Ryszard Kapuscinski

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Ryszard Kapuscinski
Ryszard Kapuscinski © Irmi Long

Article

Reporter of the Century

Ryszard Kapuscinski, born in 1932 and nominated "Polish Reporter of the Century" in 1999 describes his self styled genre as "literary reportage" employing literary techniques as a means of reporting. "My writing is a combination of three elements", Kapuscinski said in an interview in 1997. "The first is travel, as exploration, as a purpose. The second is reading. The third is reflection, which comes from travel and reading." Kapuscinski´s strength is his unerring eye for details. "You can show almost everything by the aid of details", he says. In a sequel of short, impressionistic chapters, Kapuscinski concentrates small, everyday details into evocative miniatures, which allow views on political circumstances and makes them readable. Therefore each of these vignettes becomes a metaphor of the transition itself.
Ryszard Kapuscinski was born in the Polish village of Pinsk, now in Belarus, from where he fled to Warsaw with his family at the onset of the war. After the war he studied Polish History at Warsaw University. In 1951 he started writing articles for the youth-magazine ´Sztandar Mlodych´ (Banner of Youth). In 1955 he travelled on his first assignment to Asia to report from the conference of non-aligned states in Java. From 1956 to 1957 he reported from extended travels to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Japan and China. In 1958 he was deployed by the Polish news agency PAP on his first posting to Africa where he worked as regular correspondent for PAP from 1962 until 1967. Subsequently from 1967 until 1972 Kapuscinski was posted to Latin America. Between 1972 and 1980 he travelled extensively through Africa, Asia and Latin America.

His books extend mere journalist coverage and present a mixed account of events where elements of orthodox reportage and essay are blended with passages of lyrical prose and historical references. Kapuscinski describes his genre as "literary reportage" employing literary techniques as means of reporting. "My writing is a combination of three elements", Kapuscinski said in an interview with the American ´Journal of the International Institute´ in 1997. "The first is travel, travel as exploration, as concentration, as a purpose. The second is reading literature on the subject. The third is reflection, which comes from travel and reading."

Kapuscinski explains his vast popularity in Poland in the 1960s as a result of the limited sources under communist rule and the fascination of his fellow Poles with the new post-colonial Africa. Poles perceived a certain similarity of experience as a country ´colonised´ in turn by Russians, Prussians and Soviets. Moreover as Poland´s only foreign correspondent in Africa Kapuscinski provided an exotic window or outlet into a world beyond Eastern Europe´s socialist realities in the international context of the Cold War.

Another crucial feature of his early books was the use of ´Aesopian´ writing, the technique of putting layers of second meanings into an official text whereby another subtext becomes visible. Kapuscinski´s most famous book, the reportage-novel, ´The Emperor´ about the decline of Haile Selassie´s anachronistic regime in Ethiopia was published in 1978 and owed its huge success in Poland to the fact that the account of the emperor and his court was read as a parable of the Central Committee under Gierek.

With the American publication of ´The Emperor´ in 1993 Kapuscinski finally gained popularity in the West. The book became a national bestseller in the US and in the UK´s ´Sunday Times´, British author Salman Rushdie declared ´The Emperor´ his book of the year. In 1978/79 Kapuscinski wrote ´King of Kings´ about the fall of the Pahlavi regime and the Islamic revolution in Iran, which was published in 1982.

Kapuscinski´s strength is his unerring eye for details. "You can show almost everything by the aid of details", he says. In a sequel of short, impressionistic chapters Kapuscinski concentrates small, everyday details into evocative miniatures, which allow views on political circumstances and make them readable. Therefore each of these vignettes becomes a metaphor of the transition itself.

Kapuscinski´s approach to his subject is fundamentally different to what American journalist Robert Kaplan once called ´Land-Rover-journalism´ of hastily deployed short-stay divisions of journalists into crisis areas. Kapuscinski believes journalists have the responsibility to be spokespeople for those they portray. He was often forced to become more thoroughly involved and to find his own way in the countries he reported from, because as a Pole he didn´t possess the financial and logistical resources of his Western colleagues.

