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Ryszard Kapuscinski – a life of a reporter

By Hanna Gil
Posted January 27, 2007


“Fear is a feeling everyone has. But the difference is some can dominate fear and others can't. If you want to be there, in a place, if you have to be there, and you're so dedicated to really reaching your goal you don't think about the fear. And when you're in a dangerous situation, it always looks more dangerous from afar than from inside."

These are the words of Ryszard Kapuscinski (pronounced 'Kah-poosh-CHIN-skee'), a well-known Polish writer and journalist who was considered a prime candidate to a literary Nobel Prize in 2006. But he never received it -  Kapuscinski passed away on January 23, 2007 in Warsaw.  

For Poles, especially for those who were born in a communist system, he was not only a very good writer but also a moral authority. People saw in Kapuscinski’s books a view of the world as a “global village”, a place where people’s emotions and problems were somehow similar and connected regardless of their home country. These books, especially “The Emperor”, (on Haile Selassie), “The Shah of Shahs” (on the last Shah of Iran), “The Soccer War” (on Latin America and Africa), “Another Day of Life,” (about Portugal's withdrawal from Angola in 1975) “Imperium” (on the fall of the Soviet Union) and “Ebony” (about Africa) are translated into many languages. His latest book “Travels with Herodotus”, in part an autobiography, in part meditations on world civilizations invoked by Kapuscinski’s life-long fascination with “The Histories by Herodotus” who Kapuscinski considered to be world’s first reporter, is to be published in English translation by Knopf in June 2007. 

Kapuscinski was a first rate reporter, who visited more than one hundred countries and witnessed 27 coups, revolutions and national upheavals. He was sentenced to death four times. Once, his execution did not succeed because the soldier ordered to shoot him was too drunk to do it. Kapuscinski kept going to the places that were always considered to be dangerous; not to fulfill his desire for the adrenaline rush, but to see the people there, be with them, eat their food, walk on their streets and smell the same air. He was not a hero and got often sick and lost. His modesty was almost anecdotic, for example his usual greeting when meeting with friends was ‘I am sorry to bother you”. A short, quiet man, still using a typewriter instead of a computer, he was somehow out of place in today’s news world where the fastest, most sensational information is considered to be better than a thorough analysis of the political events.  

Kapuscinski was born in 1932 in Pinsk, a small village that today belongs to Byelorussia. He was seven when he saw the first planes bombarding the fields.  Much later he said: "I think partially it was my childhood. This was the poorest part of Europe, still is. My parents were schoolteachers but when the war came there was terrible hunger, poverty, the winter was coming, and I had no shoes. I know what it means to have no shoes, I know what it means not to eat for several days, I know what it means when there's shooting. So in places like Africa I feel very much at home. I understand them, and I communicate with those situations. I'm empathetic." And again, another interesting memory of Kapuscinski’s hometown: 'It was a world of all types of people, Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Armenians, gypsies - living not necessarily in harmony but at least in proximity. You learned to feel, to sense how others lived. When I came to places like Nigeria, Angola, Iran, Brazil or Algeria, I found it easy to talk to ordinary people, to find out what was important in their lives. Everywhere was at least a little like Pinsk.' 

One of Kapuscinski’s best books is “The Emperor”, translated into English. It tells the story of the last days of Haile Selassie regime in Ethiopia. He was a ruler there for 44 years and considered a deity by Ethiopians. “The Emperor” was written based on the interviews with the king’s servants. Some of them had the strangest and grotesque occupations (like the man responsible for wiping the emperor’s dog’s “accidents” from the visitor’s shoes) yet considered them lucky. The whole families’ well beings depended on the Emperor’s whim.  For Polish readers, living under the communist regime at the time when “The Emperor” was written, such a story evoked inevitable comparisons between Ethiopia and any country where a strong political party imposed its will on the ordinary citizens. 

Another good book, also translated into English (and 18 other languages but not into Russian) is “Imperium”. Kapuscinski wrote it after traveling for many months through the area of former Soviet Union. Here are his words: “One of the things that caught my attention as I wandered through the territory of the Imperium was the way that, even in abandoned and derelict little towns, even in almost empty bookstores, there were on sale, as a rule, maps of this country. On those maps, the rest of the world was somehow in the background, in the margins, in the shadows. For Russians, a map is a kind of visual compensation, a special emotional sublimation, and also an object of unconcealed pride. It also serves to elucidate and excuse all shortcomings, mistakes, poverty and stagnation. ‘Too big a country to be reformable!’ explains an opponent of reform. ‘Too big a country to be able to clean it up!’ janitors shrug their shoulders from Brest to Vladivostok. ‘Too big a country to be able to ship merchandise everywhere!’ grumble the assistants in empty shops.” 

Although the most successful books by Kapuscinski were those where he showed his skill as an insightful reporter, there is another side of his writings: poetry and short, philosophical musings, combined in a series called “Lapidarium”. Once again, Kapuscinski proved his sensitivity as a writer and as a human. 

One of my friends, Aldona Swierczewski, after learning about Kapuscinski’s death told me: ‘Sometimes I think that all great minds are immortal. There won’t be any new books written by Kapuscinski. He was my favorite Polish writer and a favorite personality.  His modesty was as evident as his talent. I will miss him …” 

We all will.

Hanna Gil was born in Poland and has been living in the US for the last 21 years. She shares Kapuscinski’s opinion that “before you write one page on any subject, you should already have read one hundred pages written by others on the same subject”. Hanna is a founder and a moderator for the Polish Book Club in Seattle, an informal group of people reading Polish language books and meeting once a month to discuss them. More information about the Polish Book Club is located here:

The club members have read and discussed the original Polish edition of “Travels with Herodotus” by Ryszard Kapuscinski in May 2005.

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