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Ryszard Kapuściński

Ryszard Kapuściński, photo: Marek Billewicz/East News
Ryszard Kapuściński, photo: Marek Billewicz/East News

Among Poland's most prolific non-fiction writers, known for his incisive and very personal accounts of political and social upheavals across the world. Born in Pińsk, (today part of Belarus), in 1932, died in Warsaw on January 23, 2007

After honing his skills on domestic stories, he traveled throughout the world and reported on several dozen wars, coups and revolutions in America, Asia, and especially in Africa, where he witnessed the liberation from colonialism. He has devoted several books to Africa, including Heban / Shadow of the Sun. Kapuściński was never afraid of danger, braving malaria, civil war and face-to-face encounters with ruthless dictators to get to the heart of a story. His writings delve into the roots of civil and political strife, digging through centuries of conflict, turmoil and even ritual in order to paint an account that is simultaneously authentic, informative and touching.

After earning a reputation as an insightful reporter, in the 1970s Kapuściński presented his readers with a series of books of flourishing literary craftsmanship. Here, the narrative technique, psychological portraits of the characters, wealth of style and metaphor, and the unusual imagery served as means of interpreting the world around us, particularly the most unfamiliar cultures and places. Kapuściński's best-known book is just such a reportage-novel of the decline of Haile Selassie's anachronistic regime in Ethiopia - Cesarz / The Emperor, which has been translated into many languages. Szachinszach / Shah of Shahs, about the last Shah of Iran, and Imperium, about the last days of the Soviet Union, have enjoyed similar success.

Kapuściński was fascinated not only by exotic worlds and people, but also by books: he approached foreign countries first through the gate of literature, spending many months reading before each trip. He knew how to listen to the people he met, but he was also capable of 'reading' the hidden sense of the scenes he encounters: the way that the Europeans move out of Angola, a discussion about alimony in the Tanganyikan parliament, the reconstruction of frescoes in the new Russia - he turns each of these vignettes into a metaphor of historical transformation. This tendency to process private adventures into a synthesis has made Kapuściński an eminent thinker, and the volumes of his Lapidarium are a fascinating record of the shaping of a reporter's observations into philosophical reflections on the world and people.

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 - Kapuściński in Empire

 In The Soccer War he traveled the wold looking at the everyday lives of those mired in endless civil wars, from Latin America to Africa. The Shadow of the Sun is all about Africa, with the brave writer hitching rides with caravans to get deep into the heart of Africa and get as close to its people and the fighting to truly understand it, paying for it with poverty and illness -an almost lethal bout of Malaria leaves him bed-ridden and at the very edge of this world for many months. 

Kapuściński was not only an avid writer and reporter, he documented his experiences through photographs as well. In 2008 the Znak publishing house released Ze Świata / From the World. The collection of photographs presents hundreds of striking images from his travels in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe, even providing a novel perspective on his his own homeland of Poland - from child soldiers in Congo to Buddhist monks in Tibet. In December 2010, the Zachęta National Gallery presented an exhibition of photographs Kapuściński took in the Soviet Union between 989-1991. The photographs were derived post-humously from the writer's archives - taken during his research for Imperium and their arrangement implied he had been preparing them for some form of publication. The collection of 50 black-and-white photographs presents a moment frozen in time, never to be recaptured in real life. Again, it is rather an unusual, emotional photo reportage showing people, places and events seen through the universal and curious lens of the writer and reporter.

In On the Road with History's Father, New York Times book reviewer Tom Bissel wrote about the great task that Kapuściński set up for himself in trying to absorb, understand and explain all of Africa in books that could never quite contain the diversity of the continent:

Kapuscinski’s African dispatches largely made his name. Like his countryman Joseph Conrad, to whom he is often compared and to whom he bears almost no resemblance, Kapuscinski has become embedded in the continent’s literary firmament. Upon Kapuscinski’s death, however, the young Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina attacked 'the racist writer Kapuscinski' as being the author of some of his 'all-time classic lines about Africa', such as 'In Africa, the notion of abstract evil - evil in and of itself - does not exist'. It is hard to blame those angered by some of Kapuscinski’s more careless statements about Africa. His risky generalisations may suggest a seeming lack of recognition of Africa’s varied and heterodox cultures, but that seems a minor sin in light of how deeply he attempted to understand it and how much of his life he spent there - New York Times, June 10, 2007

