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Partiality vs Impartiality — Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life reviewed in the Independent and the Observer

Elena Greer23 August 2012

This week Artur Domoslawski’s Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life featured as the Independent’s Book of the Week and was also reviewed in the Observer.

Marek Kohn, writing in the Independent, focuses on one of the most compelling revelations of the book that,

It remains clear that whatever else [Kapuściński] may have been, he really was a communist.

Thus he points out that, as a reporter, ‘he was neither neutral nor independent’, concealing information when it clashed with his ideological aims such as the fact that:

In Angola he learned that Cubans were assisting the leftist MPLA, a development that could have provoked Western intervention, but kept quiet about it.

His political motivations also coloured his famous account of the court of Haile Selassie in The Emperor which:

with its strategy of allusion allowed it to illuminate the murky discourse of a Soviet satellite state, but Ethiopians were entitled to feel that this had been done by making a mockery of their society.

Ultimately though, Kohn notes that despite the fact that Domosławksi ‘fires off questions like distress flares’, he is nonetheless, ‘a reluctant judge’ leaving ‘surfaces unsmoothed and the edges jagged’.  As a result, perhaps of this lack of bias, Kohn’s own judgment is that Domoslawski’s biography has warmed his feelings for Kapuściński:

For after years of ominous hints, it appears that although Kapuscinski’s transgressions were legion, they were low-level.  He spun false impressions rather than flagrant lies.

Visit the Independent to read the review in full. 

Ian Birrell’s review in The Observer also highlights Domoslawski’s impartiality and determination to present his subject objectively despite the revelations that many of Kapuscinski’s journalistic claims are likely to be fabrications or embellishments of the truth. 

What makes it so interesting is that the author does not shred Kapuscinski’s reputation, nor does he ignore the mounds of uncomfortable evidence.  Instead he peels away and probes with deep understanding, producing not just a fascinating biography of an important writer but also a subtle study of life under authoritarianism, with all the complexities that entails.

This latter observation refers to Domoslawski’s contextualisation of Kapuscinkski’s upbringing and youth in the turbulent atmosphere of wartime and communist Poland.

In this vein, Robert Manne, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald notes that this contextualization also serves another purpose for, he writes, Domoslawski’s book is not ‘mere biography’ and that the author,

understands that an account of Kapuscinski’s life necessarily involves an exploration of how the younger generation of Poles ought to judge those entangled in the country’s communist era.

Birrell, the Observer, sums up by reiterating the breadth and complexity of Domoslawski’s endeavor by asserting that:

On one level this is a devastating indictment of a fraudulent journalist and flawed human being, one who made possibly too many compromises with a tawdry system.  But it is also a portrait of a courageous and sympathetic writer whose hard-grafted prose was unusually poetic and who possessed rare insight into the swirling forces that shape society.

Visit the Observer to read Ian Birrell’s review in full.

Consolidating this impression, Robert Manne concludes by stating that:

Above all else, as he shows in the many haunting Kapuściński passages he chooses to reproduce, Domosławksi understands that his subject is one of a handful of 20th - century political writers whose work might still interest readers in 100 years’ time.  For that, he knows, very much can be forgiven.

Visit the Sydney Morning Herald for the full review.


Filed under: reviews