l i f e o f t h e p e n mat t h e w g r e e n
Man of Parts Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life
By Artur Domosławski (Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)
(Verso Books 456pp £25)
Ryszard Kapuściński was journalism’s answer to superman. His blend of suicidal derring-do and empathy for the powerless transformed the messy ingredients of daily news coverage into literary gold. A witness to dozens of wars, coups and revolutions, he befriended Che Guevara and Patrice Lumumba. He had a knack for narrowly escaping death by firing squad. When I first began working as a reporter in Africa, the Polish reporter embodied the apotheosis of what being a foreign correspondent was all about. So when a respected editor once dismissed him as a fantasist, I was dumbstruck.
In his illuminating biography, Artur Domosławski has taken on the necessary and extraordinarily difficult task of distinguishing fact from fiction in the life of a man whose journalism is infused in equal measures with sublime insight and self-serving invention. The book will appeal most to anybody who has been transported by the rhapsodical style of reportage in Kapuściński greatest works: his account of the court of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie in The Emperor; a rendering of the Iranian Revolution in Shah of Shahs; and recollections of his African years in The Shadow of the Sun. Such books earned him global stature and, Domosławski tells us, once turned him into a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Yet Kapuściński was more complex than his books might suggest. Throughout the forensic excavation of his subject ’s past, Domosławski grapples with two fundamental questions: how much of Kapuściński’s work was simply made up, and how much does it matter? His task was made easier by the trove of letters and notes that Kapuściński left behind, and harder by their author’s talent for embellishment.
Domosławski, himself a Polish journalist, painstakingly unpicks many of the yarns that underpin Kapuściński’s heroic status. Contrary to what he led his readers to believe, Kapuściński was not friends with Guevara and Lumumba. He never faced a firing squad. He tended to use the phrase ‘Oh yes, I was there then’ when describing pivotal events he had not in fact witnessed. A large number of his ‘facts’ were plain wrong. ‘He created the literary
Kapuściński: footloose and fanciful figure of Ryszard Kapuściński, the hero of Ryszard Kapuściński’s books, and by this means his own legend,’ Domosławski writes. To his sternest critics, Kapuściński’s fondness for amending reality destroyed his credibility. He was a ‘gonzo orientalist’, a painter of magical but ultimately inauthentic portraits of the global south that one scholar dismissed as ‘tropical baroque’.
The Kapuściński that emerges from Domosławski’s portrait is obsessed not with facts, but with a ‘deeper truth’. It was his intuitive skill for ‘decoding the mechanisms’ of power and revolution that lends his work its timeless quality. So what if Haile Selassie’s pooch Lulu didn’t actually urinate on the shoes of courtiers as they stood to attention? So what if giant perch caught in Lake Victoria had not actually gorged on the flesh of prisoners killed by Idi Amin? The ‘detail-mongers’ miss the point. Kapuściński dreamed up scenes solely to better reflect the ‘heart of the matter’.
Certainly Kapuściński did not feel bound by lofty notions of ‘objectivity’. He would have been a fierce critic of much of today’s media, in which the practice of giving equal weight to all sides in the name of ‘balance’ is sometimes used as a substitute for the more important journalistic task of finding out the truth.
Kapuściński believed that journalists had to take sides. In Angola, he took this principle to its logical extreme by firing a rifle in combat alongside the fighters he was covering. Domosławski, unstinting in his pursuit of Kapuściński’s fabrications, concludes that this anecdote, at least, is true.
‘I do not believe in impartial journalism,’ Kapuściński said. ‘I do not believe in formal objectivity. A journalist cannot be an indifferent witness, he should have the capacity for what in psychology is called empathy.’
It was this quality that allowed him to discern what historians and political scientists tend to miss: revolutions are sparked not by poverty or hunger, but by the collective decision of a humiliated population to reclaim its dignity. Four years after he died in 2007, the uprisings of the Arab Spring would seem to vindicate Kapuściński’s theory. It is his struggle to see the world from the perspective of the marginalised, the colonised and the poor that deserves the greatest acclaim.
Antonia Lloyd-Jones has clearly worked hard to remain faithful in translation to Domosławski’s original Polish text. Nevertheless, Verso should have insisted on a more aggressive rewrite for an international audience, who may find the acronym-heavy intricacies of Poland’s communist-era power games less enthralling than the author’s nuanced portrait of Kapuściński the man.
