Prose writer, journalist, international correspondent for the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza for over two decades, also a correspondent for the BBC and Le Monde. Best known for his reportages from Central Asia, the Caucasus and Africa. Born in 1960 in Goworowo near Ostrołęka.
Wojciech Jagielski received a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s The First Forty-Nine Stories when he was finishing primary school. He still keeps this book, which has a special dedication, in his private library. The writer says:
Thanks to this book I was able to create my own image of Africa. Later, when I thought of travelling, I always thought of this destination. I think Hemingway might have influenced the choices I made in life.
In high school, he read chiefly the works of American writers such as John Steinbeck, Faulkner and Dos Passos. The Sun Also Rises became his favourite book by Hemingway. He doesn’t return to this novel. He’s afraid of becoming disenchanted.
At first, he studied political science but eventually, he became a student of African studies. He started to travel to the places, which interested him so much. He realised how stereotypical European thinking about Africa is. He understood that the plague of AIDS and massacres are but a fragment of the local reality.
Meeting the master
Already then he considered Ryszard Kapusciński to be his master. Jagielski reminisces:
I could see that he has a great understanding of the Third World. He was a master at capturing details and using them to portray a clear and compelling vision of the whole. I noticed that he didn’t have the Europocentric prejudice, but also that he wasn’t trying to be more African than the Africans.
He thinks that one ought to aim high. He was impressed by the fact that Kapuściński, a citizen of communist Poland, was one of the best reporters in the world. That was the kind of reporter he wanted to be.
In June 1989 he was sent for a three-month internship to Moscow. When he returned, Kapuściński invited him to a meeting. He thought the master wanted to know more about perestroika and glasnost. He felt important – he’ll have the opportunity to share his thoughts with Kapuściński. It turned out that the reporter inquired how to get a visa or how much does it cost to ride the subway in Moscow. He was preparing for his journey, which later was described in the book Empire.
That was their first meeting. In December 1994, Kapuściński wrote a review of Jagielski’s debut, the collection of reportages A Good Place to Die:
The pages of this book are filled with unusual descriptions, thrilling images and shocking data (for instance that thirteen thousand five hundred bullets are shot per one killed person, or that for one imprisoned officer the other side of the conflict would trade two hundred liters of gasoline or five female hostages). Jagielski shows all the contrasts, absurdities and dramas of contemporary history.
Correspondent for Gazeta Wyborcza
In 1991 Jagielski started to work in the foreign department of Gazeta Wyborcza. At first nobody there was interested in Africa. That changed on the 10th of April 1993, when a Polish immigrant Janusz Waluś assassinated Chris Hani, the leader of the communist opposition in the Republic of South Africa and most likely successor to Nelson Mandela. Shortly afterwards the newspaper sent Jagielski to the country, in which the murder took place. Suddenly it turned out that there is more to Africa than just Waluś and that other interesting topics are to be found there.
Jagielski calls himself 'a member of a dying species, a mammoth'. He claims that in the past expertise was required of journalists. But today, when articles have become much shorter, too much knowledge constitutes a problem, an unnecessary encumbrance. 'Narrow' specialisations are also an obstacle. 'What is the import of these fifty African countries? Who needs a man who has something to say about them?' Jagielski asks with a generous dose of irony.
Jagielski has, of course, broader interests. On one hand, he specialises in Africa, on the other in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
From Chechnya to Africa
His 2002 collection of writings Praying for Rain is a book about Afghanistan. It tells the story of people, who destroy everything they don’t accept. It is also about the price one has to pay for radicalism. Ryszard Kapuściński was a fan of the book, calling it:
a wonderful and thrilling book! Jagielski reached the pinnacle of reportage with passion, consistency, knowledge, talent and heart. He showed the drama of Afghanistan as the drama of the world, in which we all participate in different ways.
In 2004 he published the Chechen story – Towers of Stone. He was inspired by an inscription carved in stone: 'One who thinks about consequences shall not be a hero'. Therefore he wrote about Maskhadov, a politician paralyzed by the visions of the effects of his actions, and about Basayev, who never worried about such things.
The book was translated into English. In December 2009 The Economist published a favourable review. A Small Corner, Very Bloody emphasised that the reporter avoids stereotypes and has substantial knowledge about the places he describes. Whereas most journalists visited Chechnya for brief periods, Jagielski actually lived there for many weeks. He stayed with Chechen families and attended clandestine meetings with guerrilla commanders organized under the noses of Russian troops.
