Writer Ryszard Kapuscinski: An Optimist in the Heart of Darkness

By Zalewski, Tomasz | European Affairs, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Writer Ryszard Kapuscinski: An Optimist in the Heart of Darkness


Zalewski, Tomasz, European Affairs


The word "charisma" is much overused these days, but in the case of Ryszard Kapuscinski it fits perfectly. By the time of his death last year at 74, the Polish reporter and non-fiction writer Kapuscinski had developed a worldwide following for his work, gaining an international stature unrivaled by any other journalist from central Europe. As a person, he also radiated warmth and love for people--not only those he studied and wrote about but also individuals he met and mentored in the course of his distinguished career.

For almost 30 years, he was a roving foreign correspondent for the state-run Polish Press Agency, witnessing scores of revolutions and coups. Delving deep beneath the headlines, his writings brought unique immediacy to the Third World's sufferings and dictatorships, wars and revolutions. For readers in Europe and North America, his vivid, telling reportage conveyed a tangible reality about life among people struggling for daily survival in dire conditions far removed from anything in the contemporary West. This quality made international bestsellers of his books, starting with The Emperor and The Soccer War (1978)--translated into 30 languages--and subsequent books such as The Shah of Shahs (1982) and The Shadow of the Sun (1998). Named Poland's "journalist of the century," his writings were widely recognized as work that went far beyond the "first draft of history," as is commonly said of journalism. In fact, they had compelling literary value, and Kapuscinski was several times put into consideration for the Nobel Prize in literature.

The American and European public might have wondered how an author from Poland--at that time a communist, Soviet-dominated country--understood so well the plight of the impoverished Southern hemisphere. After all, it seems to be a realm better known to Westerners, particularly from countries with an imperial past, such as Great Britain, which produced great storytellers who immortalized the colonial world: Rudyard Kipling, Graham Greene or E.M. Forster. Poland has never been a colonial power, of course. (It has had enough trouble defending its own space in Europe.) But Kapuscinski was able to penetrate these exotic places partly because he was a product, not of the imperial nations, but of a 20th-century country that, in his time, was similar in crucial respects to the "other" world he was describing.

Kapuscinski grew up in one of the poorest regions in the poorest part of east Poland, in the little town of Pinsk (part of Belarus since 1991). As a child he witnessed the ravages inflicted on Poland by World War II--the death of 20 percent of the Polish population, widespread destruction and occupation, first by Nazi Germany, then by the Soviet Union. He was a student under a Stalinist regime in his homeland.

As the Polish Press Agency correspondent in Africa, Asia and Latin America, Kapuscinski did not spend his time enjoying expensive hotel luxuries or socializing at embassies. He preferred to chat with local people in shantytowns, Indian pueblos or jungle villages. And of course being a reporter for the Polish state-run agency, he enjoyed a mixture of handicaps and advantages in his situation compared to his colleagues from what was then called "the West." Lacking hard currency, he had to travel in ways that brought him into contact with the ordinary people in the countries he covered and often had to stay on a while after the headlines had died before moving on--an extra degree of exposure that helped him see and learn more than his Western colleagues. As a journalist, he was as competitive and determined as they were, and perhaps more resourceful. But his attention, perhaps encouraged by his upbringing in a socialist context, was drawn to the lives behind the stories of local people. He understood them because their lives of everyday deprivation, repression and fear were similar to the experiences of his own youth. Poland's armed resistance and struggles--the primal collective experience of his nation--were vivid in his reactions. …

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