Extra: The Prince of Reportage
Kapuscinski, chronicler of Third World, explores his time in Africa
in a new book
3 - The Polish
journalist and author Ryszard Kapuscinski is sitting in a corner
armchair in the stately, book-lined Midtown apartment of his editor
and friend, Sonny Mehta. Mehta isn't home-no one is-but the "shy"
Kapuscinski (his word) is filling up the still apartment with words.
FORMER POLISH PRESS AGENCY correspondent is talking about his
staggering, ongoing career as chronicler of the Third World; his new
book on Africa, "The Shadow of the Sun" (published by
Knopf); Idi Amin ("I knew him, a very stupid man"); Julius
Nyerere ("a great intellectual"); Herodotus ("a great
reporter, the father of reportage-I'm doing a book on him");
the intrepid World Cup midfielder Zbigniew Boniek; the aphorisms of
E.M. Cioran; Curzio Malaparte, the Italian correspondent; Zanzibar,
and the great desert. Now he's talking about fear: "Fear is a
feeling everyone has," he says enthusiastically, in a
deliberate, accented English, that, for some reason, makes him
self-conscious. "But the difference is some can dominate fear
and others can't."
Meaning? "If you want to be there, in a place, if you
have to be there, and you're so dedicated to really reaching your
goal you don't think about the fear. And when you're in a dangerous
situation, it always looks more dangerous from afar than from inside."
Kapuscinski would know. While reporting on some 30
revolutions, he was a match flick away from incineration in Nigeria
after being doused with benzene, sentenced to death in Congo and
survived a shoot-out in the Honduran jungle. He had cerebral malaria
that left him unconscious in a dilapidated hotel room for three days
and a case of tuberculosis that nearly ended his foreign-reporting
career prematurely. He went eyeball-to-eyeball, nearly, with a
diabolical Egyptian cobra, got a flat in the Serengeti and was
surrounded by lions and nearly capsized in a petulant Zanzibar
Channel. Each time, Kapuscinski was saved by chance or the anonymous
hand of humanity.
"There was much more," he says, laughing, "but
I don't want to just write about those adventures. It would be
So the most remarkable thing about the 69-year-old
Kapuscinski-and there's a lot-is that he's even alive at all. His
hair on the sides, which is all he has, is white but he looks fit
and healthy. He's just revisited Latin America for what will be the
second part of a trilogy of observations and recollections, followed
by a volume on Asia, especially the Islamic world.
"The Shadow of the Sun" is the first part and takes
him back to the place he's most closely associated with: Africa.
It's his sixth book translated into English, though he has 20 out in
Poland (the country he always returns to, sometimes after years away).
He's been translated into 30 languages and speaks six himself:
French, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, English and his native Polish
(the language he always writes in), with a working knowledge of
Swahili and Arabic.
His titles are iconic: "The Emperor" (on Haile
Selassie), "The Shah of Shahs" (on the last Shah of Iran),
"The Soccer War" (a series of short pieces from Latin
America and Africa), "Another Day of Life," (his
just-back-in-print sleeper about Portugal's withdrawal from Angola
in 1975) and "Imperium" (on the fall of the Soviet Union).
The Selassie and Iran books are his anomalous masterpieces, like
nothing before or since. Both are slim, less than 200 pages, both in
three parts. The emperor's fall is told through the sycophants who
surrounded him, but it ends up being a larger meditation on the
nature of authoritarian rule, Ethiopia serving as the backdrop. The
Iranian revolution is reiterated through photographs scattered on
his desk. And as if with a long telephoto lens, he focuses on the
exact moment a revolution becomes a revolution: when the
demonstrator no longer fears authority.
Kapuscinski says he was attracted to these parts, these
circumstances, from his own upbringing in Pinsk (now located in
Belarus) during World War II. "I think partially it was my
childhood. This was the poorest part of Europe, still is. My parents
were schoolteachers but when the war came there was terrible hunger,
poverty, the winter was coming, I had no shoes. I know what it means
to have no shoes, I know what it means not to eat for several days,
I know what it means when there's shooting. So in places like Africa
I feel very much at home. I understand them, and I communicate with
those situations. I'm empathetic."