Wojciech Jagielski had wanted to write a book about Africa for a long time. He finally published The Night Wanderers (2009) – a great, multithreaded work, which ought to be considered a non-fiction novel. Jagielski writes about Uganda, power and insanity. He tells the tale of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, who claims he is possessed by ghosts. In the book, he also portrays the former tyrant Idi Amin, who called himself the 'master of all beings'.
Wojciech Jagielski talks about the book Burning Grass from Culture.pl on Vimeo.
'Some stories are so powerful that I don’t even have to work on them to turn them into allegories' says Jagielski. His next book Burning Grass (2012) is also about Africa. It describes the town of Ventersdorp in the Republic of South Africa and its inhabitants, who still feel the looming presence of the murdered local politician Eugene Terre'Blanche. The story is written in an original style and shows the social processes occurring in that country after the abolition of apartheid.
In 2012, after 21 years, Jagielski quit working for Gazeta Wyborcza. His next book – Trumpeter from Tembisa. The Road to Mandela – was published in 2013. At first glance, it is a story of one of the greatest XX century leaders – Nelson Mandela – but soon it turns out to be an elegiac narrative about the author himself, a man who enters another dimension of his professional life. It is also a story about the price that has to be paid for journalist passion, frenetic, reporter's craze, which makes one go to the most dangerous places in the world. At the same time his wife, Grażyna Jagielska, shared her experience of being a war correspondent's wife in her own book Miłość z Kamienia / Love of Stone (2013).
In 2015 Jagielski published Wszystkie Wojny Lary / All Lara's Wars, an intimate story about a woman from a village on the border between Chechnya and Georgia, for which he was nominated for the Teresa Torańska Newsweek Award and the Ryszard Kapuściński Award.
Published in 2018, Na Wschód od Zachodu (East of the West, trans. AP) is a description of Jagielski’s trip down the hippy trail to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, and India. Personal digressions and erudite descriptions are the background for contemplations about freedom, war, and searching for oneself, for example, in the case of Kamal from Warsaw or ‘Saint’ from the Netherlands, who moved to India several decades ago. Maciej Robert writes:
Kapuściński went on his first trip to India but he did not write a separate book about the country. It could even be argued that Jagielski wrote his book for (or instead of?) Kapuściński, who prophesied that his student would have a great career (Polityka, 6 Feb 2018).
In 2014 Wojciech Jagielski was honoured with Knight's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta.
Author: Bartosz Marzec, July 2010. Translated and edited by Marek Kępa, May 2012, updated by AP, February 2019.
- Modlitwa o deszcz, W.A.B., Warszawa 2002;
- Wieże z kamienia, W.A.B., Warszawa 2004;
- Dobre miejsce do umierania, 1994; W.A.B., Warszawa 2005;
- Nocni wędrowcy, W.A.B., Warszawa 2009;
- Wypalanie traw, Znak, Kraków 2012;
- Trębacz z Tembisy, Znak, Kraków 2013;
- Wszystkie wojny Lary, Znak, Kraków 2015;
- Na Wschód od Zachodu, Znak, Kraków 2015.
- Bidden om regen [Modlitwa o deszcz], trans. Eva Bergen-Makala, De Geus 2007;
- Torens van steen [Wieże z kamienia], trans. Esselien 't Hart, De Geus 2008.
- Towers of Stone [Wieże z kamienia], trans. Soren Gauger, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2009;
- The Night Wanderers [Nocni wędrowcy], trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012.
- Le torri di pietra [Wieże z kamienia], trans. Lorenzo Costantino and Laura Quercioli Mincer, Mondadori Editori 2005;
- Vagabondi notturni [Nocni wędrowcy], trans. Marzena Borejczuk, Rome: Nottetempo, 2014.
- Una oración por la lluvia [Modlitwa o deszcz], trans. Francisco Javier Villaverde González, Random House Mondadori/Debate 2007;
- Un buen lugar para morir [Dobre miejsce do umierania], trans. Francisco Javier Villaverde González, Random House Mondadori/Debate 2009;
- Torres de piedra [Wieże z kamienia], trans. Francisco Javier Villaverde González, Random House Mondadori/Debate 2011.