Authors: Ryszard Kapuściński

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Polish journalist and essayist


Ryszard Kapuściński (kah-pewsh-CHEEN-skee), a journalist, was among the most trenchant observers of the Third World and its modern revolutions. The son of two schoolteachers, Jozef and Maria Bobka Kapuściński, he experienced the upheavals of World War II in his homeland, but it was his native city Pinsk, not the war, that he credited with nurturing the ability he possessed to understand widely different parts of the world. Being reared with Jews, Poles, Armenians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Gypsies in close proximity, if not harmony, allowed him to experience how others lived and, he claims, to develop the empathy necessary to talk with ordinary people in the Third World.{$I[AN]9810000950}{$I[A]Kapu{sacute}ci{nacute}ski, Ryszard[Kapuscinski, Ryszard]}{$I[geo]POLAND;Kapu{sacute}ci{nacute}ski, Ryszard[Kapuscinski, Ryszard]}{$I[tim]1932;Kapu{sacute}ci{nacute}ski, Ryszard[Kapuscinski, Ryszard]}

Kapuściński began his journalism career while still a student at the University of Warsaw, writing for Sztandar Mlodych (banner of youth) from 1951 to 1958. In 1952, he received an M.A. from the University of Warsaw, and he married Alicja Mielczarek, a pediatrician, in October of the same year. He honed his skills in political analysis writing for Polityka, a political/cultural weekly, from 1959 to 1961. Then in 1962, when he published his first book, Busz po Polsku (the bush Polish style), he began his productive career as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Asia, and Latin America for the Polish Press Agency. That position signaled a turning point in his career, for thereafter he would write primarily about the Third World. Beginning in 1962, he lived in or passed through more than a hundred countries, witnessing, recording, and analyzing coups, revolutions, and various national upheavals.

The book that first brought Kapuściński international attention was The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, a haunting collage-style reconstruction of the end of Haile Selassie’s reign in Ethiopia. Written from the perspective of palace insiders, including minor princes and the royal pillow bearer, this fascinating work is neither journalism nor critical history but a selective record of an imperial court in its final years as seen by its courtiers. Through Kapuściński, they describe their own world as it was, one of routines as rigidly exact and comic as the those of the court of Versailles. Haile Selassie is revealed as maintaining his authority–until its sudden, humiliating end in 1974–by keeping the court confused about his intentions and by appointing second-rate individuals to high positions. According to insiders, the “King of Kings preferred bad ministers . . . there can only be one sun.” While various toadies, flatterers, and servants went about their archaic comedy, the emperor, in the 1960’s, belatedly attempted to preserve the crown and stave off political reform with rapid economic development. Through Kapuściński’s carefully constructed vignettes, the courtiers detail this disastrous program. Foreign contractors swooped in to build bridges and dams. The security services moved into high gear, and the army consumed 40 percent of the annual budget. Students who were sent abroad to study returned so radical that the university came to be seen as an “anti-Palace.”

Many reviewers regarded The Emperor as an allegorical or cautionary tale, noting that it was published in Poland two years before the government of Edward Gierek was ended by the shipyard workers’ strikes and Solidarity, the Polish workers’ union, emerged. Kapuściński, who was a member of Solidarity before it was illegalized, also believes that the book’s popularity in part was a result of readers everywhere assuming that the description of a declining autocrat fit the totalitarian leaders they hated the most. The double meanings found in The Emperor are the product of meticulous editing and sequencing of conversations that result in both an artful document and a parable of despotic rule.

Kapuściński published several books between 1962 and 1982, most dealing with the Third World. After leaving his job with the Polish Press Agency in 1972, he worked as a freelance journalist before becoming deputy editor-in-chief of Kultura, a weekly magazine (1974-1981). By the mid-1970’s, he had been granted several awards, including the Bolesław Prus Prize for general achievement from the Polish Journalists Association (1975), the State Prize for Literature (1976), and the International Prize from the International Journalists Organization (1976). In 1981, he was made vice chairman of the Committee of Prognosis and Research at the Polish Academy of Science in Warsaw. He worked as a lecturer and freelance writer, focusing on history and power as subjects. In 1986, he was a visiting lecturer on the Third World at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford. In 1998, he published The Shadow of the Sun, which reprises his forty years of reporting from Africa. Kapuściń died in his native Poland, in Warsaw on January 23, 2007.

