Saturday, August 04, 2012


 'To what extent may one distort reality in order to reach the deeper truth that refelects the 'heart of the matter'? Where are the lines that mark the borders between fiction and non-fiction? By introducing elements of invention, by processing reality, do we shift our text from the 'journalism' shelf to the one marked 'literature'? Is literary reportage - as Kapuściński thought....a legitimate literary genre...?'
These questions haunt this  truly remarkable biography of an extraordinary writer, hailed by the likes of Salman Rushdie as one of the great foreign correspondents of the 20th century but whose reputation since his death in 2007 has been seriously besmirched by revelations that he fabricated many of the facts and accounts in his most famous books and embellished the story of his own life.

I was the first British journalist to interview Kapuściński when he arrived in the UK for the publication of 'The Emperor'. In 2007, I wrote a series of posts about the various meetings I had with him in London - at one of which I had the pleasure of introducing him to Bob Geldof, at another we met at the Royal Court Theatre and saw a performance of 'The Emperor' directed by Jonathan Miller - and about our correspondence over several years. There is also a reprint of the piece I wrote about him for 'The Face'. In 2011, I wrote a piece about this book (sight unseen) and collected a great many links which followed the original Polish publication of the book.

 All the above is accessible from this Previous Post: Kapuściński Revisited

That post, in turn, links also to a further series of investigative posts on Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood' - widely and wrongly hailed as the first non-fiction novel. As the years have past, the 'factual' content of the book has been seriously questioned and it is now clear that much of the work was the product of Capote's heated imagination. In other words, a useful historical parallel to the Kapuściński story.

I call this book remarkable for a number of reasons. Firstly, Domosławski, a personal friend and a celebrated journalist in his own right, considered K a maestro and a mentor so it was with growing unease that, following K's death, he uncovered the secrets of both K the man and K the writer. The scrupulouseness of his investigation threatens the reputation of a man he loved and admired. 

He writes: 'Not for the first time I catch myself fearing that, without meaning to write an expose, I am discovering facts about the master's life which I would rather not know at all, and that I am creating a platform for massively negative opinions of him.'

Secondly, the translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones is especially good as it captures the Polish style of prose, full of author's thoughts and rhetorical questions, which makes this intimidatingly long and detailed book really fascinating, unexpected and gripping to read.

Thirdly, Domosławski sets K's adventures - he is always the real centre figure of his books - in the broader context of the extraordinary birth of the Third World that K witnessed at first hand and the modern post-war history of Poland.

K was an enthusiastic communist until 1981, had friends in the Central Committee and wrote briefing papers and reports of utmost fidelity and factual accuracy for various branches of government. His groundbreaking expose of working conditions at the Nowa Huta steel works won him national acclaim and gained him the golden opportunity to travel the world.

The books that emerged from these experiences were written in a powerful literary style, a form of 'New Journalism' that was compelling, visceral, atmospheric and fresh. For obvious reasons Domosławski's revelations have seriously affected K's standing in the eyes of his fellow journalists for betraying his profession -  which he told me personally was, in his eyes, 'a vocation.'. 

Yet despite K's conrfabulations - he may have met Salvador Allende but he certainly didn't meet Che Guevara or Patrice Lumumba as has been widely claimed - there is still a wealth of excellent reporting and writing that will survive as great literature.

What he was certainly great at was 'capturing the essential mechanisms of any authoritarian power'. After all, he did witness twenty or so revolutions, uprisings and coups d'etat in the Third World. Both 'The Emperor' an 'Shah of Shahs' can also be read as metaphors for the reality of the Polish political structure which he was so adept at working within. He told me personally: "Human nature doesn't change that's why Machiavelli and Shakespeare are contemporary works."

Thanks to Domosławski, we now see K as a real-life complex figure - traumatised child, unfaithful husband, absent and cruel father, passionate communist - and as his own fictional creation. Finishing the book, walking through K's personal library and following K's final notes on his last journey to another world, one is left with a profound sense that his exploits and writings will continue to fascinate far into the future.

'Ryszard Kapuściński : A Life' by Artur Domosławski is published by Verso Books.

See also: Interesting audio assessment of the book on The Economist website:

The Guardian review

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