Remembering Kapuscinski; the Polish Writer Who Explored Distant Lands Always Found Just the Right Images, Just the Right Observations to Entrance Readers Everywhere

Newsweek International, February 5, 2007 | Go to article overview

Remembering Kapuscinski; the Polish Writer Who Explored Distant Lands Always Found Just the Right Images, Just the Right Observations to Entrance Readers Everywhere


Byline: Andrew Nagorski

In 1966, at the height of the Nigerian Civil War, an unassuming Polish journalist by the name of Ryszard Kapuscinski set out on a seemingly insane journey. He left the relative safety of Lagos and drove straight into the region of the fiercest fighting, where any traveler could be summarily executed by trigger-happy, machete-wielding guards at any number of improvised roadblocks set up by roaming gangs of both warring parties. "I was driving along a road where they say no white man can come back alive," Kapuscinski wrote later in his book "The Soccer War." "I was driving to see if a white man could, because I had to experience everything for myself."

The journalist turned literary superstar, who died last week at the age of 74, lived by that credo of experiencing everything for himself. He spent most of his life exploring many of the most dangerous places in the world, never hesitating to jump into the next flash point. And yet, from the time I first met him in Warsaw roughly two decades ago right up until our last dinner together in October, he never put on a show of bravado. Wasn't he terrified at times, I asked him once. "All the time, but I just can't stop," he replied with his typically disarming smile. And he couldn't stop churning out books that were breathtaking in their imagery, poignant evocation of mood and electrifying sense of danger and dread.

It's hard to imagine a more improbable career for someone who began his life as a reporter in communist Poland, where journalism was a claustrophobic profession crippled by censorship and chronic political intrigue. But as a young writer working for the daily Sztandar Mlodych (The Flag of Youth), he caused a huge stir with a gritty description of the woes of steelworkers in southern Poland, winning the applause of the "reform communists" of 1956. Rewarded with the rare chance to travel abroad, he was asked where he wanted to go. "Czechoslovakia," he blurted out. "It was such a dream come true that I couldn't think of a more distant country," he recalled later.

Soon he had no such problems. Free to travel for the Polish Press Agency to report on "countries which people did not know or care about," he felt liberated from his homeland, where the hopes for reform had quickly faded. …

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