Fact and fiction

Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life, by Artur Domoslawski, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Verso, RRP£25/$34.95, 464 pages

Some 10 years ago, the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski was at the height of his fame. Smart, incisive and well-written books such as The Emperor, The Soccer War and Another Day of Life had given him a worldwide reputation, not just as a fearless reporter but also as the master of literary reportage.

Starting in the early 1960s, Kapuscinski had worked all the hotspots of Africa and Latin America: he was said to have witnessed 28 revolutions and coups d’état, befriended such revolutionary luminaries as Cuba’s Che Guevara, and escaped numerous brushes with disease, death and drunken firing squads. The texts that came out of those travels to distant, dangerous places were likened to those of George Orwell or Ernest Hemingway, and celebrated by writers such as Susan Sontag and Gabriel García Márquez.

Until his death from a heart attack in early 2007, Kapuscinski was often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature – and, as a member of the body that awards it, I can say he came very close indeed.

But despite all that success, Kapuscinski lived his last years as a troubled man. His books had come under growing scrutiny from experts, who complained of errors, overstatement and worse. (Kapuscinski, sensitive and thin-skinned, never learnt how to handle criticism.) And he was increasingly worried, terrified even, when he heard rumours about stalkers rummaging about in his past, looking for dark secrets.

Then, four months after his death, came a big exposé in the Polish press, showing that for a number of years Kapuscinski had worked for the intelligence services of communist Poland. There was uproar. Although never a prominent critic of the system, he was still seen as one of those who had helped undermine the tottering dictatorship that was Poland in the 1980s. (When The Emperor was first published in Poland, it was read not so much as reportage from the court of Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie but, quite rightly, as a sly allegory of the slowly failing systems of power in eastern Europe.)

Polish journalist Artur Domoslawski, who knew Kapuscinski personally, has written the first real biography of him. First published in Poland two years ago, it is clearly not a hagiography. At the same time, the book is informed by a genuine desire to understand its subject – never an easy task and particularly difficult in the case of a man such as Kapuscinski, who was as complex as he was talented, and also elusive and prone to exaggeration.

Kapuscinski was born in 1932 in Pinsk in north-eastern Poland, now Belarus, and although – true to a form – he often embroidered his family background to make it seem poorer than it actually was, he grew up in a milieu where poverty was rife. This, and of course the second world war, became the defining experiences of his life. In his adult years he was forever drawn to conflict, and to similar extreme situations in which reality tends to be reduced to a simple struggle between good and evil.

Coming of age in the crater that was then Poland, Kapuscinski became an enthusiastic boy Stalinist, ever ready to bully his fellow students and write starry-eyed poems celebrating the pouring of concrete and the mind of the dictator. But, as one of those who knew him told Domoslawski, “He wasn’t some sort of awful swine – he just believed in it, that’s all.”

Kapuscinski stayed a believer – it was just what he hoped for that changed. And hope constantly triumphed over experience, as it tends to do. So, after feeling let down by the old Stalinist system, in around 1956 he transferred his allegiance to those in the Communist party striving to reform the old structures. Soon he became disenchanted with them too, and instead started seeking inspiration abroad. And it is then, in the early 1960s, that he started galloping around the world, passionately hunting for revolutions and rebellions, going anywhere he could discern an old order breaking down and a new one emerging.

The irony, of course, is that one of the greatest and most momentous old order breakdowns was at the same time taking place, slowly but surely, in his own country. The turning point for Kapuscinski came in 1980, with the wave of massive strikes in the shipyards on the Baltic coast.

Up until then he had, consciously or not, more or less ignored what was going on inside Poland. But just as he had once used the experiences of his childhood and youth to comprehend the situation in Africa and Latin America, his experience of turmoil in the developing world finally helped him understand that he was facing yet another revolution; and the romantic in him, of course, chose to side with this new revolution as well.

