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SHAH OF SHAHS
'War is proof that man has failed'
As a child in Warsaw, Ryszard Kapuscinski grew up thinking starvation, poverty and cruelty were facts of life. As we prepare to mark 60 years since the end of the Second World War, he recounts his incredible story of survival - and warns that we are still just as vulnerable to ignorance and hatred
04 January 2005
Total war has a thousand fronts; during such a war, everyone is at the front, even if they never lie in a trench or fire a single shot. When I go back in memory to those days, I realise, not without a certain surprise, that I remember the beginning of the war better than its end. Its onset is clearly fixed for me in time and place. I can conjure up its image without difficulty because it has retained all its colours, all its emotional intensity.
It starts with my suddenly noticing one day, in the azure sky of a summer's ending (and the sky in September 1939 was wondrously blue, without a single cloud), somewhere very, very high up, twelve glittering silver points. The entire bright, lofty dome of the sky fills with a dull, monotonous rumble, unlike anything I've ever heard before. I am seven years old, I am standing in a meadow in eastern Poland, and I am staring at the points that are barely moving across the sky. Suddenly, there's a dreadful bang close by, at the edge of the forest. I hear bombs exploding. It is only later that I learn they are bombs, for at this moment I do not yet know that there is such a thing as a bomb; the very notion is foreign to me, a child from the deepest provinces who had never even listened to a radio or gone to the movies, who didn't know how to read or write, who had never heard of wars and deadly weapons.
I see gigantic fountains of earth spraying up into the air. I want to run towards this extraordinary spectacle, which stuns and fascinates me, because, having as yet no wartime experiences, I am unable to connect into a single chain of cause and effect those shining silver planes, the thunder of the bombs, the plumes of earth flying up to the height of the trees, and the danger of imminent death. I start to run there, towards the forest and the falling and exploding bombs, but a hand grabs me from behind and throws me to the ground. "Lie still!" I hear my mother's shaking voice. "Don't move!" And I remember my mother, as she presses me close to her, saying something I don't understand and that I want to ask her about later. She is saying, "There's death over there, child".
It's night and I'm sleepy, but I am not allowed to sleep; we must run, we must escape. Where to, I don't know. But I do understand that flight has suddenly become some sort of higher necessity, a new form of life, because everyone is fleeing. All the highways, roads, even country paths are full of wagons, carriages, and bicycles; full of bundles, suitcases, bags, buckets; full of terrified and helplessly wandering people. Some are making their way to the east, others to the west, still others to the north and the south. They run in all directions, circle about, collapse from exhaustion, fall asleep anywhere they can, and then, having caught their breath for a moment, they summon what's left of their strength and start once again their confused and endless journey.
I am supposed to hold my little sister tightly by the hand. We can't get lost, my mother warns. But I sense, even without her saying it, that the world has suddenly become dangerous, foreign, and evil, and that one must be on one's guard. I walk with my sister next to the horse-drawn wagon; it is a simple wooden cart lined with hay, and high up on the hay, on a linen sheet, lies my grandfather. He is paralysed and cannot move.
When an air raid starts, the panicked crowd, until then patiently trudging along, dives for the shelter of the ditches, hides in the bushes, drops down in the potato fields. On the empty, deserted road only the wagon remains, and on it my grandfather. He sees the planes coming towards him, sees them abruptly descending, sees them taking aim at the abandoned wagon, sees the fire of the on-board guns, and hears the roar of the machines over his head. When the planes vanish, we return to the wagon and mother wipes my grandfather's perspiring face. Sometimes there are air raids several times a day. After each one, sweat trickles down my grandfather's exhausted face.
We find ourselves in an increasingly bleak landscape. There is smoke along the distant horizon. We pass empty settlements, lonely, burned-out houses. We pass battlefields strewn with abandoned implements of war, bombed-out railway stations, overturned cars. It smells of gunpowder, of burnt things, of rotting meat. We encounter dead horses everywhere. The horse - a large, defenceless animal - doesn't know how to hide; during a bombardment it stands motionless, awaiting death. There are dead horses in the roads, in ditches, in the fields a bit further out. They lie there with their legs up in the air, as if shaking their hooves at the world. I don't see dead people anywhere; they are quickly buried. Only the horses - black, bay, piebald, chestnut - lie where they stood, as if this were not a human war but a war of horses; as if it were they who had waged among themselves a battle to the death and were its only victims.
A cold and hard winter arrives. Under difficult circumstances, one feels the cold more keenly; the chill is more penetrating. Winter can be just another season, a waiting for spring; but now winter is a disaster, a catastrophe. That first winter of the war is truly bitter. In our apartment the stoves are cold and the walls are covered with thick white frost. There is nothing to burn; there is no fuel to buy, and it's too dangerous to steal any. It's death if you're caught filching coal or wood. Human life is worth little now, no more than a lump of coal or a piece of kindling. We have nothing to eat.