The stoking fire in the soul of society that eventually leads to revolution - Kapuściński brilliantly captures the poetry of the moment when mankind stands up for his rights. The cruelty of war, the desperate violence of child soldiers, the impossibility of peace - there are all questions the world has about the terrors we face - and Kapuścinski devoted his life to pursuing the answers and getting closer than most other professionals in his field. 

In spite of any doubts certain experts or others may have had about the accuracy of the statements Kapuściński made over his years of travel, Bissel's piece ends in poignant recognition of his skill and dedication:

Kapuscinski saw more, and more clearly, if not always perfectly, than nearly any writer one can think to name. Few have written more beautifully of unspeakable things. Few have had his courage, almost none his talent. His books changed the way many of us think about nonfiction and made many of us want to travel for ourselves and see for ourselves.

He won a number of prestigious awards all over for the world for his outstanding contribution to reporting and literature. He is also the patron of the prestigious Ryszard Kapuściński International Award given annually for the best literary reportage published previous year in Polish. The first edition of the award competition took place in 2010 - for more information see: Ryszard Kapuściński International Award 2010.Source: www.polska2000.pl. Updated December 2010.

Ryszard Kapuściński died in Warsaw on January 23, 2007.

Selected Bibliography:

  • Busz po polsku. Historie przygodne / The Bush, Polish Style, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1962.
  • Czarne gwiazdy / Black Stars, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1963.
  • Kirghiz schodzi z konia / The Kirghiz Dismounts, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1968.
  • Gdyby cała Afryka... / If All Africa..., Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1968.
  • Dlaczego zginął Karl von Spreti / Why Karl von Spreti Died, Warsaw: Książka i Wiedza, 1970.
  • Chrystus z karabinem na ramieniu / Christ with a Rifle on His Shoulder, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1975.
  • Jeszcze dzień życia / One More Day of Life, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1976.
  • Cesarz / The Emperor, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1978.
  • Wojna Futbolowa / The Soccer War, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1978.
  • Szachinszach / Shah of Shahs, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1982.
  • Zaproszenie do Gruzji / An Invitation to Georgia (Published together with W. Kubicki's Słodkie morze Bajkal) Warsaw: MAW, 1983.
  • Notes / The Notebook (poems), Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1986.
  • Lapidarium, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1990.
  • Imperium, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1993.
  • Lapidarium II, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1995.
  • Lapidarium III, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1997.
  • Heban / Ebony, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1999.
  • Lapidarium IV, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 2000.
  • Z Afryki / Out of Africa, Bielsko-Biała: Buffi, 2000 (more...).
  • Lapidarium V, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 2002 (more...).
  • Autoportret reportera / A Reporter's Self-Portrait, Krakow: SIW "Znak", 2003 (more...).
  • Podróże z Herodotem / Travels with Herodotus Krakow: SIW "Znak", 2004 (more...).
  • Ten Inny / That Other (collection of lectures), Krakow: Znak, 2006.
  • Prawa natury (poetry), Krakow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2006

Selected translations:

  • English:
    The Emperor: the Downfall of an Autocrat (Cesarz), San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.Shah of Shahs (Szachinszach), San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.Another Day of Life (Jeszcze jeden dzień życia), New York: Penguin, 1988.The Soccer War (Wojna futbolowa), New York: Knopf, 1991.Imperium, New York: Knopf, 1994.
  • French:
    Imperium, Paris: Plon, 1994.
  • German:
    Der Fussballkrieg: Berichte aus der Dritten Welt (Wojna futbolowa), Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1990.Imperium. Sowjetische StreifzÜge, Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn, 1993.KÖnig der KÖnige. Eine Parabel der Macht (Cesarz), Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch, 1986.Lapidarium, Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn, 1992.Schah-in-Schah (Szachinszach), Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1986.Wieder ein Tag Leben. Innenansichten eines BÜrgerkriegs (Jeszcze jeden dzien zycia), Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn.Schah-in-Schah. Eine Reportage Über die Mechanismen der Macht, der Revolution und des Fundamentalismus, Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn, 1997.
  • Finnish:
    Imperiumi, Helsinki: Like, 1993.
  • Spanish:
    El Sha o la desmesura del poder, Barcelona: Anagrama, 1987.El Emperador (Cesarz), Barcelona: Anagrama, 1989.La guerra del fútbol (Wojna futbolowa), Barcelona: Anagrama, 1992.
  • Catalan:
    El homes de l'emperador (Cesarz), Barcelona: Escena, 1990.
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2016/08/05
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Ryszard Kapuściński

Works

Perhaps the most important literary event of 2014? The fans of Polish reportage have their long awaited "Bible", a work which shows that writing and reading between the lines is a Polish specialty. Read more about: 100/XX. Anthology of Polish 20th Century Reportage, edited by Mariusz Szczygieł

The publishing house Agora has marked two years from Ryszard Kapuściński death by publishing "Spacer poranny", an essay with photographs found in the writer's archive. Attached to the Polish-language text are three translations: into English, German and Spanish... Read more about: My Morning Walk - Ryszard Kapuściński

Ryszard Kapuściński recalls many of the fascinating political and historical events he witnessed, juxtaposing them against the events Herodotus described. Book nominated for the 2005 Nike Literary Award... Read more about: Travels with Herodotus - Ryszard Kapuściński

"Ryszard Kapuściński talks about himself, his passion for traveling, the singular nature of his profession, the need to put one's life at risk in the name of higher values..." Read more about: A Reporter’s Self-Portrait – Ryszard Kapuściński

The long-awaited fifth volume of Ryszard Kapuscinski's personal notations. The highly original form of these remarks has placed Kapuscinski's work among the finest Polish literary achievements of recent decades... Read more about: Lapidarium V - Ryszard Kapuściński

The photo album "Out of Africa" is the famous writer and reporter's photographic debut... Read more about: Out of Africa - Ryszard Kapuściński

Ryszard Kapuściński

Multimedia

Ryszard Kapuściński

Articles

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

Poland has a long tradition of non-fiction writing referred to as reportage or, as it is also called, literary reportage. Here’s our list of the best Polish non-fiction books translated into English (plus one which is not yet translated but, we think, it should be). Read more about: 8 of the Best Reportage Books from Poland

Svetlana Alexievich. Photo: Andrzej Sidor / Forum

"I discovered the world through people like Hanna Krall and Ryszard Kapuściński," said Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, at a press conference in Mińsk. Read more about: 2015 Nobel Laureate Alexievich Discusses Polish Influences

Aleksander Doba with his Kayak during transatlantic journey, photo courtesy of the traveller / www.aleksanderdoba.pl

Aleksander Doba believes it is better to be a tiger for one day than a sheep for a hundred days, and he lives accordingly. The lives of the philosophical explorers discussed here, both from modern and olden days, constitute a never-ending quest to extract essential truths out of wanderlust. Read more about: Be a Tiger for One Day

Reportage is nothing short of holy in the Polish world of the written word. But for some it is even more than that. Julianna Jonek, editor-in-chief of a new publishing devoted to reportage, discusses Hanna Krall's upcoming book and explains why the genre has gained so much significance in Polish society. Read more about: Where Fact Is God

Polish non-fiction writing, made famous by Kapuściński, among others, 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? Read more about: A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Reportage

Mariusz Szczygieł, photo: Krzysztof Kuczyk / Forum

"To be a reporter is not a profession, it’s a state of mind", Szczygieł claims in an interview for the Polish Press Agency. One of Poland’s most vivid journalists is editor in chief of the voluminous collection "100/XX. An Anthology of Polish 20th Century Reportage" Read more about: To Be a Reporter Is a State of Mind: Interview With Mariusz Szczygieł

Ryszard Kapuściński

Events

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