On Revolutions, Civil War and Dictators: The Work of Ryszard Kapuscinski

These days it seems journalists have become less popular than lawyers. The widespread perception of journalism is that it is a field full of pedantic windbags and hacks with hidden agendas. For anyone who might be looking for evidence there is such a thing as a journalist with something mind-expanding to say, whose work is potentially as life-changing as a great film or novel, I recommend Ryszard Kapuscinski. His books might serve to dissuade journalist-haters from their blanket dismissal of our kind, the scribbling tribe. 

September 9, 2007

These days it seems journalists have become less popular than lawyers. The widespread perception of journalism is that it is a field full of pedantic windbags and hacks with hidden agendas. For anyone who might be looking for evidence there is such a thing as a journalist with something mind-expanding to say, whose work is potentially as life-changing as a great film or novel, I recommend Ryszard Kapuscinski. His books might serve to dissuade journalist-haters from their blanket dismissal of our kind, the scribbling tribe. 


Kapuscinski, who died earlier this year, was a Polish foreign correspondent and spent most of his career writing for the state news agency, PAP. Despite working for a poorly funded Soviet Bloc outfit he turned himself—arguably—into the best reporter that ever lived (unless the title goes to Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian and traveler who Kapuscinski idolized). Kapuscinski was most active in the ‘70s and ‘80s, decades during which he wrote and published classic books of reportage such as The Soccer War, The Emperor, and Another Day of Life (all available from Vintage). His most frequent subject was the mess left over in the developing world by colonialism and Cold War jockeying: in Africa especially, but also in Central and South America. He sometimes chided European and US writers for failing to tell this story, accusing them of parochialism and ignorant domesticity.

The Heart of the Situation

I first came across Kapuscinski’s books in the late ‘90s while I was still in college. I remember the first of his books I read, The Soccer War. I also remember the passage that hooked me forever on this Polish master, who bent the genre of journalism until it was truer than it had ever been before. It was a passage about the inextricable relationship between alcohol and the tropics, on the very first page of the book.  Though I didn’t memorize the passage, I’ll never forgot how much it evoked with a few simple, unadorned sentences: a world gripped by a wicked post-colonial hangover and bitter disillusionment. A world in which indulgences are poor condolences for what might have been, and was not:


In the tropics drinking is obligatory. In Europe, the first thing two people say when they meet is: ‘Hello. What’s new?’ When people greet each other in the tropics, they say: ‘What would you like to drink?’ They frequently drink during the daytime, but in the evening the drinking is mandatory: the drinking is premeditated. After all, it is the evening that shades into night, and it is the night that lies in wait for anyone reckless enough to have spurned alcohol… So you drink. Against the night, against the depression, against the foulness floating in the bucket of your fate. That’s the only struggle you’re capable of.


Kapuscinski had a knack for images that went to the heart of a situation. Rather than write about presidents, political machinations, and battle formations, he often focused on what was happening in people’s intimate lives, even as they were engulfed in the fury of history. In Another Day of Life, his masterful account of Angola’s Civil War, he captures the panic of the Portuguese evacuation of Luanda by writing about crates:


Everybody was busy building crates. Mountains of boards and plywood were brought in. The price of hammers and nails soared. Crates were the main topic of conversation—how to build them, what was the best thing to reinforce them with. Self-proclaimed experts, crate specialists, homegrown architects of cratery, masters of crate styles, crate schools, and crate fashions appeared. Inside the Luanda of concrete and bricks a new wooden city began to rise. The streets I walked through resembled a great building site. I stumbled over discarded planks; nails sticking out of beams ripped my shirt. Some crates were as big as vacation cottages, because a hierarchy of crate status had suddenly come into being. The richer the people, the bigger the crates they erected. Crates belonging to millionaires were impressive: beamed and lined with sailcloth, they had solid, elegant walls made of the most expensive grade of tropical wood, with the rings and knots cut and polished like antiques…


Beyond Information

As a journalist, I am proud to call myself a Kapuscinskian. Kapuscinski taught me journalism should be as much about spinning a good tale as any other form of narrative. Like literature, it must generate interest, empathy, and understanding. The best journalism has a power to make us grow as people. It is not about the news per se, or gossip, or scoops. It is really about the deepest human story: fighting to improve life. In other words, journalism is not about information; it is about communication and connection. Kapuscinski once referred to news agency reporters as “terrible victims of information”.  That’s because in his view, journalism should not be about chasing a fact or scattered pieces of information, but about helping people at opposite ends of the planet identify with one another so that they might be able to imagine what it is like to be in one another’s skin.

