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A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Reportage

Mikołaj Gliński

Polish non-fiction writing, made famous by Kapuściński, is often considered a national speciality, along with pickled cucumbers and kiełbasa. But what is so special about this literary dish? Where does it come from and how does one actually eat it?

The most famous Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuściński, photo: Aleksander Jałosinski / Forum
Famous Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuściński, photo: Janusz Sobolewski/ Forum

Why did reportage become such a popular writing style in Poland?

Who were the founding fathers of Polish reportage?

Is reportage fact or fiction?

Why is the Holocaust a classic theme of Polish reportage?

What are the main characteristics of reportage in Poland?

What is the political subtext in Polish reportage?

What are the essential elements of reportage?

How did reportage change after 1989?

Why are Polish reporters writing from abroad?

What are the best reportages available in English?

Seven years after the death of its most famous representative, Ryszard Kapuściński, Polish reportage is nevertheless gaining momentum. With growing book sales, reportage festivals bursting into bloom all over the country, and the International Kapuściński Award now in its 5th year, Poland may seem like the Eldorado of reportage. Book publishers specializing in non-fiction can expect good sales, especially in comparison to other segments of the shaky Polish publishing business, with books by Hanna Krall, definitely not easy reads, regularly selling around 20 thousand copies. And two years ago a controversial biography of Ryszard Kapuściński by Artur Domosławski (himself a reporter) sold over 130 thousand copies and caused a national debate (See below). Now, with the publication of the impressive 1800-page long and over 3-kilo heavy Anthology of Polish Reportage of the 20th century, Polish reportage has also gained a general overview which offers answers to many vital questions, like how it all started.

Why did reportage become such a popular writing style in Poland?

Ryszard Kapuściński, Warsaw, 1981, photo: Krzysztof Wójcik / Forum

Poland has a long tradition of non-fiction writing referred to as reportage or, as it is also called, literary reportage. This dates back to the second half of the 19th century, as some of the most important writers of the period, like Władysław Reymont and Bolesław Prus, many of them active also as journalists, wrote articles for newspapers which could be considered early reportage writing. But the recently published Anthology of Polish Reportage 100/XX, which brings together the 100 best reportage pieces of the 20th century, surprisingly begins with a reportage by Janusz Korczak. Korczak, who went on to become one of the most famous pedagogues of the 20th century, was also a brilliant writer, and his 1900 reportage piece from Warsaw's Powiśle district – an area notorious for its poverty at turn of the centuries - is a testimony to that.

Who were the founding fathers of Polish reportage?

Melchior Wańkowicz, 1972, Warszawa, fot. Aleksander Jałosiński / Forum
Melchior Wańkowicz, 1972, Warszawa, fot. Aleksander Jałosiński / Forum

As the editor of the volume (actually of the two big volumes) and also a reporter, Mariusz Szczygieł points out that the critical approach to reality embraced by these early 20th century writers is the result of Poland gaining independence in 1918. The greatest Polish reporter of the interwar period, known as the father of Polish reportage, Melchior Wańkowicz, is credited today with developing the so-called mosaic-theory. It argues that preparing a literary reportage may be compared to assembling a patchwork of factual components. According to this theory, the reporter, although he obviously cannot invent material, can 'combine' the facts and people he has observed or met. In a famous book-length interview which Wańkowicz gave towards the end of his life, the old reporter revealed that one the literary  construction of some of characters found in his books could have included elements taken from lives of several other figures, including Wańkowicz himself. 

As its in Wańkowicz's 1936 book Na tropach Smętka, a quasi-reportage from his 1935 canoe trip in the then German Mazury area (part of East Prussia at that time) inspired much debate about its generic identity, neither fiction nor pure reportage. It also drew much attention to the problematic relations between Polish and German communities in East Prussia immediately before WW II.

