Afterthoughts on the death of a fearless journalist with the spirit of a poet

Afterthoughts on the death of a fearless journalist with the spirit of a poet 
Tirana Times -

By Alba Çela 

Exactly one month ago Ryszard Kapuscinski died. I have read only one book from him, Another Day of Life. I think I have read the one who carries in the title a metaphor for his life. The humanity with which he met the world’s cruelest happenings, with which he observed evilness and wickedness, war and devastation, poverty and misery was to him the normal way. Every day was another day of life. One to tell. One to expose to the world. With the right fearless journalism spirit. With a touch of magic. 

My friend, Slavenka Drakulic, a well-known Croatian writer used to tell me stories about him around dinner table. The stories were a bit scary, and tasteless for a dinner table. On one of his trips, Kapuscinski had encountered a weird parasite that had entered his skin. There was no cure for it. For the rest of his life he would breed the parasite who could as well crawl out of his skin at any moment and then crawl back in. His body would never be able to eliminate it. Who did one of the world’s best pen-people react to that? Just one of the job perks – he would say. 

Rarely one finds the dedication and fearlessness of such a committed explorer. Born in Poland and never professionally trained as a journalist, he became a real globe-trotter in search for the truth, the radical real truth, the story behind the scene, the whole story, the disgusting pars of it, the darkest parts of it. Where others would stop and hesitate, Kapuscinski would progress forward. One had to do it, and he believed he was the one. Eventually he did become the voice of the Angolians trapped in the absurdness of a civil war, of the victims of big power politics in the Middle East, of cruel imperial leaders soaked in blood, the soccer fans caught in state conflicts in Latin America, the confused eastern Russians woken up from the long nightmare of communism. 

Out of all the places he wrote about, Africa stands out in his writing. In his own words, “Africa has its own personality. Sometimes it is a sad personality, sometimes impenetrable, but always unrepeatable. Africa was dynamic. It was aggressive, on the attack.” And he liked that. 

His fascination with Africa brings to mind another marvelous writer which Kapucisnki himself considered Polish, Joseph Conrad. Just like Conrad, Kapucinki explored the depth of the heart of darkness. 

Kapuscinski would be at pains when asked to describe his style, his genre, his curious mix of magique realism with factual essayistic journalism. In an interview he tried to make out a synthesis of all the things eh had put in his magic soup. “My writing is a combination of three elements. The first is travel: not travel like a tourist, but travel as exploration, as concentration, as a purpose. The second is reading literature on the subject: books, articles, scholarship. The third is reflection, which comes from travel and reading. My books are created from a combination of these three elements.” 

For Kapuscinski, writing was about risk—about risking everything. And that the value of the writing is not in what you publish but in its consequences. If you set out to describe reality, then the influence of the writing is upon reality- he said. 

My work as an agency journalist is important, because all my books developed from the experiences I had. My responsibility was always to cover an event: to locate the geopolitical story, and as quickly as possible send a cable down the line with its details. It was straightforward journalism, nothing more, nothing less. But once I had sent the cable, I was always left with a feeling of inadequacy. I had only covered the political event, and not really conveyed the deeper, and, I felt, truer nature of what was going on. And this sense of dissatisfaction remained with me each time I returned to Poland. You can always find two versions of my work. The first version is what I do when I’m in the field: it’s all in the cables, the stories filed. The second version is what I write later, and that expresses what I actually felt, what I lived through, the reflections surrounding the simple news story. You know, a press cable is a very conservative medium for conveying news. We are always limited: by the number of words, by the time we can get on the machine, by the money, by the information that the newspapers back home want to receive. But the realities we face, especially in the Third World, are so much richer, more complicated, than a newspaper will ever allow us to report. It is not the story that is not getting expressed: it’s what surrounds the story. The climate, the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town, the smell; the thousand, thousand elements of reality that are part of the event you read about in 600 words in your morning paper. Story is the beginning. It is half of the achievement. But it is not complete until you, as the writer, become part of it. As a writer, you have experienced this event on your own skin, and it is your experience, this feeling along the surface of your skin. 

Kapuscinski, Granta interview 

His death leaves me with on single thought: Kapuscinski is a compulsive experience in life. 

Ryszard Kapuscinski was born in 1932 in Pinsk in eastern Poland. He was educated in Warsaw and at the age of twenty-three he was posted to India, his first trip outside Poland. His first book, The Polish Bush, stories of the Polish frontier, appeared in 1962 and was an immediate bestseller. He has since traveled widely throughout the Third World; storing up, as he once said in an interview, the experiences for the books that would come later. The first of these books, published in 1968, was based on a journey through Russia. This was followed by books on Africa, Latin America and South Africa. 

His first book to be translated into English was The Emperor, based on the last days of Haile Selassie and subsequently made into a play produced by Jonathan Miller. His other books in English include Another Day of Life about the war in Angola, and Shah of Shahs, based on the Revolution in Iran. The story of his travels across the dying empire of the Soviet Union in 1989 was narrated in the Imperium and his eye-witness account of the emergence of the Third World during his time as the Polish Press Agency’s only foreign correspondent in The Soccer War. His most recent book is Travels with Herodotus.