Although a prolific seducer of women, Kapuściński was profoundly fragile. We read of his despair at the loneliness he felt in his African postings and the frustrations of his constant battles with the Polish Press
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Agency for the resources he needed to do his job. Even as he won laurels as a writer, he reacted to even the mildest criticism with ‘fits of rage, distress, or grief bordering on depression’. Domosławski’s exploration of the fear and insecurity that haunted Kapuściński’s success tells us more about what it was really like to be him than any number of tall warzone tales.
The book is a hefty 456 pages, but worth the effort. In one passage Hanna Krall, the first lady of Polish reportage, sums up the riddle of Kapuściński the Chameleon. ‘Every time he came back from a new reporting trip, I never knew who I was talking to,’ she recalled. ‘A Bolivian guerrilla? An Ethiopian revolutionary? A Shi’ite fundamentalist?’ Artur Domosławski unmasks the man behind his many myths. To order this book for £20, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 13
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Extinction’s Alp ortality By Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books 240pp £10.99)
Defending Philip Larkin from his crit- ics, Christopher Hitchens said that readers loved him because he understood everyday suffering. He mapped ‘decaying communities, old people’s homes, housing estates and clinics’ better than most social democrats. While dying is often referred to as ‘going down hill’, Larkin, Hitchens saw, realised that debilitation is not an easy glide to oblivion but an exhausting climb of ‘extinction’s alp’.
Hitchens’s account of his climb to extinction is Larkinesque, and not only because his sentences stay in the mind as firmly as good poetry. Hitchens maps the world of intensive care. Not without regret, he dismisses those who pretend they can soften its horrors, including perhaps his younger self. A heart-breaking final chapter contains quotations from great writers that he scrawled as material for an essay he would never live to write. As the pneumonia brought on by oesophageal cancer overwhelmed him, Hitchens recalled Larkin’s reprimand, in ‘Aubade’, of atheists who believe that stoicism will see them through:
And specious stuff that says No rational being Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound, No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, Nothing to love or link with, The anaesthetic from which none come round.
‘Fair enough in one way,’ Hitchens writes. ‘Atheists ought not to be offering consolation.’ Notice that he did not write ‘false consolation’, as most of us would. Mortality is an argument against comforting cliché, among which the notion that cancer sufferers are ‘fighting’ their tumours outdoes even ‘going down hill’. Hitchens does not feel like a warrior. If only he were like a soldier in battle or a revolutionary on the barricades, he thinks. If only he were suffering for a purpose. But you cannot fight when you are ‘swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water’. Nor is one surprised to learn that Nietzsche had not experienced chronic illness when he offered his ‘what does not kill me makes me stronger’ for healthy men and women to quote until they learned better. As for purpose: in the best and bleakest line in the book, Hitchens reflects, ‘To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: “Why not”?’
His brio is hard to credit when you imagine Hitch struggling from his bed, his body battered by radiation treatments and chemotherapy, his voice vanishing, his hair going, and his weight collapsing, so that he can write one last time. But write he must, not least because he is now in a position to put Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s theory about five stages of grief to the test. You must know the drill. From ‘denial’ we go to ‘anger’ at our illness, to ‘bargaining’ for a few more years before ‘depression’ sets in. It lasts until we reach the rapture of ‘acceptance’ and repeat Kübler-Ross’s formulation: ‘It’s going to be okay. I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.’ Even when he was in his prime, Hitchens would have bristled at the quasi-religious notion of ‘acceptance’. When he is dying, he notices that KüblerRoss’s tripping across the stages omits the ‘gnawing sense of waste’, the powerlessness, the boredom and the pain.
Hitchens cannot avoid the most popular producer of deathly clichés – nor, given the disputes of his life, does he wish to. Hardline believers in Larkin’s ‘vast motheaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die’ took to the Internet to celebrate Hitchens’s cancer as divine punishment for his impiety. More compassionate theologians offered Hitchens sincere sympathy and prayers for his redemption. They cannot have been surprised that they merely provided him with a reason to expand upon the old freethinkers’ point that a believer is an atheist about every
MA in biography
Consistently rated ‘excellent’ by external examiners and inspectors The course is taught by Jane Ridley and will be based in London. Available full-time (12 months) or part-time,
by research or as a taught MA. Courses start October or January.
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