Mother stands motionless for hours at the window, staring out. You can see people gazing out at the street like this in many windows, as if they were counting on something, waiting for something. I roam around the yards with a group of boys, neither playing nor explicitly hunting for something to eat; that would mean hope and then disappointment. Sometimes the smell of warm soup wafts through a door. When that happens, one of my friends, Waldek, sticks his nose into the crack and begins feverishly to inhale the odour and to rub his stomach with delight, as if he were sitting at a sumptuously laid table. A moment later he is sad again, and listless.
One day we hear that they are going to be giving away candy in a store near the square. We immediately line up - a string of cold and hungry children. It's the afternoon already, and getting dark. We stand all evening in the freezing temperatures, then all night and all the following day. We stand huddled together, hugging each other for a little bit of warmth, so as not to freeze. Finally the store opens, but instead of candy we each get an empty metal tin that once used to contain fruit drops. Weak, stiff from the cold, and yet, at that moment, happy, I carry home my booty. It is valuable because a residue of sugar still remains on the inside walls of the can. My mother heats up some water, pours it into the can, and we have a hot, slightly sweet, beverage: our only nourishment that day.
Then we are on the road again, travelling westwards from our town, Pinsk, because my mother has heard that our father is living in a village outside Warsaw. He was captured at the front, escaped, and is now, we think, teaching children in a small country school. When those of us who were children during the war recall that time and say "father" or "mother", we forget, because of the solemnity of those words, that our mothers were young women and our fathers were young men and that they desired each other strongly, missed each other terribly, and wanted to be together. And so my mother sold everything in the house, rented a wagon, and we set off to search for our father. We found him by accident. Riding through the village called Sierakow, my mother suddenly cries out to a man crossing the road: "Dziudek!"
From that day we live together in a tiny room without water or electricity. When it grows dark, we go to bed, because there aren't even candles. Hunger has followed us here from Pinsk. I search constantly for something to eat - a crust of bread, a carrot, anything. One day, father, having no other recourse, tells his class: "Children, whoever wants to come to school tomorrow must bring one potato." Father didn't know how to trade, didn't know how to do business and received no salary, so he decided he had only one option: to ask his students for a few potatoes. Half the class don't show up the next day. Some children bring half a potato, others a quarter. A whole potato is an enormous treasure.
Next to my village lies a forest, and in that forest, near a settlement called Palmira, is a clearing. In this clearing, SS men carry out executions. At first, they shoot at night and we are woken up by the dull, repetitive sound of gunfire. Later, they do it also by day. They transport the condemned in enclosed, dark-green trucks, with the firing squad bringing up the rear of the convoy in a truck without a covering.
The firing squad always wear long overcoats, as if a long overcoat belted at the waist were an indispensable prop in the ritual of murder. When such a convoy passes by, we, the village children, observe it from our hiding place in the roadside bushes. In a moment, behind the curtain of trees, something that we are forbidden to witness will begin. I feel a cold tremor running up and down my spine - I'm trembling. We wait for the sound of the salvoes. There they are. Then come the individual shots. After a while, the convoy returns to Warsaw. The SS men again bring up the rear. They are smoking cigarettes and talking.
At night the partisans come. They appear suddenly, their faces pressed against the window. I stare at them as they sit at the table, always excited by the same thought: that there is still time for them to die tonight, that they are marked by death. We could, of course, all die, but they embrace the possibility, confront it head on. They come one rainy night in autumn and talk to my mother in whispers (I haven't seen my father for a month now, and won't until the end of the war; he's in hiding). We get dressed quickly and leave: there is a round-up taking place nearby and entire villages are being deported to the camps. We flee to Warsaw, to a designated hiding place. I see a large city for the first time: trams, multi-storey buildings, big stores. Then we are in the countryside again in yet another village, this time on the far bank of the Vistula. I can't remember why we went. I remember only walking once again next to a horse-drawn wagon and hearing the sand of the warm country road sifting through the wheels' wooden spokes.
All through the war I dream of shoes. To have shoes. But how? What must one do to get a pair? In the summer I walk barefoot, and the skin of my soles is as tough as leather. At the start of the war, father made me a pair of shoes out of felt, but he is not a shoemaker and they look strange; besides, I've grown, and they are already too tight. I fantasise about a pair of big, strong, hobnailed shoes that make a distinctive noise as they strike the pavement. The fashion was then for high-topped boots; I could stare for hours at a good-looking pair. I loved the shine of the leather, loved listening to the crunching sound they made. But my dream of shoes was about more than beauty or comfort. A good, strong shoe was a symbol of prestige and power, a symbol of authority; a shoddy shoe was a sign of humiliation, the brand of a man who has been stripped of all dignity and condemned to a subhuman existence. But in those years, all the shoes I lusted for trod past me in the street with indifference. I was left in my rough wooden clogs with their uppers of black canvas, to which I would sometimes apply a crude ointment in an unsuccessful attempt to impart a tiny bit of lustre.
Late in the war, I become an altar boy. My priest is the chaplain of a Polish Army field hospital. Rows of camouflaged tents stand hidden in a pine forest on the left bank of the Vistula. During the Warsaw Uprising, before the Russian army moves on the city in January 1945, an exhausting bustle reigns here. Ambulances speed in from the front lines, which rumble and smoke not far away. They bring the wounded, who are often unconscious and arranged hurriedly and in disarray, one on top of the other, as if they were so many sacks of grain (only these sacks are dripping blood).
