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Or So I Was Told

Robert Looby



Kapuściński Non-Fiction, by Artur Domosławski, Świat Książki, 608 pp, 54.90 PLN, ISBN: 978-8324719068


Artur Domosławski’s biography of his mentor Ryszard Kapuściński caused a furore in Poland even before it appeared. The original publisher pulled out of the deal and Kapuściński’s widow went to court to try to get the book stopped. There were even rumours – quickly denied – that foreign publishers had been threatened with an embargo on issuing Kapuściński’s works if they published the biography in translation. No serious newspaper or magazine that I know of has failed to review the book and the controversy surrounding it, often at great length and complete with heavyweight contributors, not all of whom however had read the book. Meetings – not just run of the mill readings and book-signing sessions – have been held around the country to debate the book and the issues it raises. It reportedly sold out its first print run of 40,000 copies in little more than a month.


The fuss was caused by four factors: the book accuses Kapuściński of embellishing his life story and his journalism; it airs his contacts with Poland’s communist regime – including the intelligence services; it delves into his private life; and lastly, its subject is the greatest Polish journalist of the twentieth century. Domosławski has been praised for his thoroughness: the book is six hundred pages long and boasts plenty of archival sources in its bibliography. However, few of the flashpoints are actually news. Kapuściński’s contacts with the intelligence service were revealed in Newsweek shortly after his death and there have been rumblings about his fact-checking for many years, especially in the West. He himself often repeated that he was a writer more than a reporter. His love affairs are news but even there, “everyone” in Warsaw naturally knows the identity of his long-time lover, whom Domosławski does not name.


Taking these four factors in reverse order, we start with Kapuściński himself. Born in 1932 (Domosławski, taking a leaf from his master, does not trouble too much about the precise date of birth) in Pińsk (now in Belarus), Kapuściński belonged to a generation that came of age when Stalinism was at its height in Poland, and he remained a member of the Communist Party until the declaration of martial law in 1981. Like Sławomir Mrożek and Wisława Szymborska, Kapuściński has to his name work from the 1950s that enthusiastically greets the new socialist order – propaganda, if you prefer. Domosławski does not damn Kapuściński for his youthful enthusiasm and there is no suggestion that he was anything but sincere. In fact, Domosławski’s treatment of the political history of the People’s Republic of Poland and the moral dilemmas faced by its citizens is one of the strengths of his book. These parts are of historical interest in themselves, especially to Western readers who might fail to appreciate that there were more and less liberal phases during the forty-five years or so of communist rule. The reaction to the book is also an object lesson in the divisions in modern Poland – simplifying greatly – between those who consider any past dealings with the Communist regime as treachery and those who recognise that compromises were inevitable.


Although Domosławski would belong to the latter group (for example, he is at least aware of the existence of “politically correct anti-communism”), he does at times seem uncomfortable with Kapuściński’s politics – embarrassed almost, that a long time communist could also be a good reporter. He suggests that Kapuściński’s article “The Abduction of Elżbieta” (Elisabeth), a nasty piece of work in his view, was written to political order. The possibility that Kapuściński might simply have shared the party’s views – in this case on religion – seems not to occur to him. And as for it having been written to order? Domosławski himself writes: “We don’t know if Kapuściński came up with the subject himself or if it was suggested to him by [his editor] Rakowski (in conversation Rakowski denies suggesting it).” So the evidence that the party told Kapuściński to write an anti-church piece seems to be solely that the piece is anti-church and that Domosławski does not like it. He also seems to struggle to explain how it could be that a man with such strongly held views could change so often: how could someone who praised the achievements of Stalinist Poland go on to write a denunciation of the harsh working and living conditions in Nowa Huta, the jewel in the crown of the state’s heavy industry programme? How come during the thaw Kapuściński took the side of democratising forces in Poland, resigning in solidarity with his fellow journalists in protest over the sacking of their editor for refusing to print an address by first secretary Gomułka? How come he welcomed Solidarity and tore up his party card when martial law was declared? How could he call Leszek Balcerowicz, co-author of Poland’s economic shock therapy of 1990, a doctrinaire? (Domosławski also has a habit of posing questions when the reader might prefer answers.) One Polish journalist, Agnieszka Wołk-Łaniewska, advances a temptingly simple explanation in an article headed “Comrade Reporter: Shocking Discovery – Kapuściński was a leftie”. It was precisely because of his militant left-wing outlook that he supported communism, the thaw, atheism, liberation theology and Solidarity, she writes. He was always loyal to the working classes. However, Wołk-Łaniewska writes for Nie (No) the weekly magazine edited by Jerzy Urban, spokesman for General Jaruzelski under martial law, and so her opinions can safely be ignored. In polite Polish circles, it is in fact Domosławski who is the radical, framing the far left-wing of the debate: “Why is it that someone as left-wing as Richie so disliked populism?” he asks Hanna Krall in one passage, as if right-wingers were incapable of being populist.


