Few journalists in the 20th century achieved the renown of Ryszard Kapuscinski at the height of his career.
As a lone correspondent from communist Poland’s state news agency, he witnessed many of the upheavals of his age from Latin America to Africa and wrote about them in spellbinding prose.
For Gabriel García Márquez, he was the “true master of journalism”; for Margaret Atwood, a “superlative witness to our times”. When he died in 2007, Germany’s Spiegel magazine ran a tribute entitled “The best reporter in the world”.
This year his legacy will once again come into focus. Czytelnik, his publishing house, is planning two books on Kapuscinski and his work, coinciding with the 90th anniversary of his birth.
Warsaw is to renovate the simple wooden cabin where he and his family lived after the war and turn it into a centre for reportage.
Yet even before Kapuscinski’s death, 15 years ago, there were dissenting voices over his writing, and in the years after it they have grown louder. At issue is the accuracy of his shimmering reportage.
One sympathetic reviewer called it “magic journalism”. But for others, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, he blurred the line between fact and fiction, which made him a cautionary tale about artistic embellishment and a warning of the pitfalls for reporters who splice their prose with the techniques and tricks of literature.
Questions about the distinction between truth and fable are probably as old as writing itself.
The Greek Herodotus — a pioneer of history writing in the fifth century BC, admired by Kapuscinski — has been dubbed both the “father of history” and the “father of lies”.
But amid today’s battles over fake news, the debate about how to protect the line between fact and fiction also has a more modern resonance.
“We should guard it with our lives, as political writers, as reporters, as historians, anyone who’s doing non-fiction. I think it’s a cardinal sin to have crossed that line,” says Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European studies at Oxford university and himself the author of reportage on central Europe.
“In a world of misinformation and disinformation, where you have . . . Russia promoting a view that there is no truth ultimately, that everyone is just pushing their story, it’s more important than ever to guard the line between fact and fiction.”
Tucked away in a clump of trees on Warsaw’s Mokotow Field, the cramped cabin where Kapuscinski once lived was one of hundreds thrown together to house workers rebuilding the Polish capital from the rubble of the second world war.
Donated by the USSR and funded by Finnish reparations to Moscow, the prefabricated dwellings became known as the “Finnish Cottages”.
Nearly 80 years on, Kapuscinski’s is quietly surrendering to the elements, its roof in the middle of a slow-motion collapse and its once white walls daubed with graffiti.
“The original idea was to keep the legacy of a writer who was a master of reportage, because we saw that it was fading,” Aleksandra Butkiewicz, head of Warsaw’s greenery department, tells me as we meet one morning outside the ruin. “It’s a way of restoring his memory.”
There is a lot to remember. By the end of his life, Kapuscinski’s reputation was such that he was a contender for a Nobel Prize for literature.
His prose had won comparisons with Hemingway’s and Orwell’s, and his near-suicidal bravery had earned him the admiration of many of his peers.
“Correspondents in Africa have two authors on their shelves,” wrote one, after Kapuscinski died. “Graham Greene and Kapuscinski.”
Kapuscinski’s path into journalism had begun at the Banner of Youth, a newspaper for young communists.
As a cub reporter in the 1950s, he was dispatched to write a story about Nowa Huta, a vast construction project meant to be one of the showpieces of communist Poland.
Instead of writing a paean, Kapuscinski detailed its social ills, ranging from prostitution to housing shortages.
The article sparked a furore that initially forced him into hiding. But following a change of heart among Poland’s communist bosses, it won him a prize.
Soon after, he was sent on a short trip to India, his first outside Europe, fulfilling the burning desire to cross borders that would fuel the rest of his career.
“What does one feel [crossing the border]?” he wrote, recalling his state of mind years later. “What is it like, on the other side? It must certainly be — different. But what does ‘different’ mean?”
This sense of curiosity and openness was central to Kapuscinski. Sometimes it appeared to get him into trouble.
On one occasion in Cairo, he wrote that he found himself being robbed as he teetered on a narrow perch at the top of a minaret after accepting a stranger’s offer to show him a local mosque.
But it was also the enabler of his journalism. He recounts travelling thousands of kilometres around Ethiopia with a driver whose only two English expressions were “problem” and “no problem” — enough, Kapuscinski claimed, to help him negotiate everything from snakes to military patrols.
“He had that great quality of going into a bar, or even sitting on the kerb of a street, and talking to absolutely anybody as if he was his brother,” says Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand, who, with her then husband William Brand, first translated Kapuscinski’s works into English.
“He was a fascinating man to talk to. He combined the curiosity of a reporter and the courage, but he was also a thinker.”