The medics, themselves half-dead from fatigue, take the wounded out, lay them on the grass, and then drench them with a fierce spray of cold water. Those that give some signs of life they carry into the operating tent (in front of this tent there is always a fresh pile of amputated arms and legs). Those that no longer move are brought to a large grave at the rear of the hospital. There, over that yawning tomb, I stand for hours next to the priest, holding his breviary and the cup with holy water. I repeat after him the prayer for the dead. "Amen," we say to each of the deceased, "Amen," dozens of times a day, but quickly, because somewhere beyond the woods the machinery of death is working non-stop. And then, one day, everything is suddenly quiet and empty - the ambulances stop coming, the tents disappear. The hospital has moved east. In the forest, only the crosses remain.
And later? The passages above are a few pages from a book about my wartime years that I began to write and then abandoned. I wonder now what the book's final pages would have been like, its conclusion, its epilogue. What would have been written there about the end of the Second World War? Nothing, I think. I mean, nothing conclusive. Because, in some fundamental sense, the war did not end for me in 1945, or at any time soon afterwards. In many ways, something of it endures in me. For those who lived through it, war is never over, not in an absolute way. It is a truism that an individual dies only when the last person who knew and remembered him dies; that a human being finally ceases to exist when all the bearers of his memory depart this world.
Something like this also happens with war. Those who went through it will never be free of it. It stays with them as a mental hump, a painful tumour, which even as excellent a surgeon as time will be unable to remove. Just listen to people who lived through a war, when they sit down around a table of an evening. It doesn't matter what the first topics of conversation might be. There can be a thousand topics. But in the end there will be only one: reminiscences from the war. These people, even after years of peace, will superimpose war's images on each new reality, a reality with which they are unable fully to identify because it has to do with the present, and they are possessed by the past, by the constant returning to what they lived through and how they managed to live through it; their thoughts an obsessively repeated retrospection.
But what does it mean, to think in the images of war? It means to see everything as existing at maximum tension, as reeking of cruelty and dread. Because wartime reality is a world of extreme, Manichaean reduction, which eliminates all intermediate hues, all things gentle and warm, and limits everything to an aggressive counterpoint, to black and white, to the most primal battle of two powers: good and evil. No one else on the battlefield! Only the good (in other words, us) and the evil (meaning everything that stands in our way, that opposes us, and that we force wholesale into the sinister category of the enemy).
The image of war is imbued with the atmosphere of force, a nakedly physical force, grinding, smoking, constantly exploding, always on the attack, a force brutally expressed in every gesture, in every strike of a boot against pavement, of a rifle butt against a skull. Strength, in this universe, is the only criterion against which everything is measured - only the strong matter; their shouts, their fists. Every conflict is resolved not through compromise, but by destroying one's opponent. And all this plays itself out in a climate of fury and frenzy, in which we feel always stunned, tense and threatened. We move in a world brimming with hateful stares, clenched jaws, and gestures and voices that terrify.
For a long time, I believed that this was the world, that this was what life looked like. It was understandable: the war years coincided with my childhood, and then with the beginnings of maturity, of rational thought, of consciousness. That is why it seemed to me that war, not peace, is the natural state. And so, when the guns suddenly stopped, when the roar of exploding bombs could be heard no more, when suddenly there was silence, I was astonished. I could not fathom what the silence meant, what it was. I think that a grown-up confronted with that quiet could say: "Hell is over. At last peace will return." But I did not remember what peace was. I was too young for that; hell was all I knew.
Months passed, and war constantly reminded us of its presence. I continued to live in a city reduced to rubble; I climbed over mountains of debris, roamed through a labyrinth of ruins. The school that I attended had no floors, windows, or doors - everything had gone up in flames. We had no books or notebooks. I still had no shoes. War as trouble, as want, as burden, was still very much with me. I still had no home. The return home from the front is the most palpable symbol of war's end. Tutti a casa! But I could not go home. My home was now on the other side of the border, in another country called the Soviet Union. One day, after school, I was playing soccer with friends. One of them plunged into some bushes in pursuit of the ball. There was a tremendous bang: my friend was killed by a landmine. War thus continued to lie in wait for us; it didn't want to surrender. It hobbled along the streets supporting itself with wooden crutches, waving its empty shirtsleeves in the wind. It tortured at night in bad dreams those who had survived it.
But above all, war lived on within us because for five years it had shaped our young characters, our psyches, our outlooks. It tried to deform and destroy them by setting the worst examples, compelling dishonourable conduct, releasing contemptible emotions. "War," wrote Boleslaw Micinski in those years, "deforms not only the soul of the invader, but also poisons with hatred, and so deforms, the souls of those who try to oppose the invader." And that is why, he added, "I hate totalitarianism because it taught me to hate." Yes, to leave war behind meant to internally cleanse oneself, first and foremost to cleanse oneself of hatred. But how many made a sustained effort in that direction? And how many succeeded? It was certainly an exhausting and long process, a goal that could not be achieved quickly, because the psychological and moral wounds were deep.