Thus, for Wańkowicz, the reporter  can amalgamate many different elements in order to show the 'essential'  truth  of the period which Wańkowicz repetedly and insistently distinguished from the documentary truth. Wańkowicz also defied a popular non-fiction axiom that the reporter should be witness to at least some of the events about which he writes. His famous WW II reportages from Westerplatte or  the occupied Warsaw and the Warsaw Uprising (Ziele na kraterze) have become classics of Polish non-fiction despite the fact that the writer spent most of the war outside the country, and returned to Poland only in 1958.

His most famous book in Poland today is the Battle of Monte Cassino, which was a first-hand account of one of the most important battles with Polish soldiers in the West.

Read more about Wańkowicz

Is reportage fact or fiction?

Wańkowicz's approach to factual material was taken over and developed by the founding fathers of the so-called Polish School of Reportage, like Kapuściński, Krall and Kąkolewski, or the Three K’s, as they are sometimes called. Kapuściński who was one of the most famous war reporters of the 20th century, reporting from some of the most dangerous conflicts of the 20th century, like the civil war in Angola (Another Day of Life), Ethiopia (The Emperor - about Haile Selassie), Iran (Shah of Shahs, about the fall of Reza Pahlavi) became famous for writing that was full of dramatic tension and adventure, qualities that undoubtedly brought him close to the Nobel Prize. However, in 2012, these same qualities made Artur Domosławski, author of Kapuściński Non-Fiction (translated as Kapuściński: A Life), question the limits of truth and fiction in his writing. Domosławski argued that there are many factual inaccuracies and the like in the most famous books of  Poland's number 1 reporter. He even wondered if some of them shouldn't be actually considered novels. Is Kapuściński in his reportages the ‘real’ Kapuściński? Or is he a literary figure? Was Kapuściński the creator of his own legend? - these are the questions asked by Domosławski,

The book, which eventually sold over 130 thousand copies, raised questions about the authenticity of Kapuściński’s reporting and the ultimate borders of non-fiction writing.

Why is the Holocaust a classic theme of Polish reportage?

Hanna Krall, fot. Włodzimierz Wasyluk
Hanna Krall, fot. Włodzimierz Wasyluk

Though Kapuściński stands today as one of the founding fathers of the so-called Polish School of Reportage, the fact is that he may not be the most important of them. At around the same time, Poland had at least two reporters whose impact on the development of Polish reportage may have been even greater.

Hanna Krall and Krzysztof Kąkolewski were the two authors who, rather than exploring global political conflicts, delved into the Polish past, or to be more exact, depicted how this past is reflected in modern days. Interestingly, for both Krall and Kąkolewski it was the Second World War, with the attempted extermination of the Jewish people and the survival of some of the culprits, that became one of the key topics of their writings. Kąkolewski's 1975 book Co u pana słychać? was based on his interviews with German war criminals who went on living their lives. Hanna Krall’s 1977 Zdążyć przed panem Bogiem (English title: Shielding the Flame) was a groundbreaking interview with Marek Edelman, the last living leader of the Ghetto Uprising. For Krall, the Jewish WW2 experience also became the topic of most of her subsequent books.

Małgorzata Szejnert’s book Śród żywych duchów features a similar approach to reality as it investigates the tragic fate of the victims of the communist regime in the 1950’s. Their fate was very much deleted from the collective memory of the nation at the time of the book’s publication (London, 1990). The subject of Szejnert’s investigation surprisingly returned in 2012 when IPN (The Institute of National Remembrance) started excavation works at Warsaw's Powązki Cemetery, a secret burial place for many of the victims.  

This approach that mixes past and present, or rather, chooses to see the present in the lens of the traumatic events of the past (especially the wartime past), seems to be another characteristic trait of Polish reportage. It seems plausible that reportage offers the best representation of the complexity of Polish history. The most recent reminiscence of this kind of writing is perhaps the latest decision of the jury at the 5th International Kapuściński Award. See the 2014 Kapuściński Award.

What are the main characteristics of  reportage in Poland?

One of the qualities often identified as characteristic of Polish reportage, is ‘a certain predilection for places and events that appear banal, but which reveal shadows…that only an attentive observer knows how to perceive’ (Colier). According to reporters like Krall and Kąkolewski, the banal may be the starting point and often the material of reportage. And it is through the story of one person that one can show the entire world.