In all of Kapuściński’s writings, the novelist’s eye, rather than the journalist’s, prevails. This idiosyncratic eye, which candidly records observations in impressionistic and anecdotal ways, is closer to the work of Graham Greene or V. S. Naipaul, but it is more sympathetic than their work or the cynical judgments that characterize typical journalistic accounts of Third World wars and revolutions. His implicit aim was to make sense of the tragedy of modern conflicts by understanding the workers, peasants, and leaders who are its actors. Rather than telling the reader about complex social conditions that lead to social upheaval, Kapuściński created theater from them. He used the voices of participants–a sort of verbal snapshot–to illustrate their motivations. Through the careful slicing of fragments of people’s voices relating their own experiences, Kapuściński achieved the reader’s empathy with the storytellers living through revolution or war. In Shah of Shahs, in a section of the book entitled “Daguerreotypes,” one of the photo-voices is that of Mahmud Azari, who after eight years in London returns in 1977 to a Tehran he hardly recognizes. The capital city, once home to a quiet, courteous population, is inhabited by edgy, quarrelsome individuals who refuse to converse publicly, who suspect all fellow citizens–whether eating at an adjoining table in a restaurant or waiting in line at a bus stop–of being secret police agents (SAVAK), and who burst out angrily for no reason at all, cursing one another in the streets. Such vignettes set the stage for Iran’s rejection of its shah’s regime.

By detailing tragedy, both individual and national, Kapuściński takes the reader on tense journeys through war-torn African bush, into Central American combat zones, and into Third World capitals on the eve of revolution, illustrating just how fragile the sense of social order and the idea of a comprehensible world are. In The Soccer War, he demonstrated how nationalism and sports make temporary brothers of class enemies in Central America. In Another Day of Life, the death of colonial Angola is epitomized by the Portuguese desertion of Luanda, a city of packing crates, in which a way of life disappeared not because of bombardment but the “way an oasis dies when the well runs dry.” In all these tales of revolution and war, the subtheme is that, appearances to the contrary, power or the consent to govern flows upward from the governed. What Kapuściński poetically and eloquently realized through attentively chosen dialogue and metaphorically rich narrative is the chaos resulting from the eventual denial of that consent.

Kapuściński’s unique achievement was in depicting these contemporary upheavals with empathy for the people who are its agents. Unlike other European or American writers, his view was free of contempt, pity, or cynicism about the human condition. The abuse of power in rotting empires is penetratingly portrayed in its brutal and even comic aspects, but in the end ordinary citizens emerge as complex and often heroic beings. No other contemporary journalist or Western novelist achieves exactly that kind of sympathy.

BibliographyAjami, Fouad. Review of Shah of Shahs, by Ryszard Kapuściński. The New Republic 192 (April 8, 1985): 36. Praises the book’s “great economy and power” and claims that “There is a fatalism in Kapuscinski’s reportage and insights that must be the gift to him of Poland itself.”Finnegan, William. “How I Got the Story: A Collection of Reminiscences by a Polish Journalist on His 40-Year Career of Covering the Third-World.” The New York Times Book Review 106, no. 21 (May 27, 2001): 11. This mixed review of The Shadow of the Sun includes a useful overview of Kapuściński’s career as a journalist.Kapuściński, Ryszard. Interview by Bill Buford. Granta 21: The Story-Teller, March 1, 1987. An illuminating discussion.Kapuściński, Ryszard. “Ryszard Kapuściński: The Polish Journalist and Author Has Led an Active, Dangerous Life Covering Upheavals and Revolutions.” Interview by Josh Weiss. Publishers Weekly 238, no. 16 (April 5, 1991): 124. A detailed interview that provides considerable background information.
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