When there is talk of the year 1945, I am irritated by the phrase, "the joy of victory". What joy? So many people perished! Millions of bodies were buried! Thousands lost arms and legs; lost sight and hearing; lost their minds. Yes, we survived, but at what a cost! War is proof that man as a thinking and sentient being has failed.
When there is talk of 1945, I remember that, in the summer of that year, my aunt, who miraculously made it through the Warsaw Uprising, brought her son, Andrzej, to visit us in the countryside. He was born during the uprising. Today, he is a man in late middle-age, and when I look at him I think how long ago it all was. Since then, generations have been born in Europe who know nothing of what war is. And yet those who lived through it should bear witness. Bear witness in the name of those who fell next to them, and often on top of them; bear witness to the camps, to the extermination of the Jews, to the destruction of Warsaw and of Wroclaw. Is this easy? No. We who went through the war know how difficult it is to convey the truth about it to those for whom that experience is, happily, unfamiliar. We know how language fails us, how often we feel helpless, how the experience is, finally, incommunicable.
And yet, despite these difficulties and limitations, we should speak. Because speaking about all this does not divide, but rather unites us, allows us to establish threads of understanding and community. The dead admonish us. They bequeathed something important to us and now we must act responsibly. To the degree to which we are able, we should oppose everything that could again give rise to war, to crime, to catastrophe. Because we who lived through the war know how it begins, where it comes from. We know that it does not begin only with bombs and rockets, but with fanaticism and pride, stupidity and contempt, ignorance and hatred. It feeds on all that, grows from that. That is why, just as some of us fight the pollution of the air, we should fight the polluting of human affairs by ignorance and hatred.
'When There is Talk of War,' translated by Klara Glowczewska, appears in the new issue of Granta, priced £9.99.
"In jedem Fremden wohnt ein Gott"
Ryszard Kapuscinski, polnischer Essayist und seit Montag neuer Bruno-Kreisky-Preisträger im STANDARD-Interview
Ryszard Kapuscinski, der große polnische Essayist ("König der Könige") und Zeitgeschichtsschreiber ("Der Fußballkrieg") wurde am Montag in Wien mit dem Bruno-Kreisky-Preis ausgezeichnet. Cornelia Niedermeier sprach mit ihm.
Ihrer Rede bei der Verleihung des Kreisky-Preises am Montag sagten Sie, das
wichtigste Problem der Menschheit im Moment sei nicht, wie manche behaupten, der
Kampf gegen den Terrorismus, sondern die ungleich schwerere Aufgabe, möglichst
vielen Menschen ein menschenwürdiges Leben zu ermöglichen.
Ryszard Kapuscinski: Wenn man behauptet, die wichtigste Aufgabe heute sei der Kampf gegen Terrorismus, dann ist das Manipulation. Eine Manipulation insofern, als es die Aufmerksamkeit ablenkt von dem wirklich wichtigsten Problem, mit dem wir uns heute konfrontiert sehen. Milliarden von Menschen fühlen sich durch den Terrorismus überhaupt nicht bedroht. Sie wissen überhaupt nicht, was Terrorismus ist. Aber sie wachen morgens auf und wissen nicht, was sie an diesem Tag essen sollen. Diese Menschen werden aber ausgeblendet. Man will sich nicht mit ihnen befassen . . .
STANDARD:. . . und ihre Probleme nicht lösen.
Kapuscinski: Die reiche Welt möchte die Frage der ungerechten Verteilung des Reichtums nicht lösen. Daher redet sie lieber über Terrorismus. Und die Manipulation wirkt. Die Menschen fragen heute ständig: "Was passiert im Irak?" Der Irak aber ist ein verhältnismäßig kleines Land. Und der Rest der Welt? Das interessiert momentan überhaupt niemanden. Unser Problem ist, dass 263 Menschen einen Reichtum besitzen, der ungefähr 43 Prozent des gesamten Vermögens der Welt ausmacht. Das sind die Verhältnisse, über die wir eigentlich reden sollten. Der Terrorismus ist hier ein Ablenkungsmanöver.
STANDARD:Worauf, denken Sie, sollte man den Fokus der Weltöffentlichkeit richten - jenseits von Irak und Nahem Osten?
Kapuscinski: Kein seriöser Kommentator kann Vermutungen darüber äußern, wie die Welt in zwanzig Jahren aussehen wird. Wir können nur beobachten, was heute passiert, und das analysieren. Doch es ist klar, dass eine der größten Veränderungen der gegenwärtigen Situation der Weltpolitik in dem Moment eintreten wird, wenn China sein Schweigen beendet.
schweigt China zum Terrorismus ebenso wie zum Irak. Es widmet sich seiner mit
Höchstgeschwindigkeit vollzogenen Entwicklung. Doch in dem Moment, wo die Führer
Chinas beschließen, offen Stellung zu beziehen, ist das eine Stimme, die auch
die USA sehr, sehr ernst nehmen müssen. Das wird die Situation der
internationalen Politik stark verändern. Bis dahin werden sich die Gewichtungen
nur unerheblich verschieben. Konflikte, aber nichts substanziell neues.