"In the electronic age, we are receiving a lot of information, but no explanation", said Kapuscinski in 2001 in an interview with the ´Independent´. "Getting to the core of a culture takes hard work and time, not three days in Rwanda or two nights in Sierra Leone. The media (is) marginalizing the Third World, removing it from our field of understanding and making it out to be a place of disquieting fighting and horror, in contrast to our own virtual pseudo-reality of consumerism."

(Translation: Michael von Assel)

Between 1989 and 1992 Kapuscinski covered the republics of the disintegrating Soviet Union and published his experiences in the book ´Empire´.

Kapuscinski has often taught as a guest lecturer at foreign universities like Bangalore, Caracas, Philadelphia and Oxford. In 1994 he stayed for a time in Berlin as guest of the German DAAD. Ryszard Kapuscinski was awarded numerous Polish and international prizes. In 1999 he was nominated ´Polish Reporter of the Century´ by the newspaper ´Gazeta Wyborcza´.
Author: Michael von Assel 

Bio

Ryszard Kapuscinski was born in the Polish village of Pinsk, now in Belarus. After the war he studied Polish History at Warsaw University. In 1951 he started writing articles for the yout- magazine ´Sztandar Mlodych´ (Banner of Youth). In 1955 he travelled on his first assignment to Asia. From 1956 to 1957 he reported from extensive travels to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Japan and China. In 1958 he was deployed by the Polish news agency PAP on his first posting to Africa where he worked as regular correspondent for PAP from 1962 until 1967. Subsequently from 1967 until 1972 Kapuscinski was posted to Latin America. Between 1972 and 1980 he made extensive journeys through Africa, Asia and Latin America. With the American publication of ´The Emperor´ in 1993 Kapuscinski finally gained popularity in the West. In 1982 ´King of Kings´ about the Islamic revolution in Iran was published. Between 1989 and 1992 Kapuscinski covered the republics of the disintegrating Soviet Union and published his experiences in the book ´Empire´. He often taught as a guest lecturer at foreign universities like Bangalore, Caracas, Philadelphia and Oxford. In 1994 he stayed for a time in Berlin as guest of the German DAAD. In 1999 Ryszard Kapuscinski was nominated ´Polish Reporter of the Century´ by the newspaper ´Gazeta Wyborcza´.

Ryszard Kapuscinski died on January 23, 2007 in Warsaw.

Works

The Other

Published Written,
2008
Verso

The Cobra’s Heart

Published Written,
2007
Penguin Classics

I Wrote Stone: The Selected Poetry of Ryszard Kapuscinski

Published Written,
2007
Biblioasis

Travels with Herodotus

Published Written,
2007
Alfred A. Knopf

Our responsibilities in a multicultural world

Published Written,
2002
Essays. The Judaica Foundation: Cracow

The Shadow of the Sun

Published Written,
2001
Essays. Allen Lane: London

Imperium

Published Written,
1994
Essays. Knopf: New York 1994

The best of Granta reportage

Published Written,
1993
Essays. Granta: London

The Soccer War

Published Written,
1990
Essays. Granta Books: London 1990

Another Day of Life

Published Written,
1987
Essays. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: San Diego

Shah of Shahs

Published Written,
1985
Essays. Quartet Books: London

Emperor. The Downfall of an Autocrat

Published Written,
1983
Essays. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: San Diego

Merits

1994
Award on European Understanding of the Leipzig Book Fair
1999
Hanseatic Goethe award of the Alfred-Töpfer Foundation
1999
Nominated ´Polish Journalist of the Century´ of the Newspaper ´Gazeta Wyborcza´
2000
Premio Viareggio
2003
Premio Grinzane Cavour
The Prince of Asturias Prize
Bruno Kreisky Prize

Www

Article in the Guardian

Poland´s ace reporter Ryszard Kapuściński accused of fiction-writing
New book claims journalist repeatedly crossed boundary between reportage and fiction-writing

(2 March 2010) by Luke Harding

Article in Times Literary Supplement

At play in the bush of ghosts - Tropical baroque, African reality and the work of Ryszard Kapuściński

(July 27, 2001) by JOHN RYLE

Obituary on CNN

Third World chronicler Kapuscinski dies
(January 23, 2007) by Reuters news ageny

Article in New Perspectives Quarterly (NPQ)

Encountering the Other: The Challenge for the 21st Century - opening lecture at Jagiellonian University, Krakow (2005)