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“How It Felt To Be There” - Artur Domosławski’s Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life reviewed

David Eckersley 6 August 2012

Neal Ascherson, writing in the London Review of Books, has penned a long and detailed review of Artur Domosławski’s book. As someone friendly with Kapuściński and familiar with the “dilemmas of integrity and conscience that are still painful for any journalist who tried to report on the big world in the late 20th century”, his insights are particularly rewarding.

For Ascherson, Domosławski’s book is “compelling, exhaustive and often upsetting.” Presented with a thoroughly engaging, yet highly problematic picture of Kapuściński, Ascherson asserts that:

Domosławski has written a book which is three sorts of cautionary tale: about journalism engaged or disengaged, about the political maze through which intelligent Poles made their way in the later 20th century, about the endless capacity of human beings to believe their own fictions and keep secrets from themselves. He ends up still confident about Kapuściński’s stature as a writer, still attracted to the memory of him as a friend, but amazed at what he has found out. As one of Kapuściński’s former lovers said, ‘he was a complex man living in tangled times, in several eras, in various worlds.’

So why so problematic? Two things come to light: firstly, Kapuściński’s collaboration with the Polish intelligence services, and secondly, questions surrounding the veracity of much of Kapuściński’s work:

Did he make things up? Did he manufacture quotes, say he had been to places when he hadn’t, describe scenes that never happened? If so, did he tell lies in his routine reporting, as an agency man for the Polish Press Agency and Polish newspapers? Or did he reserve for his famous books a style of ‘literary reportage’ in which embroidery and even manipulation of the facts were skilfully used to create a reality ‘truer than the truth’? … How should we read books like The Emperor (based, according to him, on interviews with Haile Selassie’s courtiers after his empire had been overthrown) now that it seems unlikely that those interviews took place as he described them?

Yet, despite this evident flaw, Ascherson acknowledges:

He probably did embroider and reposition details about the fighting in Angola. But, as a reporter on one of those wars, I can say that he caught ‘how it felt to be there’ as nobody else could.

Agata Pyzik, reviewing for the Guardian, focuses on Kapuściński’s collaboration with the communist regime:

The constant speculation about the level of Kapuściński's engagement with the regime means that this biography reads at times like a John Le Carré novel. The question of identity, of image, of truth, of confabulation, shifts constantly and gains new meanings, turning the book into a quest for Kapuściński's personality. Who was he? Not even his family or close friends are really able to answer.

She describes the book as “not a conventional biography” and highlights how the biographer’s

confirmation of the reporter's close connection with various aspects of the communist order, including the intelligence services; his belief in socialist ideology; and his uneasy adaptation to post-1989 realities … has produced a rare and subtle portrait of the People's Republic of Poland.

Continuing on, she praises the author for bringing “back the authentic voice of the reporter and hero”, asserting “if only for that, it is a truly great achievement.”

In the Economist Domosławski is praised for his approach:

Mr Domosławski is not a doctrinaire anti-communist, for whom any collaboration with the regime is unforgivable treachery. Nor is he one of those who prizes the beauty of Kapuscinski's prose over his professional lapses. Mr Domoslawski was a friend of the great man; but resolved to treat his life as a subject for serious inquiry, setting out with an open mind and detailed knowledge, and adding more insights and evidence along the way…The result is an exemplary explanation of what made Kapuscinski tick.

Visit the London Review of Books to read Neal Ascherson’s review in full.

Visit the Guardian to read Agata Pyzik’s review in full.

Visit the Economist to read the review in full. 

Filed under: reviews