In I Knock at the Door, Sean O’Casey recalls doing the weekly shopping with his mother. After buying all the heavy things, such as firewood, it is only then that they head to the shop furthest away from their house, where they buy a pound of tea. A whole pound of tea (and seven pounds of sugar) every week for a household of two – it is no wonder the book is usually described as “autobiographical” rather than an autobiography. Kapuściński too was not the most reliable memoirist and Domosławski shows how he at times exaggerated his childhood poverty (his parents were schoolteachers, hardly paupers) and how it is unlikely that he really was taught to read with a book by Stalin on Leninism. Domosławski also goes to some lengths to show that 1930s Pińsk was not the idyllic, peaceful place that Kapuściński remembers. Western readers of a similar cast of mind to Domosławski may be surprised to learn that lots of adult Poles also have fond memories of their communist childhood.


Kapuściński also put it about that his father escaped from a group of prisoners being taken to their death in Katyń. Domosławski spoke to the reporter’s sister, who knew nothing of her father’s escape. Her version is backed up by “a letter from Kapuściński’s uncle, Marian” found in the reporter’s study. These two accounts are the only proof offered that the Katyń story is made up (and I have heard a very long and involved explanation of how the letter from his uncle is actually a memoir written by a ninety-year-old man which also cannot be taken at face value). In that same chapter on the Katyń myth (if it is a myth) Domosławski refers to an interview with Wilhelmina Skulska in which Kapuściński repeats the claim. The article in question is not an interview: Skulska merely outlines Kapuściński’s career to date, repeating the Katyń story. These are important deficiencies in a biography which has been praised even by its detractors for thoroughness. The point here is not that Kapuściński did not embellish his life story but that Domosławski does not always do a very good job of nailing down the facts.


Domosławski sets out many examples of Kapuściński’s relaxed attitude to fact-checking and there is a case to be answered in a debate which is not new. Some objections, while valid, seem a little petty: Kapuściński describes a road where he was ambushed as narrow and potholed. Someone who was there with him recalls it as broad and well-surfaced; there is no way Haile Selassie’s dog, Lulu, would have been permitted to urinate on the shoes of courtiers, and so on. Others are more serious: Haile Selassie was in fact a well-read man; Addis Ababa had more than one bookshop in the nineties; Kapuściński was not turned back to Sudan at the border of the Congo; Belgian soldiers did not really threaten to shoot him in Usumburu – or if they did, they didn’t really mean it and he should have known not to take it so seriously and write it up so chillingly. (Though personally I think if an armed man says “it would be better to shoot all you journalists” then “death threat” is not really such an unwarranted exaggeration given the fraught circumstances of the time.)


These things are worth thrashing out, but Domosławski lapses into a nasty, insinuating tone in places. Since the death threat in Usumburu was really no big deal it puts a question mark over all his other stories of being threatened with death, he writes ‑ a little hastily. Another example: Domosławski clears Kapuściński of claiming to have known Patrice Lumumba, Salvador Allende and Che Guevara, only to go on to insinuate that he did in fact make such claims. It was the blurb on the back of an English edition of The Soccer War that gave rise to the legend of his closeness to these people. The mistake went uncorrected (a sin of omission by Kapuściński, in Domosławski’s view) through years of reprints and was repeated on the cover of The Shadow of the Sun, and in any case blurbs are usually written by the book’s author, or so Domosławski claims. Kapuściński may have had some explaining to do about the blurbs but the contents of the books – as Domosławski makes clear – do not suggest that he knew or had met these men. It is, then, disappointing that later in the book Domosławski twice says that Kapuściński created a legend that he knew these three men and also Idi Amin. Where did Idi Amin come from? Domosławski provides no evidence whatever that Kapuściński ever claimed to have known Amin. He does find a manuscript from an unfinished book on the dictator in which Kapuściński claims to have seen him, but that is not the same as knowing him.