There was also a practical side to all this idealism. Kapuscinski was a long-standing member of the Communist party, he believed in the party, and it believed in him. Domoslawski shows that, without his contacts and benefactors high up in the party hierarchy, his trips around the world would not have happened. Kapuscinski was careful not to disturb the equilibrium. At the same time, he had plenty of friends among the opposition. Everyone liked him. Kapuscinski, always prepared to listen and always with a shy, charming smile on his face, had a seductive side to his nature, and was evidently very adept at telling people what they wanted to hear. (It isn’t surprising to learn that he was a womaniser, forever cheating on his wife.)

It is probably in this context, of a man manoeuvring – with skill, care and not too much moral introspection – through the labyrinths of power of the single-party state, that one should understand his work for the Polish intelligence services. They approached him in the early 1960s, when he was a correspondent in east Africa. What they wanted from him was mainly information about US companies and organisations, not least the CIA.

Kapuscinski acquiesced – clearly without any big pangs of guilty conscience. (He didn’t believe in journalistic objectivity: while at the front in Angola he sometimes participated in the fighting.) As he himself saw it, the US was supporting almost any regime, no matter how morally or politically corrupt, so long as they could be classified as anti-communist. Why not spy on them? But at the same time Kapuscinski produced almost no intelligence of value, artfully dodged assignments and eventually used his high-level party contacts to be relieved of any further association.

Domoslawski provides perspective both on Kapuscinski’s enduring membership of the Communist party and his much more fleeting engagements for Polish intelligence, and he leaves you with a sense of what went on in the head of this man. It becomes more difficult when we turn to the other dark side of Kapuscinski, the confabulations.

Kapuscinski was prone to self-dramatisation, and also had what in the book is referred to as a “catastrophist” mindset. All this combined into a penchant for embellishing what he had seen and done. It could be seen as an all-too-human failing. But a pattern emerges. Especially after Kapuscinski had become a celebrated world reporter, many of these confabulations became a part of his persona. No, he didn’t befriend Che Guevara – he hadn’t even met him. But that “fact” and others like it were repeated in high-profile interviews and on book covers, and he never had them corrected.

The pattern is really problematic when it comes to his own background as a party member. Kapuscinski had several occasions to discuss this – in, say, Imperium, his great book on the disintegrating Soviet Union – and use it not just simply to exculpate himself (that would have been banal) but also to help his readers understand the internal logic of that horrendous system. He never did, instead choosing to gloss over his background. It didn’t fit the image of that brave teller of uncomfortable truths – which he also was, albeit in other situations.

This leads us to the question of errors in his books. It is well known now that there are a lot, many of them small and seemingly inconsequential. But laid on top of each other they are significant.

Kapuscinski wasn’t a stickler for checking stories. He prided himself – and rightly so – for his feeling for ordinary people and his ability to talk to anyone, anywhere, but he seems to have been far too prepared to take tittle-tattle, barroom gossip and whispered rumours for fact. And if they fitted with what he called “the essence” – a tricky term – of the story he was writing, then he tended to use them. The problem is that this “essence” was ultimately grounded in his ideological view of the world.

Literary reportage is probably more of an attitude than a genre. In any case, the “literary” in “literary reportage” doesn’t absolve you of your duty to the facts. Neither is it possible, in my mind, to see it as a sliding scale, in which you are able slowly to introduce droplets of fiction into a factual text until, at a certain point, the mixture transforms into pure fiction. No, once an element of fiction is introduced into a text everything immediately turns into fiction – maybe fiction with a strong resemblance to the real world, but still fiction.

As Domoslawski sees it, the well-known figure of “Ryszard Kapuscinski” was one of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s literary achievements. But, at the same time, this insightful book reminds us that we reveal ourselves too in our evasions and confabulations and, indeed, that the distortions of reality are an important part of the image of reality.

Regardless, Kapuscinski’s talent was undeniable. I still love his books.

Peter Englund is the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. He is author of ‘The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War’ (Profile)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.