Wednesday, 22 January 2020
Ryszard Kapuściński: angles and ambiguities
'What angle are you going to take?' some folk asked when I was working on Prokofiev volume one. To which the only answer could, rather primly, be: 'there is no one angle, only multiple angles'. No biography I've ever read has been more scrupulous in weighing up the complexities of its subject than Artur Domosławski's fascinating study of his more-than-journalist colleague Ryszard Kapuściński.
Immortal throughout the world above all for his takes on Haile Selassie in The Emperor and on the last of the Pahlavis in Shah of Shahs (the singular covers of my old paperback copies pictured below), Kapuściński's facts in these very individual masterpieces seem to have been essentially true but deliberately loose in detail, sometimes simply fictional. 'You can rebuild reality,' he told another Polish reporter, 'but taking authentic elements from that reality', concluding 'Reportage as a genre is going through an evolution from journalism to literature'.
Yet neither when reading those key texts nor watching the compelling Kathryn Hunter in the stage adaptation of The Emperor - in which she plays multiple characters at the court of Selassie - did I take on board their roles as metaphors for the regime under which Kapuściński lived in his native Poland, which he supported as loyal socialist - as distinct from a Soviet Communist - for so many years but developed an ambiguous attitude towards in later years (it was only with some reluctance that he eventually took sides with the Solidarność movement, understanding that it was more about the 'human dignity' he wrote so much about than about wages. This is a compelling story in itself which takes up the larger part of Domosławski's Chapter 30.
Some things are clear: crucially, that wherever he travelled on the continents where popular, anti-colonial uprisings were multiplying, he wanted to live among ordinary people, to see the conflict from their points of view. This quotation, from an interview in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, sums it up well:
I do not believe in impartial journalism. I do not believe in formal objectivity. A journalist cannot be an indifferent witness, he should have the capacity for what in psychology is called empathy....So-called objective journalism is impossible in conflict situations. Attempts at objectivity in such situations lead to disinformation.
He never changed in that stance. His evasiveness over so much else, however, provokes some murky grey areas, and here Domosławski's untiring quest for different voices, other points of view is so impressive. The biographer is wry about the absence of women in his writing - 'Kapuscinski the man may love the female half of humanity more, but Kapuściński the reporter rarely notices it' - and the inequality in the relationship with his marvellous wife Alicja.
Domosławski adopts Kapuscinski's notion of collecting diverse apercus under the title of Lapidaria, and the fifth of these in the biography, asking 'Was Kapuściński a Thinker?', touches one special essence. The journalist Wiktor Osiatyński, who raised the question with his friend abut why he didn't write a serious book about the observations in the Lapdaria, opines that 'a thinker makes generalizations, creates syntheses and looks for similarities. Rysiek was the opposite - he looked for differences, his world was he world of detail, and he was brilliant at showing those details, the various colours of the world'. Osiatyński adds that 'what he said about globalisation was an intellectual discovery for me: that here we are watching globalisation on CNN, but meanwhile, vast stretches of the world are going through the opposite process - de-globalisation, which means separating themselves from the rest'.
From our alarming perspective, eight years after the biography was published (and translated, it would seem excellently, by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), Kapuściński's thoughts on the drawbacks of liberal democracy in the west, which meant for him that Marx was still pertinent, make potent reading:
Our entire world has become a great big amusement centre. Entertainment has become the main content of culture. And as both consumption and entertainment demand peace and a pleasant atmosphere, the media have started to create this atmosphere for us, by shifting the world's real problems out of our sight: poverty, hunger, diseases and wars.
Thanks to this we have forgotten that we, the people of the West, are only a small part of mankind on our planet, and that our entertainment and amusement are accompanied by a deepening division in the world, growing inequalities.
How we now see that this ignorance brings the problems boomeranging back on us. A later correlation observed by Kapuściński is that 'everywhere the strength and wealth of the centre are growing, while the outskirts are getting weaker and poorer'. That's certainly one of the roots of the mess that we in Britain find ourselves now. The American present, too, is foreshadowed in the book he wanted to write about Idi Amin, Donald Trump with a much higher body-count, requiring 'a climate of universal mendacity...The truth cannot be just a little twisted, it must be completely reversed'. He notes Popper's observation that 'ignorance is not just a simple lack of knowledge, but an ATTITUDE, an attitude of refusal, an attitude of dissent against accepting knowledge. The fool REFUSES to know...' And here we are at the grim beginning of 2020, facing problems which Domosławski did not necessarily foresee, but which Kapuściński had already begun to prophesy. Ultimately, yes, a very great man.