Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life by Artur Domosławksi

Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life BY Artur Domoslawski. Verso. Hardcover, 464 pages. $34.
The cover of Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life

Journalists are the livers of society, organs that break down the myriad poisons of war, revolution, and labyrinthine legal complexity for a body politic. They are also the livers in another sense—their professional function is to go out and live, to experience, explain, bear witness, and provide insight. On a spectrum of literary occupations ranging from the ideal of the hermetic, solitary writer, fully engaged with the imagination all the way to the the over-socialized drinker and raconteur on the other, most journalists fall squarely in the middle. These great compromisers are trapped forever in limbo between living and writing. They do not want to devote themselves to the fiction writer’s long solitary journey through the night but neither are they willing to grow in stature and be fully alive and affecting the world like those world-historical figures who they so love to profile in their magazines. They are Beta individuals, piggybacking off the lives and stories of others. And yet for some reason they persist in their quest to hybridize Apollo and Dionysus, striving for some perfect balance that does not exist.

Many people who could have been doctors or lawyers become journalists and treat the vocation as a career like any other, to be worked for several decades and then retired from. There is something deeply depressing about the lifelong journalist cubicle-dweller—those drawn to the vocation by nostalgic pictures of themselves gallivanting across the world, breaking big stories, having fascinating adventures and conversations, who find themselves wedged between the cold glass walls of the 21st century newsroom shooting off e-mail after e-mail into the void.

Ryszard Kapuściński, the great Polish journalist of the 20th century, hopped from warzone to revolution, leading a life that might be called the journalists' dream. Born in 1932 in Pinsk, Poland, Kapuściński covered the wave of revolutions that shook the Third World from 1950 through 1980 for the Polish state news agency. A devout Communist inspired by Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonial theory, Kapuściński claimed to have witnessed 27 revolutions first-hand before his death in 2007. His books on Iran and Ethiopia, Shah of Shahs and The Emperor, are considered classics of new journalism. In a new translation of Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life, published in Poland in 2010, journalist Artur Domosławksi provides the first definitive biography of his friend and mentor, a man he fawningly refers to throughout as “the master.”

Domosławksi’s book is interesting in itself as a historical survey of Stalinist-era Poland, the African revolutions, and Latin America of the late 1960s. But it’s especially fascinating as a meta-essay about what it is to write biography, how to succeed in journalism and how one reporter made the system work for him. What comes across in Domosławski's account is that this was a man who knew how to get what he wanted. Kapuściński was willing to make the compromises necessary to succeed in so interpersonally-fraught a career as journalism. He managed to flatter and persuade his superiors both in the newsroom and within the government so that he could get sent around the world and post up in far-flung locales for months at a time. He did this by greasing the wheels and avoiding unnecessary conflict. Paradoxically, for all that he did to set up his life as a writer, writing was very difficult for him. Domosławksi paints a pixelated portrait of a man from limited means and no familial connections who endeavored to become a great writer, reporter and intellectual, and ultimately did.

By all reports, Kapuściński was a quiet guy who left people feeling better than he found them. One can see why he had few critics in Poland while he was alive. “He knew almost all the influential reviewers in person, and they all liked him,” Domosławksi writes. “He was one of those rare cases of a highly successful journalist who does not arouse envy among his fellows. The others were his fans and wished him well. So did the decision-makers on the Central Committee, who thought of him as their representative.” Poland at the time was a Stalinist bureaucracy, a one-party state ran on backroom bargains and negotiations. Kapuściński made friends with a number of influential editors and politicians and seemed to be widely seen as a good Communist and a straight shooter.

Domoslawski, the loyal but abashed acolyte, dredges up a number of less-than-flattering facts about the life of his mentor: Kapuściński's war stories and near-death experiences were made up to impress girls. Kapuściński lied about being acquainted with Che Guevara and Patrice Lumumba. He worked as a collaborator and a spy for the Stalinist intelligence services while working as a journalist (a bombshell equivalent to Jeffrey Goldberg being outed as a CIA plant), and then later gave the cold shoulder to his old Communist friends. He was a casual misogynist who cheated on his wife while treating her like a glorified secretary. And then there was the issue of his factual accuracy: Domosławski corroborates what many reviewers and critics have noted since his death—that his books are riddled with historical mistakes, distortions, exaggerations, lies, and secondhand stories presented as facts.

