Lapidaria

By Maciejewska, Kinga | Chicago Review, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Lapidaria


Maciejewska, Kinga, Chicago Review


On the one hand we have the realm of belles-lettres, which concentrates to an ever greater degree on the internal life of its protagonists, the psychology of the individual... On the opposite pole stands news-writing, which reaches us through the media-accounts of events related in a hard, brusque and simple style. And what's in between? To a great degree an empty field, which I am trying to cultivate. Ryszard Kapuscinski (b. 1932) is one of the leading figures of the so-called Polish School of Reportage. Described as "literary journalism," and even as a form of "social document," reportage essentially consists of literary texts that take as their subject verifiable facts or events, real people, societies, and cultures. In Lapidaria, which was published in Poland in 1997 and is not yet available in English, Kapuscinski explains how he came to the genre: "I became a foreign correspondent in 1956, at the age of twentyfour, and I have worked in this profession continuously ever since, specializing in the problems of underdeveloped countries, particularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America." Indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s, as Poland's only foreign correspondent, Kapuscinski often found himself assigned to cover an entire continent. In this capacity he witnessed several wars, coups, and revolutions in both Americas, in Asia, and in Africa. His numerous travels resulted in several full-length books, in which he developed his identifiably Kapuscinski-esque style.

The first of these books to be translated into English, The Emperor (Vintage, 1984), recounts the fall of Haile Selassie's regime in Ethiopia, and is an excellent study of the problems and tragedies of a lonely individual irrevocably tangled in the web of a totalitarian state. The Soccer War (Granta Books, 1990), another book based on Kapuscinski's African experiences, describes the end of Portuguese power in Angola. Though not published in Poland until 1978, it was the product of the reporter's dangerous journey through the Congo in 1960, which then was one of the world's politically hottest spots. And a third, published in English as Shah of Shahs (Vintage, 1986), concerned the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. The work that is perhaps best-known internationally, however, resulted from Kapuscinski's journey through the Soviet Union during the last years of its existence (1989-1991): Imperium (Knopf, 1994) provides a fascinating glimpse of the final moments of that once immortal and invincible empire, and has been translated into more than twenty languages. Essentially a collage of Kapuscinski's writings culled from the last three decades, Lapidaria differs significantly in terms of its poetics from these earlier works. Where it had been typical for him to present portraits of the customs and traditions and everyday life of a group of people (be they African, Latin American, Asian, or Slavic), in Lapidaria, which he began after the transition of 1989, Kapuscinski turns inward, and undertakes a journey of self-reflection. The texts gathered in Lapidaria, most of which are as short as a few lines or a single page, include observations of the contemporary world; philosophical reflections on our civilization at the turn of the third millennium; recollections from his many years of travel; and, perhaps most interestingly, observations about his own writing process, and his experience as a journalist. In The Emperor, Shah of Shahs, The Soccer War and Imperium, Kapuscinski's strategy was to approach a particular problem through a detailed observation of the local socio-political reality combined with a careful recording of events. Undoubtedly, he made a subjective selection from among these facts, gathering them like shards to be pieced together later into a colorful mosaic-which in turn would form a larger metaphor for a historical transformation taking place within the country in question. It is not a radical or even unusual approach; yet it is one that Kapusciniski developed into an art. …

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