STANDARD: "Kleinere" Veränderungen - wie nun die Erweiterung der Europäischen Union, die, geht es nach dem Wiener Kardinal Schönborn, vorerst eine christliche bleiben soll.
Kapuscinski: Er ist Kardinal. (lacht) Er muss das sagen, das ist sein Job. Auch ein Kardinal muss für sein Brot sorgen. Als ich letztes Jahr in Italien war, sagte dort ein anderer Kardinal, man müsse alle Muslime ausweisen. Zwei Millionen Menschen. Im Ernst: Wir leben im 21. Jahrhundert in einer Welt immenser Migrationsbewegungen, immenser demografischer Veränderungen. Da ist es unmöglich, eine einzige Identität für einen ganzen Kontinent zu schaffen.
Europa will seine Stärke erhalten. Aber seine Bevölkerung ist alt, ein Drittel der europäischen Bevölkerung ist über 60. Um eine dynamische Industrie weiterzuentwickeln, muss man also junge Arbeitskraft importieren. Und dafür gibt es momentan vor allem eine Quelle: Nordafrika. Und Nordafrika ist muslimisch. Europa muss sich also entscheiden: Entweder es ist christlich - oder es ist stark.
Europäer werden in der Mehrzahl nichteuropäischen Ursprungs sein.
STANDARD:Im Oktober erscheint in Polen Ihr neues Buch "Reisen mit Herodot". Eine Rückkehr zu den Anfängen der europäischen Geschichtsschreibung?
Kapuscinski: Herodot war der erste Reporter, der Erfinder der Reportage - er reiste, sprach mit den Menschen, erfuhr ihre Geschichten und schrieb sie auf. Er schrieb das erste Reportagebuch der Weltliteratur. Das war vor 2500 Jahren. Und seither hat sich das Genre nicht geändert.
In meinem Buch verschränke ich die beiden narrativen Ebenen: Passagen von mir, von meinen Reisen nach Asien und Afrika, wechseln ab mit Passagen aus dem Werk Herodots. Tatsächlich reiste ich auf meinen ersten Reisen immer mit Herodot im Gepäck. Und eine der Grundfragen, die dem Buch zugrunde liegen - ich war mir dessen im Schreiben selbst nicht bewusst -, ist die Frage nach der Existenz des Fortschritts. Und es zeigt sich, dass der Fortschritt in ethischer Hinsicht nicht existiert. Dieselbe Grausamkeit, derselbe Hass, dieselben Folterqualen wie vor 2500 Jahren.
eine Frage der Technik. Der Mensch ist noch immer derselbe wie vor tausend
STANDARD:Und für das nächste Jahr planen Sie bereits ein weiteres Buch - über Europa.
Kapuscinski: Es soll Ein anderes Europa heißen. Ein Europa der Minderheiten, der Wildnis, jenseits der Metropolen Paris, London, Wien. Wenn Menschen heute von Europa reden, meinen sie die EU und all ihre politischen, bürokratischen Probleme.
Aber vor einiger
Zeit war ich zum Beispiel in Wales, bei einem Freund. Es gab da nichts. Keine
Straße, keinen Menschen. Nur eine Herde wilder Pferde. Das war wie eine
asiatische Steppe, wie im Land der Skythen. Aber es war Europa. Heute.
STANDARD:In einem Ihrer Bücher steht ein Satz, den man als eine Art Urmotiv Ihres Schreibens lesen kann. "Ich bin Detektiv einer positiv verstandenen Fremdheit, mit der ich in Berührung kommen möchte, um sie zu verstehen." - Ist das eine Gegenphilosophie zur Scheu vor dem Fremden?
Kapuscinski: 500 Jahre lang war die Welt dominiert von der europäischen Kultur, der Kultur der Kolonialherren. Nun wurden die einst kolonialisierten Länder nach und nach unabhängig. Und jetzt sind sie stolz auf ihre eigene Kultur, wollen in ihrer eigenen Identität respektiert werden. Der einzige Weg zu einer friedlichen Zukunft ist also, sich zu öffnen für die Vielzahl der fremden Kulturen. Vor allem wir Europäer müssen verstehen, dass wir nicht länger die Grundbesitzer des Planeten sind.
Denken Sie an Homers Odyssee: Wo immer Odysseus auf seinen Reisen hinkam, wurde der Fremde freundlich aufgenommen. Denn damals unterschied man noch nicht so eindeutig zwischen der Welt der Götter und der Welt der Menschen. Man konnte also nie wissen, ob der Fremde vor der Tür nicht vielleicht doch ein Gott war. Und das ist es, was vielleicht so etwas wie meine Philosophie ist: In jedem Fremden wohnt ein Gott.
