Ryszard Kapuscinski: a great writer but a lousy journalist
Last night I discussed the work of the famous Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski with his biographer, Artur Domoslawski on the Radio 3 programme Night Waves.
Kapuscinski’s books on the fall of dictators, including The Emperor, which is about Haile Selassie , and Shah of Shahs about Iran are regarded by many as classics. The writing has an amazing power to evoke place and time.
I remember loving The Emperor when I read it in the early 1980s, soon after visiting Ethiopia for the first time. The stories of he told of the disintegration of the royal court were compelling, extraordinary, incredible.
When I wrote a book about Colonel Gaddafi last year, I found myself frequently thinking of Kapuscinski and his technique of accumulating detail, highlighting the absurd excesses of dictatorship and talking to the powerless. I have no doubt his style and method influenced me.
But there any ‘homage’ must end, because while Kapuscinski may have been a great writer, he was a lousy journalist.
His writing was most effectively dissected in 2001 in a piece in the Times Literary Supplement by the anthropologist and writer John Ryle.
He pointed out that the archaic language Kapuscinski puts in the mouths of Haile Selassie’s former courtiers bears no relationship to the way they would have spoken. It was a literary device. He amalgamated and probably even invented characters.
The new biography catalogues numerous examples of the great man pretending to have been in places where he couldn’t possibly have been, claiming to have met people he never met – Che Guevara, for example – and generally committing the ultimate journalistic crime of making things up.
Domoslawski’s explanation is that The Emperor is in fact not about Ethiopia but an allegory about Poland. Well, tell that to the Ethiopians. This pseudo history of their country has become the standard account for many aficionados of literary non-fiction.
Ah well, say his defenders, Kapuscinski survives as a great cutural interpreter. The Kenyan writer Binyawanga Wainaina disagrees, describing him as a racist who makes gross generalisations about Africa and Africans.
“Let us remember that fear of revenge is deeply rooted in the African mentality,” wrote Kapuscinski in one of his later works. Other generalisations are oddly specific, but equally untrue. “Africans eat only once a day, in the evening.”
Where does it leave those of us who loved Kapuscinski’s writing? “He lied and his readers should know,” said one of my journalist friends. “But as I look back at his books with all his beautiful sentences and amazing perceptions, and how they inspired me to be a reporter in Africa, I forgive him.”
I cannot be so forgiving. Reading the biography I concluded that he was a compulsive liar, a man who told serial untruths to his wife, his readers and probably to himself. Without being precious about it, I believe that my first duty as a journalist is to be honest about what I have witnessed and heard.
Julian Barnes has written about “producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts,” but he was describing the superiority of fiction over journalism. Kapuscinski’s work can be catagorised as allegory, novel, fantasy, or magic realism, but he cannot anymore be a role model for aspiring journalists.
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