Kapuscinski’s skepticism toward raw information is especially relevant today. In the age of the Internet, information is cheap. The Internet puts torrents of information at the fingertips of billions of people. We might feel well informed, but in reality we are over-saturated, bewildered by all the media we ingest. A good story, a vivid portrait, a revealing detail or quote—they will always be scarce, elusive prizes. They will always teach us more than a search engine’s regurgitations. The value of Kapuscinski’s reportage (which he wrote at night, after filing his news agency stories) lies in his return to the forgotten founts of journalism. These are passion, imagination, and an ethical engagement with finding real stories and connections. To do so, one must cut through the world’s thicket of clichés, data and propaganda.

Living the Story

The key to the Kapuscinskian technique is the requirement that the journalist not conceal himself behind a cloak of objectivity. The author is always present, sharing his opinions, his hardships, and most importantly: his shortcomings as an observer and an interpreter.

Kapuscinski put it this way in an interview with Bill Buford of the British magazine, Granta: “Yes, story is the beginning. It is half of the achievement. But it is not complete until you, as the writer, become part of it. As a writer, you have experienced this event on your own skin, and it is your experience, this feeling along the surface of your skin, that gives your story its coherence: it is what is at the centre of the forest of things.” (Issue 21, “The Storyteller")

In other words, Kapuscinski allowed his subjectivity to permeate his writing. For his books, he did not always work directly from notes. Or if he did, he supplemented them with memory—a practice most traditional journalists are wary of. Kapuscinski worked with perceptions and feelings that could not have been caught by any tape recorder or rushed while jotting in a notebook. In this way, he took the stuff of the usual newspaper story—war, death, and poverty—and alchemized it into literature.

Did he betray the telling of reality in the process? It depends on one’s vision of reality. Traditional journalism clings to the idea that the reporter’s consciousness is best kept out of the account, or at least be reined in so subjective impressions and personal experiences aren’t at the center of the story. Kapuscinski introduced a variant into this model. In his writing, the personal experiences of the journalist—and his manner of seeing and remembering the world—are as important as the story he is ostensibly covering. In a Kapuscinski book, an evening cocktail hour at a hotel in Accra might take up as many pages as a trip to the frontlines of a central African revolution.

Kapuscinski was not the first to make his own consciousness, experiences, and behavior a subject of his journalism. The best journalists have always managed to include personal experiences and perceptions in their accounts of wars, protests, revolutions, or sporting events. Norman Mailer, Michael Herr, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe are some of Kapuscinski’s contemporaries who wrote with self-conscious honesty and inserted themselves into the story. In its various forms, this style of reporting has been referred to as Gonzo, Literary or New Journalism.

Somehow, I think Kapuscinski went beyond these writers, at least in terms of the legacy he left for journalists and all writers. Quite simply, his books are more vivid, more mesmerizing, and—with the possible exception of Herr’s Vietnam War experiences in Dispatches—more adventurous. Kapuscinski was incredibly courageous. He sacrificed comfort, freedom, safety, and sleep during his decades-spanning career, wherein he observed no less than 27 revolutions. On one occasion he had cerebral malaria in Uganda and woke from unconsciousness with sanguinary dictator Idi Amin at his bedside. In the same interview with Granta, Kapuscinski said, “Writing is about risk—about risking everything.”

He certainly did not believe in “parachute reporting”, as practiced by many big-shot correspondents who land in a trouble-plagued country, check into a five-star hotel and leave before their malaria pills run out. In Another Day of Life, Kapuscinski wrote, “It’s wrong to write about people without living through at least a little of what they are living through.”

Kapuscinski’s great achievement was to become a consummate reporter, the sort that plunges into the midst of a bloody revolution while simultaneously fashioning himself into an incomparable literary stylist. These are feats rare enough on their own, but for one person to combine them is something of a miracle. Kapuscinski did it better than anyone.  I don’t know if anyone ever will be able to repeat his style, but these days, I sure hope so.

Marcelo Ballvé’s work has been published in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, NACLA: Report on the Americas and other publications.  He is a contributing editor to New America Media and a recipient of a 2005 Inter American Press Association scholarship. In 2006, he obtained a George Washington Williams fellowship for new writers sponsored by the Independent Press Association. He lives in Buenos Aires.


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