The giant bought low by tall tales

Published in The Observer (August 19th, 2012)

Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life by Arthur Domolawski (Verso)

The tale of Lulu, Haile Selassie’s lap dog that was allowed to piss on the shoes of dignitaries, and the courtier whose job for 10 years was to wipe those shoes clean with a satin cloth, is among the more compelling images produced by modern journalism. It sums up neatly the arrogance and absurdities of autocracy, along with the humdrum obsequiousness of life in the emperor’s court.

This glimpse into an ancient monarchy comes at the start of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s masterpiece ‘The Emperor’, a taut parable of power that deservedly elevated its author to global fame. The book is filled with similar vivid descriptions garnered from interviews with melancholic courtiers after the downfall of the emperor, painting an elegiac picture of a lost world of ritual and intrigue.

Kapuscinski told an interviewer you could only write one book like that in a lifetime. But he went on to write another about the Shah of Iran, a treatise on tyranny and revolt that remains as pertinent today as when it was written. And then there are the astonishing accounts of chaos and revolution in Africa and Latin America, packed with evocative observations that inspired generations of writers and reporters.

But as Artur Domoslawski points out in this masterful biography, many of the anecdotes – including, probably, the incontinent dog – are phoney. With the Mengistu regime on the rampage, no official from the deposed ruler’s circle would have dared be seen with a white man, says one person. Another suggests Kapuscinski interviewed alcoholics. A third that he regurgitated stories from expat dinner parties.

It is the same with ‘Shah of Shahs’. An academic challenges Domoslawski to open the book at any page and he will point out the falsehoods – and then does just that. There are tall tales of fish feasting on the bodies of Idi Amin’s victims, of gangs of dogs on the run in Luanda, of Belgian soldiers threatening to shoot the globetrotting reporter. Even stories of the author’s own father escaping death at Katyn, when Stalin killed more than 20,000 Polish officers, were made up.

Kapuscinski would not have lasted in today’s digital world; he would have been just another journalist felled as a fantasist by snapping packs of online critics. As a reporter, his actions were indefensible. The biographer talks to a Bolivian whose father is portrayed as a hard-drinking conman, an editor who charges priests for disclaimers about stories that they are rapists. The son’s reaction is shock. “It’s pure fantasy,” he says. “What a bastard.” His father was a serious publisher, politician and patriot forced to flee repression.

Yet Kapuscinski’s reputation remains high for the brilliance with which he turned frontline journalism into a form of literature. When a friend pointed out that a report of a riot in Tanzania took place on a different street in different circumstances, he retorted: “You don’t understand a thing. I’m not writing so the details add up – the point is the essence of the matter.” Near the end of this inquisitive biography, Domoslawski finally understands his friend and mentor: “Ryszard Kapuscinski – the hero of Ryszard Kapuscinski books – is also a fictional character.”

This book caused a furore when published in Poland two years ago; Kapuscinski’s wife tried to stop release because of revelations of extramarital affairs, while the rest of the country was gripped by confirmation of collusion with the communist authorities. But what makes it so interesting is that the author does not shred Kapuscinki’s reputation, not does he ignore the mounds of uncomfortable evidence. Instead, he peels away and probes with understanding, producing not just a fascinating biography of an important writer but also a subtle study of life under authoritarianism, with all the compromises and complexities that entails.

This was a life formed in the dark dislocation of war, growing up amid horrors unleashed by the Nazis and Stalin. He joined the communist party in his youth, had friends in the highest places and only left after Solidarity shook the system. To go abroad, he had to be loyal. But unlike western journalists, the impecunious Kapuscinski travelled and lived like the people he was writing about to gain real understanding, so he accepted deprivations such as maggots nesting under his skin and poor food.

These experiences gave him his profound understanding of power, poverty and revolution, together with passionate sympathy for the underdog. While he wrote private reports for his party bosses, his books about Ethiopia and Iran were allusive works, reflecting his own rulers and their decaying systems as much as the courts in Addis Ababa and Tehran.

He sought ideals – and perhaps his own youth – in the uprisings of the developing world, but he knew that power defeats hope, distorting idealists into soulless bureaucrats and cruel monsters. These are lessons that remain pertinent today – as does his understanding that wounded dignity, not the fight for bread, drives most uprisings, something we saw demonstrated again last year in north Africa.

At times Domoslawski’s style, possibly due to its translation from Polish, seems almost self–consciously to echo its subject’s writing. The author is weakest in unlocking the character of this detached man: a dreadful father, disloyal husband and disarming user of friends. He was imbued with anti-Americanism, yet made cuts to his work to appease the CIA. And for all his passionate anti-colonialism, he viewed Africa as a place of extremes – what one critic calls “gonzo orientalism”.

On one level this is a devastating indictment of a fraudulent journalist and flawed human being, one who made possibly too many compromises with a tawdry system. But it is also a portrait of a courageous and sympathetic writer, whose hard-grafted prose was unusually poetic and who possessed rare insight into the swirling forces that shape society. Ultimately, Kapuscinski created a new language for telling the stories of oppressed peoples on the cusp of change – even if we now know they should be filed under fiction.

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