According to Domosławski, he did not set out to write a posthumous takedown of his mentor. The lesson is to keep your heroes at a distance. The sheen they acquire rubs off under a too-close inspection of their lives. One could say that Domosławski's predicament as biographer is the stuff of fiction: admiring protégé sets out to write a sympathetic biography, uncovers unpleasant facts about his idol, damages the reputation of the man he hoped to immortalize. Halfway through the book, you can almost sense Domosławski furrowing his brow, wondering whether its worth it to continue: “Not for the first time I catch myself fearing that, without meaning to write an exposé, 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.” As it turned out, the first reputation Domosławski damaged was his own. The book caused a furor when it was released in Poland. Kapuściński's widow sued Domosławski, telling reporters, “he wanted to precipitate the removal from the pedestal of the one who promoted him, valued him, encouraged him and recommended him.” Public figures and government officials lined up to snipe at Domosławski for degrading Kapuściński. The first publisher of the book backed out. Then Kapuściński's foreign publishers declined to translate it, lending it the leperous air of the “unauthorized biography.” Eventually, it ended up at the small lefty publishing imprint Verso.

In the name of objectivity, journalists are asked to pretend that their opinions, beliefs, and past experiences haven't shaped their reportage. But even if an account is factually accurate, all people are obfuscators, selective editors, unreliable narrators, and concealers of secret intentions. Kapuściński freely admitted to taking liberties with the facts, to constructing parables out of real people and real events. He had no illusions about which side he was on. While reporting on the side of the MPLA during the Angolan Civil War in 1975, he didn’t hesitate to pick up a gun and fight alongside his comrades. He later said, “A journalist who specializes in being a war correspondent sometimes goes into action with a unit and then he feels involved with them. He supports their cause and sides with them.” Journalists are understandably nervous about doing this today. Crossing the Rubicon from passive observer to active participant can cost a journalist their job. Caitlin Curran and Natasha Lennard, two freelance reporters for NPR and The New York Times were both quietly dismissed after they participated in Occupy Wall Street.

In all of Kapuściński's books, he wrote in solidarity with the poor, the downtrodden, and those engaged in anti-colonial struggles. He was not a reporter who hung out in the corridors of power, gossiping with the elite. He believed in the life of the streets and sided with the underdog.

And yet read today, many of Kapuściński's insights and observations seem a bit hackeneyed and obvious: Yes people in Africa sit in the shade because it’s hot. Yes, power breeds corruption and arrogance. His books, while classics, still have an air of Lonely Planet journalism about them, "War and Revolution 101" primers for people who want to know a little about the geopolitics of a foreign country without having to learn too much or put in the time. More problematic is the fact that although he writes in service of anti-colonialism, his work has a distinctly colonial hue—the European journalist comes back from an exotic African country with tales of danger and near-death.

Despite generating so much controversy, Domosławski's biography is not in itself controversial. It manages to be sympathetic while investigative and critical. The one thing Domosławski's seems unable to get to the heart of is Kapuściński's lack of self-confidence. Why did the world famous-writer, the lion of international revolution, stutter and stumble over his words when speaking? Why was he so immensely wounded and thrown off when a reviewer or an underling criticized him? Put simply, why wasn’t he convinced of his own greatness? One must remember that Kapuściński was a frustrated poet who went into journalism to make a living. In the unspoken literary caste system, journalists sit at the very bottom. Domosławski relates a telling anecdote that perhaps holds the key to Kapuściński's inferiority: In a conversation between Kapuściński and a successful poet, the poet remembered Kapuściński lowering his head and saying, “You are a poet in the Polish Writer’s Union, but I’m just a journalist.”

Aaron Lake Smith is a senior editor at Vice.