Krall and Kąkolewski’s books became famous for their use of literary devices. This may be surprising at first, as Krall and Kąkolewski are often presented as paragons of stylistic austerity (German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki famously called Krall “so laconic, that by comparison Hemingway is nearly a chatterbox”). In fact, this ‘laconicity’ hides a whole array of literary devices.

Kazimierz Wolny-Zmorzyński, a scholar specializing in Polish non-fiction, explains this literary over-use in terms of the specific political conditions under the Communist regime within which the government was imposing certain modes of speaking about reality:

- One couldn't share their opinions directly, the way one felt it, one couldn't point to the evils present in the authoritarian system, in fact, truth couldn't be really represented. So they used camouflage.

Camouflage, metaphor, and allusion was the name of the game. Susan Greenberg, who also wrote about Polish reportage, points out to the long, post-war years of Communist censorship as a source of perverse inspiration for the writers of the former Soviet bloc, providing practice in the literary game of disguising universal meanings in the detail of the text. In Poland, says Carlier, 'since it was forbidden to criticize the system overall, it was necessary to turn towards the destinies of individuals'.

This is described by Polish reporter and diplomat Marek Garztecki:

- You wouldn’t say, ‘The government won’t provide adequate schooling for children in small towns,’ but you could write a story about one particularly bad school, in one particular town, and then the readers in other places would say ‘Ah, that is what it is like in my town, too; so that is what it must be like, all over Poland,' remembers Garztecki.

See Kapuscinsky and Beyond: The Polish School of Reportage by Susan Greenberg

The sophisticated literary idiom of Krall and Kąkolewski made their books closer to works of art, rather than classic non-fiction reporting.

Concentrating on the life of the individual, as exemplified in the texts of Krall and Kąkolewski, and as opposed to large politico-historical panoramas offered by Kapuściński, brings up another important feature of Polish reportage, namely detail. The use of detail, which sometimes may seem improbable in the context of narratives written many years after the actual events, has also become a crucial feature in Polish reportage and its theory. Its importance has been, however, repeatedly brought up by Krall (for whom it was a kind of psychological compulsion) and others.

What  is the political subtext in Polish reportage?

One of the idiosyncrasies of being a foreign reporter from behind the Iron Curtain was that everything one wrote was subject to extremely sensitive reading and interpretation. And sometimes it was actually the reporter that intended this kind of double play, or what is more often called Aesopian language.

Kuprel describes how foreign correspondents such as Kapuściński and Wojciech Giełżyński "used exotic subject matters to write about the home situation [knowing that] the home audience would ‘read’ the reportage about some distant land as an allusion to its own situation".

This obsession with allusion, as Kapuściński would later call it, governed all thinking and reading.  In this way Kapuściński’s book The Emperor, about Haile Selassie, could be read as an allusion to the administration of Edward Gierek, the 1st Secretary of the Polish Communist Party in the 70s .

But the same thing would happen at home, as was the case with Barbara Łopieńska’s reportage about taming tigers from 1977. The piece was universally read as a commentary on the Polish political reality of the time, especially since one year earlier 'eternal' Polish-Russian friendship had been introduced in the Polish Constitution.

However, one has to add that all this was possible due to the fact that Poland had the most consistently open media systems of all the Eastern European countries under Communist rule, and often served as a land-bridge between the Western and the Eastern blocks.

What are the essential elements of reportage?

Mariusz Szczygieł, photo: Krzysztof Kuczyk / Forum

So what is Polish reportage after all, as understood by the Polish School of Reportage? Here is a short definition by Mariusz Szczygieł, editor of 100/XX and one of the most accomplished contemporary reporters:

- Reportage is a story that really happened, written down. But it has to get one thinking, if it doesn't, it's not important. Reportage is about what it is, but also about something else. This something is what Hanna Krall called the Surplus [nadwyżka].

So what is the Surplus, what is this Something else that makes the reportage or, better to say, reportaż?