But it's more than empathy that makes Kapuscinski Kapuscinski.
For one, it's his personality. He's not a Type A: he readily admits
fear, gets sick and weak, gets lost (and asks for directions), gets
beaten up, robbed, made the fool of, depressed. There's an ego there,
for sure, and ambitions ("my ambition," he'll say now,
"is to invent my own style of writing, my own genre of writing"),
but somehow he's different from, say, some of the brawnier
correspondents of today, who, you sense, are angling for a contract
from Tina Brown or a handsome mid-six-figure book deal or (better
yet) movie rights. Or a TV camera. Kapuscinski only envied the guy
with the Zenith shortwave radio.
Then there's his approach: he's insightful but never
patronizing. He obviously has an affinity for the culture, but it's
without sickening white guilt. He's an acute observer who finds the
extraordinary in the quotidian.
In his new book, in a piece of impressionism on Ghana, he
writes: "I arrived in Kumasi with no particular goal. Having
one is generally deemed a good thing, the benefit of something to
strive toward. This can also blind you, however: you see only your
goal, and nothing else, while this something else-wider, deeper-may
be considerably more interesting and important."
Kapuscinski finds that "something else" takes it,
makes it a fable or collects them and makes a collage or brings a
character to life.
Later in the book, describing the bureau chief of Agence
France Presse in Nairobi, he writes: "He knew everything."
Kapuscinski didn't know everything, and didn't think he did and was
open to discovery. He posed questions, even if he found some to be
And there is lots that is unanswerable in Africa. He got
there in the hopeful late 1950s, the end of colonial rule, Africa's
Great Leap Forward, but over the decades saw parts of the continent
disintegrate into warfare-often fought by children-and famine and
The short pieces in the book reflect this. Some are more
dramatic than others, some are cautionary, some are searing primers
(on Rwanda, Liberia, Sudan and Uganda under Amin), some are just odd
and little (and beautiful) Kapuscinskian tales. Good 20th-century
European that he is he eschews plot for the great or small episode.
The book is not without repetition. He makes the point more
than once that he could've moved to the more livable parts of town
but always turned down those opportunities. "How else can I get
to know this city? This continent?" (It's a point, too, he
makes in "The Soccer War.") And the book seems to reflect
a European (or is it universal?) awe/fascination with the physique
of the black male: "a powerful, well-built young man named
Traore"; Habyarimana, the Radovan Karadzic of the Hutus,
"is massively built, powerful...."; "The driver ...
was like the majority of his countrymen, tall and powerfully built.";
"he was a brutal, greedy large man"; "with their
strength, grace, and endurance, the indigenous move about naturally...."
Still, it's as good as Kapuscinski has given us.
Geography and the unforgiving climate, as the title suggests,
is a leitmotif and he describes heat richly and differently somehow
each time. In the Mauritanian Sahara: "The night chill had set
in, a chill that descends abruptly and, after the burning hell of
the sun-filled days, can be almost piercingly painful." In
Monrovia: "Dusk too is stifling, sticky, slimy. And evening?
The evening steams with a hot, smothering mist. And Night? Night
envelops us like a wet burning sheet." In Timbuktu: "The
heat curdles the blood, paralyzes the body, stuns."
All along, and everywhere, even amid despair, there is grace
and Kapuscinski takes us there. What's missing, intentionally (and
thankfully), are specific political details. "I'm not a
political writer," he says. "I don't like to talk about
politics, and I'm not a specialist. My attitude, my approach, is
cultural anthropology-and literature. I don't talk to political
leaders, never. Besides politics is a big mess. It's not interesting,
and everything is changing so quickly. It's a waste of time."
Although he must realize that he's revered by writers,
editors and readers the world over he says only: "To do this
work you have to be very modest."
He's hoping to convince Sonny Mehta to publish his aptly
titled Lapidarium series of shorter observations and experiences
from his travels. Then he'll be writing-and traveling, and writing
and traveling some more, using his usual methods. "I feel very
bad in five-star hotels," he says. "I feel awkward. I like
to make things for myself, not to be served."
And the danger? The fear? "I've become an optimist,"
he says. "I trust people."
Michael J. Agovino
Newsweek, May, 28, 2001