(DER STANDARD, Printausgabe, 26.5.2004)
Anderen: Ryszard Kapuscinski referiert in Wien
Seine Analysen der Macht, ihrer Symbole und ihres Zerfalls - in Äthiopien wie im Iran, in der Sowjetunion wie in Angola - zählen zu den Meisterwerken der Gegenwart
30. November 2004
Wien - Ryszard Kapuscinski einen Reisejournalisten zu nennen, käme der Bemerkung gleich, sein Landsmann Karol Wojtyla sei Pfarrer in Rom.
Es ist schwer, das Phänomen Kapuscinski treffend zu charakterisieren. Immer besteht Gefahr, je nach Blickwinkel, einen wesentlichen Aspekt seines Werks zu unterschlagen. Ein Forscher der Macht, ein "Detektiv des Anderen", "einer positiv verstandenen Fremdheit, mit der ich in Berührung kommen möchte, um sie zu verstehen", untersuchte Kapuscinski Entstehung und Zerfall politischer Systeme, untersuchte deren Organisation und ihre Symbole, untersuchte Werte, Rhythmen, Rituale fremder Kulturen. Nie ohne tiefen Respekt vor der Würde jedes einzelnen Menschen.
Rhythmus der Sprache
1956 wurde er, 24-jährig, als Korrespondent ins eben unabhängige Indien geschickt. Nach Polen kehrte er in den kommenden Jahrzehnten nur zurück, um seine Notizen zu sichten und sie, den Rhythmus der Muttersprache im Ohr, zu Büchern zu verdichten. Werken jenseits herkömmlicher Genres, in ihrer spezifischen Verknüpfung präzisester journalistischer Recherche mit tiefer philosophischer Reflexion, von Essayismus und fiktionaler Prosa. Bücher, die auch aufgrund ihrer stilistischen Brillanz zu den Hauptwerken polnischer Literatur des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts zählen.
König der Könige. Eine Parabel der Macht, seine literarische Reportage vom Zerfall der absolutistischen Herrschaft Haile Selassies in Äthiopien (1978), wurde in New York zu einem der 150 wichtigsten Bücher des Jahrhunderts gekürt.
Aus hunderten fiktionalisierter Berichte setzt Kapuscinski darin das Bild eines Schreckensregimes zusammen. Der jede Reise begleitende Fußkissenträger des (körperlich sehr klein gewachsenen) Königs kommt ebenso zu Wort wie jener niedere Lakai, dessen Aufgabe Jahrzehnte hindurch darin bestand, hohen Würdenträgern des Hofes die Pisse des königlichen Schoßhundes von den Schuhen zu wischen.
Wie genau Kapuscinski seine Sprache dem jeweiligen Thema anpasste, geht aus Interview-Bemerkungen zur Entstehung von König der Könige hervor, veröffentlicht in Die Erde ist ein gewaltsames Paradies (2000): "Meine Kritik der autoritären Struktur der Macht drückte sich darin aus, dass ich ihre Unzeitgemäßheit bloßlegte. Dabei ging es zugleich darum, die Überholtheit unseres autoritären Systems in Osteuropa darzustellen. Also las ich sorgfältig die alte, feudale polnische Literatur des 16., 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts. Ich fand wundervolle, vergessene Wörter, die plastisch und farbenreich waren, und ich entwickelte daraus ein eigenes Vokabular."
In den Berichten von Diktaturen und Bürgerkriegen Lateinamerikas (Der Fußballkrieg, 1978) wiederum inspirierte ihn der "Rokoko-Effekt", der barocke Reichtum der spanischen Sprache. Nach 1989 reiste er 60.000 Kilometer durch den Dauerfrost Sibiriens, durchquerte die sich auflösende Sowjetunion von Brest bis Magadan, von Workuta bis Termes. Imperium. Sowjetische Streifzüge (1993) zeigt Detailbilder, Momentaufnahmen des zerfallenden Reiches. Etwa aus Workuta jenseits des Polarkreises, einem Kohlerevier, dessen Erschließung für hunderttausende Opfer des stalinistischen Terrors den Tod bedeutete - und in dem noch heute Bergleute bei -40 Grad Kälte in monatelanger Dunkelheit wenig mehr verdienen als die tägliche Mahlzeit.
Verirrt in der nächtlichen Schneehölle Workutas hätte Ryszard Kapuscinski fast das Leben verloren. Ein Risiko, das er, Augenzeuge Dutzender Revolutionen und Bürgerkriege, wiederholt in Kauf nahm. Ebenso wie Krankheiten. Etwa Malaria oder afrikanische Tuberkulose. Seine Reisen, denen intensive Lektüre vorausgeht, heißen niemals Erholung. "Mein Reisen bedeutet Aufmerksamkeit, Geduld zur Erkundung, Wille zum Wissen, zum Sehen, zum Verstehen und zur Akkumulation des gesamten Wissens. Solches Reisen ist Hingabe und harte Arbeit." Hingabe auf der Suche nach etwas so Ungreifbarem wie Wahrheit.
Ryszard Kapuscinski died 23th January 2007
June 10, 2007
By TOM BISSELL
By Ryszard Kapuscinski. Translated by Klara Glowczewska.
275 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $25.
