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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: 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.'s picture
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