Kapuscinski’s ascent coincided with the wave of decolonisation that swept through the second half of the 20th century, and chronicling these convulsions became his work.
By the time he covered the fall of Iran’s shah in 1979, he had, by his own account, witnessed 27 revolutions.
Brand remembers Kapuscinski telling him with some pride a few years later that PAP (the Polish press agency) had once compiled a list of all its expenses, and Kapuscinski’s had been the largest item.
“He was very happy about that,” Brand recalls. “It showed he had been doing a serious job, and was treated seriously.”
“For every journalist from my generation that wanted to be a foreign correspondent, Kapuscinski was automatically considered as the biggest authority,” says Wojciech Jagielski, who followed in Kapuscinski’s footsteps at PAP and also reported extensively from Africa.
“Not only because of the time he spent abroad, but because he was the best writer.”
Indeed, Kapuscinski’s work is awash with images that live long in the memory.
For Salman Rushdie, there was the city of crates that piles up in the streets of Luanda in Another Day of Life as Europeans decant their lives into containers before fleeing Angola’s civil war.
For Mariusz Szczygiel, co-founder of the Institute of Reportage in Warsaw and one of Poland’s best-known contemporary writers of reportage, it is the Soviet customs guard at the icy Zabaykalsk border crossing sifting menacingly through grain after grain of kasha, his well-trained fingertips searching suspiciously for the slightest irregularity.
“For me this is the best fragment in Polish non-fiction,” Szczygiel says, fetching a copy of Imperium, before reading me the passage aloud over his kitchen table.
“It’s phenomenal! It’s a metaphor of a totalitarian state. When people ask me what communism was, I show them this. It was a system that didn’t just want to have control over people, but over every grain of kasha. And Kapuscinski watched this for an hour or two — we don’t know how long. He didn’t speak to those people. But out of this he created a metaphor. That is his greatness.”
It was with Brand and Mroczkowska-Brand’s English translation of The Emperor in 1983 that Kapuscinski’s international reputation took off.
The book is an account of the fall of Haile Selassie, told through the eyes of anonymous members of the Ethiopian ruler’s court.
By turns satirical and grotesque, it is not a straightforward piece of reportage. Courtiers refer to Selassie with over-the-top epithets borrowed from the 17th-century Polish court.
And there are cameos from functionaries with ludicrous roles, including one whose job is to slip cushions under the diminutive emperor’s feet when he is sitting on his throne so that they do not waggle unmonarchically in the air. (The courtier claims he had 52 cushions to cope with all permutations of throne.)
Mroczkowska-Brand says she was introduced to the book as an allegory of the communist court of Poland’s then leader Edward Gierek.
“[A friend] said everyone is reading this now, and we are having a good laugh . . . [I thought] it has a form which is very interesting, which I don’t think has been done all that much . . . walking on the tightrope between literature and reportage, between literature and fact, between fact and fiction, using all sorts of tricks.”
Yet while The Emperor helped win Kapuscinski the admiration of literary giants from John Updike to Rushdie, its departure from the norms of reportage also sowed the seeds of a debate about the accuracy of his writing and the extent to which it should be regarded as journalism or literature.
One of the most blistering attacks came from John Ryle, an anthropologist and expert on east Africa. In a review for the Times Literary Supplement in 2001, he catalogued a series of factual errors and misleading generalisations in Kapuscinski’s writing about Africa.
The cumulative effect, he argued, was “gonzo orientalism” which “homogenises and misrepresents people in Africa even as it aspires to speak for them”.
“Here facts are no longer sacred; the author is at play in the bush of ghosts, free to opine and to generalise about ‘Africa’ and ‘the African’ — and simply make things up,” he concluded.
“Here, in place of fact, there is mutability; in place of reportage, relativism. From this place, deep in an imaginary Africa, the writer may return with any tale he pleases.”
A decade later, Artur Domoslawski, a Polish journalist who knew Kapuscinski well, published a biography that addressed the controversy over Kapuscinski’s (relatively limited, it seems) co-operation with Polish intelligence, as well as the questions about his writing and the legends around his career.
Kapuscinski, Domoslawski says, would “add sometimes a teaspoon of fiction, sometimes a spoon” to his writing.
“My tone is not accusatory, I examine what happens when journalism enters the terrain of fictional literature. My answer is that it pays a high price. I don’t say he’s a liar. I say maybe it’s better to put his books on another shelf,” he says.
Domoslawski’s book sparked uproar in Poland and was followed by other attempts to parse Kapuscinski’s reporting.
