Listening: Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life by Artur Domosławski, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life
BY Artur Domosławski
TRANSLATED FROM THE POLISH
BY Antonia Lloyd-Jones
(Verso Books, 2012)


From the Publisher:

“…In this definitive biography, Artur Domosławski shines a new light on the personal relationships of this intensely charismatic, deeply private man, examining the intractable issue at the heart of Kapuściński’s life and work: the relationship and tension between journalism and literature.

In researching this book, Domosławski, himself an award-winning foreign correspondent, enjoyed unprecedented access to Kapuściński’s private papers. The result traces his mentor’s footsteps through Africa and Latin America, delves into files and archives that Kapuściński himself examined, and records conversations with the people that he talked to in the course of his own investigations. Ryszard Kapuściński is a meticulous, riveting portrait of a complex man of intense curiosity living at the heart of dangerous times.”

Who was Ryszard Kapuściński? Let’s start with a sentence from the publisher’s biography that greets the reader of his English books. Beneath a black and white portrait of a man with a devilish grin, we read:

During his four decades reporting from Asia, Latin America, and Africa, he befriended Che Guevara, Salvador Allende, and Patrice Lumumba; witnessed twenty-seven coups and revolutions; and was sentenced to death four times.

In one dense sentence, we have the résumé of a man who has stared death in the face and consorted with revolutionaries. This is a man who has immersed himself in the turmoil of the world, wiped the blood off his face and emerged with a book in his hand. He has survived more violence than the reader has seen in a lifetime of daily commutes.

…the story he tells us is less about this Polish reporter with a zeal for getting into dangerous places than the action he is witnessing. The story is about the people and their times, their daily life, motivations and dreams.

When we then read any of his books, we are seduced by a narrative force emanating from a reckless man trying to make sense of the actions he is witnessing. Whether the book contains stories of the last days of Halie Selassie or the Shah of Iran, tales of the wars and coups in the Congo, Angola or Nigeria, or combat-level descriptions of an Honduran soldier facing an army from El Salvador, the story is told by someone who has forced himself into those places where no foreign journalist should be. The narrator is the Polish journalist in countries where Poland has no business, no history and no self-interest or engagement. He often reminds us in his tales that he is “the” foreign correspondent for PAP, the Polish News Agency, a news organization so small and so poor that he does not see the world from the window of a luxury hotel with other foreign press but from the street of the neighborhood where he can barely afford to rent a room, from which his few possessions are stolen when he goes out on an assignment. He is an alien in the Third World, free of all taints of colonial past or commercial interest.

Kapuściński created this voice for himself as he re-wrote his dispatches into books published in Poland in the 1970s. This character goes places where change is happening. He talks to people. He sees things and tell us about what the people see and hear and feel. He is threatened, imprisoned, doused with kerosene, thrown from cars by explosions, stung in the face by scorpions and left delirious by malaria. But the story he tells us is less about this Polish reporter with a zeal for getting into dangerous places than the action he is witnessing. The story is about the people and their times, their daily life, motivations and dreams.


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