personally present. You have to fight to have the time to write your books."
In 1978, the Polish film maker Andrzej Wajda admitted that the hero of his movie Rough Treatment, the story of a star reporter in his forties who returns home and finds he cannot adjust to normal life, had a 'clear correspondence' with Kapuściński
Wajda, who is still trying to film The Emperor after being refused permission twice to make it in
Who is Ryszard Kapuściński? One of the great journalists of our time.