In 2014, two journalists tried to track down details of Amelia Bolaños, an 18-year-old Salvadoran who, Kapuscinski writes in The Soccer War, killed herself after her country conceded a last-minute goal to lose a World Cup qualifier against Honduras in 1969, shortly before a brief conflict erupted between the two countries.
On Kapuscinski’s telling, Bolaños became a national symbol. Her suicide, he wrote, made it into the El Nacional newspaper; her funeral was broadcast on TV; and the president and national football team marched behind her coffin, which was draped with the national flag.
But when the two journalists, Maria Hawranek and Szymon Opryszek, searched for El Nacional, they found no evidence that it ever existed.
Other papers they reviewed for the month of the match had no mention of Bolaños; a member of the Salvadoran football team they spoke to had no memory of walking behind her coffin.
For Bozena Dudko, who was Kapuscinski’s secretary for the last two years of his life and looked after his archive until 2016, the criticism of his works is both unfair and a misunderstanding.
She arrives at our meeting at a restaurant in downtown Warsaw armed with a suitcase full of books by and about Kapuscinski, and before long they are strewn across our table as she takes me on a whistle-stop tour of his work.
Kapuscinski’s errors, she says, stem from the difficulties of fact-checking in the pre-internet world, particularly in communist-era Poland, where even organising a phone call abroad could swallow up the best part of a day, while access to foreign archives was often very difficult or even impossible to obtain.
But the criticisms also miss the point, she argues. “When he comes back [from his travels], he faces the fact that he can write something for the agency but there are so many things left that he cannot sell as a journalist. So then he uses them and processes them in a literary way. For me [the debate around his work] is a misunderstanding. A journalist has the right to be a writer too,” she says.
“Literary reportage should not be treated in the same way as reportage in a newspaper.”
Kapuscinski, says Urszula Glensk, an expert on Polish literature at Wroclaw university, was writing in a tradition influenced by the likes of prewar writer Melchior Wankowicz, who believed reporters could combine biographies or compose dialogues to help illustrate “general truths”.
“Wankowicz said that the reporter had to try to capture reality . . . but it’s not possible to force all his conversations and observations into a book,” says Glensk.
Others take this argument further. “[Kapuscinski] intensifies truth by invention,” the film-maker Werner Herzog once told Slate.
“By dint of declaration, he creates something which gives you a much deeper insight into the truth of, let’s say, Africa or Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, and it’s totally legitimate and the debate is very, very silly. Let the accountants [of truth] be happy with their debate. I’m not going to participate.”
This approach makes some contemporary Polish reportage-writers uneasy.
“You only get to deeper truth by going into the depths, and not by distorting them. I just don’t agree with that assumption,” says Katarzyna Surmiak-Domanska, a reporter and member of the jury that awards the city of Warsaw’s annual Kapuscinski prize for literary reportage.
“For me, one of the criteria of reportage is faithfulness to the facts.”
Indeed, once that faithfulness is in question, it is hard for readers to orient themselves. Was Kapuscinski really robbed at the top of a minaret? Did his driver speak only two words of English? Did Selassie have a courtier for cushions?
He’s someone who produced some brilliant reportage . . . but he’s also a warning to reporters with literary ambitions not to step over that line between fact and fiction
Timothy Garton Ash
“People read Kapuscinski because they think he’s this amazing hard-hitting journalist and extraordinary writer, who actually goes to these many places, has these wild experiences, and then relates them all in this extraordinary prose,” says Stanley Bill, senior lecturer in Polish studies at the University of Cambridge.
“If you don’t believe what he’s saying was true, I’m not sure his work would have the same impact.”
As a result, says Garton Ash, Kapuscinski leaves a mixed legacy: “He’s someone who produced some brilliant reportage, which many people loved and remember, but he’s also a warning to reporters with literary ambitions not to step over that line between fact and fiction.”
Kapuscinski’s admirers are more forgiving. For Dudko, he remains a “classic model of literary reportage . . . I call him the poet of reportage, his style is unmistakable. His text can be read by a cleaning lady and by a university professor and for both it will be fascinating.”
Szczygiel, despite reservations about Kapuscinski’s blurring of the line between fact and fiction, argues that the beauty of his language, and his metaphors, will still be appreciated in another 30 years’ time.
As the anniversaries of Kapuscinski’s birth and death loom, others hope that the passage of time will allow a reassessment of the Polish writer’s legacy.
“We are finally on our way from understanding Kapuscinski as a monument to understanding him as a human being. He used to be seen as a god. And then for one or two years for some people he was a liar and very controversial. And now we are on the way to accepting him as a human being with errors and mistakes,” says Kamil Baluk, a reporter who also works at the Institute of Reportage.
“I think we are in the middle of redefining his role in our history. We are deciding what his legacy will be.”