The theory of Surplus argues that every good reportage, apart from telling the individual and unique story of its protagonist, has also a more general subject - a universal human experience, like death, faith, hope, alienation, loneliness, or love. This means that reportage is always about something else, something bigger. We haven’t come so far from the Aesopian style, after all.

How did reportage change after 1989?

Formed in the People's Republic, the literary tradition of the 3 Ks was transmitted into more recent times largely thanks to the efforts and stamina of several people at Gazeta Wyborcza, one of the first newspapers established after the transition. For many years Gazeta maintained a Non-Fiction Department (dział reportażu) run by such editors-in-chief, and more importantly also reporters, as Hanna Krall and Małgorzat Szejnert. Many of today's leading Polish reporters learned their trade in the 90s at the editorial office of Gazeta Wyborcza: Szczygieł, Tochman, Hugo-Bader, Wojciech Jagielski, B. Pawlak, Lidia Ostałowska. In the 90s and early 2000s, many of these reporters wrote some of the most interesting literature in Poland. But soon Poland began to feel too small for them, and Polish reporters started going abroad: Czech Republic (Szczygieł), Russia (Hugo-Bader), Yugoslavia (Tochman ).

Tochman, in a 2013 interview for the Polish Press Agency (PAP), was quoted as saying:

- The majority of us have written about Poland for many, many years. We've published books. Poland in my last Polish book is filled with complexes, hypocrisy, fear about the alien and the other. Has anything changed since than? Have we changed? I don't think so. So why say the same thing again and again? I prefer to work somewhere else, just as many of my colleagues. From our professional point of view the world outside Poland seems much more interesting. Maybe we should be happy to live in a country which is not that pleasant, but still boring. Because the regions where something important happens are usually not peaceful and there are people suffering there. And reportage feeds on human harm. Evil feeds reportage, not good.

See the interview with Wojciech Tochman

Why are Polish reporters writing from abroad?

If Mariusz Szczygieł is among the most interesting followers of Krall and Kąkolewski - whose book he read as a little boy, Wojciech Tochman along with Wojciech Jagielski should be seen as the most important representatives of the Kapuściński tradition of reportage as political engagement.

Before Tochman started travelling abroad, he published two reportage books in which he described the Polish countryside with heavy accusations levelled against Catholic morality. Having accomplished that, he devoted his later books to some of the most important problems of contemporary global world. His favoured field is the aftermath of rapid, tragic wars that have erupted in the past decades.

His books about the aftermath of the Balkan Wars and about the genocide in Rwanda still have the power to move public opinion, even years after the conflicts. His 2013 book Eli, Eli dealt with poverty in the Filipino capital Manila, describing it as one of the greatest problems of contemporary world. His unfailing engagement and imperative to actively change the world returned again in his newest book Kontener, about the refugee camp of Zatari in Jordania. This last book, written in collaboration with Katarzyna Boni, also marks a turning point in Tochman's attitude toward writing non-fiction. While his former books took two to three years to write, Tochman decided to write this one faster, cooperating with his former student. As a result, Kontener, which was published in May 2014, took less than a year to be written and can be read as a timely companion to the still ongoing conflict. - Reality is changing too quickly, Tochman seems to say.

With Polish non-fiction writing going global, its authors have been reaching some of the most distant parts of the world. While some reporters specialize in one specific region, like Jacek Hugo-Bader, who is the author of several non-fiction books from Russia, especially Siberia (a big region indeed), or Paweł Smoleński writing books about Israel, others - especially younger - freely change their fields of interest. Maciej Wasielewski has written two acclaimed books from such remote regions as Faroe Islands and the Pitcairn islands. Małgorzata Rejmer, whose non-fiction debut dealt with Romania, is currently writing about Albania. And Witold Szabłowski (b. 1980), the author of a book about Turkey (The Assassin from Apricot City), devoted his next book to Bulgaria. In any case, these examples show that the youngest generation of Polish reporters do not feel limited by any geographical boundaries.

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