Ryszard Kapuscinski disappeared in the dead of winter, January 2007, half as well known as his influence would lead one to expect. He went into the beyond Nobel-less, like Joyce and Proust and Nabokov, but to many who read him he was as exalted: “deity” was used, more than once, in his assorted funeral songs. While such desperate formulations as “world literature” conjure up bongos, beads and sitting Indian-style, the books Kapuscinski wrote may actually qualify, as evocative and singular in English as they are in their native (and what is said to be austerely fine) Polish. For many of us, the day of his death was a dark, cold day.
Until 1983, most Western readers would have mistaken the man for Polish espresso. Kapuscinski’s first book to appear in English, thanks to the translation of the husband-and-wife team of William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand, was “The Emperor” (originally published in Polish in 1978), a spell-casting oral history of Haile Selassie’s rule over Ethiopia. “The Emperor” was followed in 1985 by what many believe to be Kapuscinski’s masterpiece, “Shah of Shahs” (originally published in 1982), a short, tense, fragmentary account of the 1979 Iranian revolution. In 1987 came “Another Day of Life” (originally published in Polish in 1976), his bizarre and shattering reportage from Angola as its former Portuguese overlords fled for their lives. These three books brought Kapuscinski acclaim in the West as perhaps the world’s leading literary journalist. The acclaim was rather tardy, seeing that for the past three decades Kapuscinski had been filing dispatches from the Indian subcontinent, Asia, Latin America and, most often, Africa, initially in the service of a Polish youth journal as its first and only foreign correspondent and later for the Polish Press Agency. As his now famous about-the-author note from “The Shadow of the Sun” (2001) informs us, Kapuscinski “witnessed 27 coups and revolutions” and “was sentenced to death four times,” a biographical précis many nonfiction writers would do anything, short of earning it, to have.
Kapuscinski’s African dispatches largely made his name. Like his countryman Joseph Conrad, to whom he is often compared and to whom he bears almost no resemblance, Kapuscinski has become embedded in the continent’s literary firmament. Upon Kapuscinski’s death, however, the young Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina attacked “the racist writer Kapuscinski” as being the author of some of his “all-time classic lines about Africa,” such as “In Africa, the notion of abstract evil — evil in and of itself — does not exist.” It is hard to blame those angered by some of Kapuscinski’s more careless statements about Africa. His risky generalizations may suggest a seeming lack of recognition of Africa’s varied and heterodox cultures, but that seems a minor sin in light of how deeply he attempted to understand it and how much of his life he spent there. Kapuscinski knew, of course, how complicated his subjects were. “The European in Africa,” he wrote in “The Shadow of the Sun,” “sees only part of it” and can only fall short when attempting to describe “the immense realm” of African psychology. His subject matter was local but his tone was cosmic, dislocated and sometimes surreal. His miner’s light lingered deep in recesses of totalitarianism, mysticism and revolution — places where truth begins to lose access to the photosynthesis of fact. A coloration not often noted by those in opposition to Kapuscinski is that his is the Africa of a man from a subject country who discovered it just as its nations were snapping the leashes of their colonial masters. In the end, great nonfiction writing does not necessarily require any accuracy greater than that of an honest and vividly rendered confusion. The limits of human perception cruelly bind us all.
Kapuscinski’s final book, “Travels With Herodotus,” is about the Father of History, a man so bound by his fifth-century-B.C. perception and experience as to appear by modern standards almost intellectually comatose. “He had never heard of China,” Kapuscinski writes, “or Japan, he did not know of Australia or Oceania, had no inkling of the existence, much less the great flowering, of the Americas. If truth be told, he knew little of note about western and northern Europe.” He also believed that Ethiopian men ejaculated black semen. Yet, to Kapuscinski, Herodotus was “the first globalist” and “the first to argue that each culture requires acceptance and understanding.” How much Herodotus actually traveled we cannot know, and a good deal of “Travels With Herodotus” is occupied with Kapuscinski’s ceaseless wonderings about his early life (“Did he build sand castles at the edge of the sea?”), family history (“Might Herodotus’s father have been a merchant himself?”) and personality (“Perhaps he had a naturally inquiring mind?”). The book’s true nature, however, is that of an unabashed memoir, the author’s first, and it opens with Ryszard, age 19, studying Greek history at Warsaw University. Although a Polish translation of Herodotus was not available until 1955, shortly after Stalin’s death, Kapuscinski became a lifelong pupil of Herodotus’s time, “a world of sun and silver, warm and full of light, populated by slender heroes and dancing nymphs.” It was also a world that seemed determined to destroy itself through internecine warfare.
Kapuscinski graduated and became a journalist. After being censured, hounded, and then exonerated by the authorities for writing an exposé of a grisly Polish factory intended to be a Communist showcase — a story curiously unmentioned here — Kapuscinski was rewarded with his first foreign assignment. He had asked for Czechoslovakia, the strangest place he could then imagine. He was given India. His editor presented the young journalist with a gift: “It was a thick book with a stiff cover. ... On the front, stamped in gold letters, was Herodotus, THE HISTORIES.”
