Monday, August 20, 2012

A Hero Lost: Ryszard Kapuściński was a Fabricator and a Spy

Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007) has long been one of my favorite nonfiction authors. I think his book on the aging Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, The Emperor, is one of the greatest ever accounts of political madness, and The Shah of Shahs is nearly as good.

But what if he made it all up?

Back in 2010, a young Polish journalist published a biography of Kapuściński in which he showed, convincingly, that Kapuściński was a communist spy, and that he made up a lot of the stuff in his books. Like Neal Ascherson, who reviewed the English translation of this book for the London Review, I find myself not terribly interested in the political side. Kapuściński entered Polish public life in 1954, when the thoroughly Stalinized party completely dominated the country, and he was desperate both to get out of the country and to achieve something as a writer. If spying was the only route out, so be it. The Cold War is over and I have no interest in refighting it.

But perhaps we should have placed less trust in a man who was able to thrive amidst the lies, games, and cruelty of the Soviet system. If you are willing to lie to your friends about the extent of  your involvement with the secret police -- which Kapuściński did -- why wouldn't you lie in your books? Ascherson:
Domosławski lists many other veracity problems. Kapuściński’s agency stuff is fairly straightforward reporting, salted only with analysis and opinion. It’s in his long feature articles, and in the anecdotes he tells in his books, that he habitually exaggerated, often changing details for effect. It seems to be untrue, for instance, that he was awaiting execution by Belgian mercenaries at the Usumbura airfield; other journalists tracked down by Domosławski say nothing of the sort happened. When Kapuściński told him he was in Mexico City for the massacre in 1968 or in Santiago for the Pinochet coup in 1973, the truth was he was in Mexico ‘a month later’ and in Chile a couple of years earlier. In Bolivia, he wrote a scandalous, colourful but quite untrue story about a rebel editor; he could easily have checked it with the man himself but – he isn’t the only journalist to do this – didn’t want facts to get in the way of a great story. When a friend pointed out that a Tanzanian riot he described had happened in a different place in a different way, Kapuściński shouted at her: ‘You don’t understand a thing! I’m not writing so the details add up: the point is the essence of the matter!’ And sometimes this works. In Amin’s Uganda, he described the horror among a group of Africans who had caught a gigantic fish, swollen to monstrous size by devouring the corpses thrown into Lake Victoria. Kapuściński knew this wasn’t true: the fish was an introduced Nile perch bloated by eating the native species. And yet the story captures exactly the terrified atmosphere of those nightmare times. Again, well-founded doubts about whether he really did interview all those Ethiopian courtiers in The Emperor, and whether they really spoke to him in that melancholy, philosophical way, don’t prevent that book from being a revelatory account of the way a ‘medieval’ court felt and functioned.
I feel a little sad. I thought I had a sense of what things were really like at Haile Selassie's court, and now I wonder if I do. I do understand that in such matters the "truth" is very elusive, and of course I know that nobody really talks in the neat way journalists write down their sentences. But I thought that old Ethiopian courtiers said to Kapuściński something like what he printed, and I found that fascinating. Now I will always wonder whether they said anything like what he wrote, or even existed.

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