Kapuscinski took the book with him everywhere — to India, to Afghanistan, to China, to Cambodia, to Rangoon. “Sometimes,” he writes, “when the offices emptied in the evening and the hallways grew quiet ... I reached for The Histories of Herodotus, lying in my drawer.” We are thus intended to believe that Herodotus served as Kapuscinski’s lifelong companion and was, in some ways, his intellectual hero. Yet one will search in vain for any mention at all of Herodotus in Kapuscinski’s previously published books in English. Is it all a device? If so, similar slipperiness has earned Kapuscinski no small amount of criticism from the sheriffs of nonfiction, most recently Slate’s Jack Shafer, who plucked the press tag out of Kapuscinski’s fedora earlier this year in a piece titled “The Lies of Ryszard Kapuscinski.” But calling Kapuscinski a liar is akin to one of the Pharisees investigating Jesus’ story of the prodigal son and proclaiming that the young man in question never left home at all. (As for the recent revelation that in the early 1970s Kapuscinski agreed to report to the secret police — though not on his fellow Poles — in exchange for some freedom to travel, it is intensely disappointing, of course. Much of what Kapuscinski wrote concerned the distortive and corrupting power of totalitarianism. If the allegations are true, then his personal life gave way where his art held firm. We can lament and condemn his weakness without completely forgetting his strength.) Obviously, one should not set out to consciously deceive in a piece of writing that purports to be true. From this understanding the gradations begin.
A nonfiction writer’s style provides the first corresponding clue as to how we are to approach the facts at hand. The style of the plain-spoken, rigorously invisible journalist semaphores one kind of approach, that of the poetical, allusive and interactive journalist another. These are not competitive styles. One is contentedly earthbound, while the other mingles in a Milky Way where morality is not a matter of proper dates and chronology but of representational accuracy, context, language. Its mode of communication is not discursive, or even necessarily informative, but visionary. It is called poetic license for a reason: one has to earn it. As Kapuscinski once said, impartial, unopinionated fact “is exactly what I avoid.” He continued, “If those are the questions you want answered, you can visit your local library.”
There is distressingly little to argue over in “Travels With Herodotus.” The narrative floats about like an uncaptained trireme — in the Sudan, Kapuscinski meets some questionable individuals, smokes a joint with them, goes to a Louis Armstrong concert and then ponders the Nile, which gets him thinking about Herodotus — and the pectorals of his language have lost some definition. “I burned the midnight oil studying up on guerrilla warfare in the jungles of Burma and Malaysia,” he writes at one point. Whether the presumably comparable Polish phrase being approximated here by his longtime translator Klara Glowczewska is as hoary can only be guessed. It may be unreasonable to expect a writer in his 70s to strive toward the same kind of originality as he did in his relative youth. But the writer in question is Ryszard Kapuscinski. There is a reason we do not allow our superheroes to grow old.
Those who know Kapuscinski’s work have their favorite moments. The scene in “Shah of Shahs” wherein Kapuscinski imagines a moment in which a police officer threatens a man in a crowd, who for the first time in his life “doesn’t budge ... and this is precisely the beginning of the revolution.” His description of how half of the Angolan city of Luanda was shipped away in crates during its siege, “as if a pirate fleet had sailed into the port, seized a priceless treasure and escaped to sea with it.” The sorcerer casts a few enchantments in “Travels With Herodotus,” but only one of them comes within range of either of the above. It occurs with Kapuscinski’s account of the construction of the Great Wall of China, built over thousands of years with “dedication and devotion” and “exemplary discipline.” And then the classic Kapuscinskian reversal: “This is how the world’s energy is wasted.”
A nameless energy gathers as one reads deeper into “Travels With Herodotus,” and one begins to realize that, in many ways, Kapuscinski’s previous books, however brilliant, were somewhat impersonal. Here, finally, we experience the early tremors Kapuscinski underwent for the privilege to write them. Not all of it is painful; much of it, in fact, is delightful — especially the revelation that Kapuscinski learned English from Hemingway. And one finally sees that in writing about Herodotus Kapuscinski is actually writing about himself. Herodotus tried to get the best information available, Kapuscinski notes, “and, given the epoch, this speaks to a tremendous expenditure of effort and to great personal determination. ... And if he knows something, how does he know it? Because he heard, he saw.”
Kapuscinski saw more, and more clearly, if not always perfectly, than nearly any writer one can think to name. Few have written more beautifully of unspeakable things. Few have had his courage, almost none his talent. His books changed the way many of us think about nonfiction and made many of us want to travel for ourselves and see for ourselves. Herodotus, Kapuscinski reasonably imagines, interviewed many of his subjects by campfire. “Later, these will be called legends and myths, but in the instant when they are first being related and heard, the tellers and the listeners believe in them as the holiest of truths, absolute reality,” he writes. And so “the fire burns, someone adds more wood, the flames’ renewed warmth quickens thought, awakens the imagination.” When the last page of this book is turned, note how much smaller and colder the world now seems with Kapuscinski gone.
Tom Bissell’s most recent book is “The Father of All Things.” He is working on a travel book about the Twelve Apostles.