Domosławski also goes over the “fat fish” story. The implication is (and in an interview in The Guardian, March 2nd, 2010, Domosławski stated explicitly) that Kapuściński claims that fish in one Ugandan lake had grown fat on the victims of Amin. Not exactly. In the relevant passage from The Shadow of the Sun he describes how fish from the lake are thrown on a table for sale and how the crowd suddenly goes quiet as they see how fat they are: “Everybody knew that Amin’s hired killers had for a long time been throwing the bodies of their victims into the lake. And that crocodiles and meat-eating fish lived on them.” That is, Kapuściński does not present it as fact, just as something that “everybody knew”. Presenting the prevailing conventional wisdom is not the same as confirming it as the truth. He makes no pretence of having verified the story (this is also the case with the Lulu story).


Domosławski, in the Guardian interview noted above, describes Kapuściński as a fiction writer and some people are now saying that having read the biography they still like and respect Kapuściński but they will read him “differently” in future – no longer as a scrupulous eye witness reporter of facts, presumably, but as a creative writer. I find this hard to believe. The very fact that Kapuściński writes so authoritatively about things he obviously did not witness at first hand is a clear indication that we have never been dealing with simple facts. Who can read The Emperor and not wonder how this Polish man knew Amharic so well? Or how all his interviewees knew Polish or English? Or why they all speak alike? Or take the description of Haile Selassie’s morning routine as given not by Kapuściński (which some people seem to forget) but by someone identified only as Y.M.: “Finishing his walk, the Emperor listens to what was reported last night by Asha’s people ... he admires the anteater that he recently received as a gift from the president of Uganda.” Selassie cannot always have “recently” received an anteater: this is obviously fictionalised. John Updike, whose favourable review of the book opened many doors for its author, immediately realised the interviews in it were edited. Kapuściński generally makes it clear that he is not just filing reports. In a piece entitled “Lumumba” from The Soccer War, he recounts his story in the first person plural, clearly identifying himself not with an objective foreign correspondent, but with the African people thirsting for independence. When the writer talks about how “our” tribal king used to come and talk it should be obvious that we are dealing with a creative work of reconstruction. (Kapuściński would have been at home with the view, common in Indymedia circles, that since objectivity is an illusion the journalist should pin his colours to the mast.) A properly doctored photograph is dishonest but one where the artifice is visible – where the Russian president’s head is superimposed onto a bear, for instance – cannot be fairly accused of deception. In the arguments about factual accuracy Domosławski could have paid more attention to where the stories appeared: strict accuracy is at more of a premium in day-to-day press agency reports than in subjective accounts written well after the event.


The last book to cause a comparable hue and cry in Poland was a biography of Lech Wałęsa which claimed he was a Communist agent, codenamed Bolek (also not a new story at the time the book was published). While Poles will say of themselves that they (or perhaps more often “other Poles”) do not like to have their national legends and myths overturned, it seems that if one thing is sure to sell a book it is the promise of just that. Domosławski has read the secret service file on Kapuściński, but his tone is broadly sympathetic. To get a passport – something Kapuściński obviously was going to need quite badly – Poles were often required to at least promise to co-operate with the secret services. The trick was to wriggle out of such promises or to supply worthless, general information, already publicly available – or of course not to demur and to do as ordered. Kapuściński’s co-operation was limited mostly to somewhat more detailed reports and analyses than those he was sending to the Polish Press Agency at the time (late sixties and early seventies) but he did also report on a handful of named individuals. Right-wing journalists seized on this, though what he wrote will probably seem harmless enough to most readers – the stuff of embassy reception gossip.


The chapter that deals with this co-operation is more than just an examination of Kapuściński’s character and motivation; it is a wide-ranging discussion of the spirit of the times that sets the issue in the context not just of Poland but of foreign correspondents generally – American journalists often co-operated with the CIA, many considering it a patriotic duty to help their country. Domosławski suggests that Kapuściński, unlike some, saw the People’s Republic of Poland as his country (rather than, say, as a colony of the USSR) and accordingly had no problem in co-operating with its secret services. This biography will allow you to judge if Kapuściński used a long enough spoon in supping with the devil.


Strangely, Domosławski seems to criticise Kapuściński more for hobnobbing with senior Communist Party members than for turning in reports to the secret service. In conversation with party bosses Kapuściński was able to feign interest, be polite and hide his own light under a bushel. Domosławski’s comment on this perfectly normal office politicking: “Opportunism? Possibly. Or maybe a skilful way of life, of achieving one’s goals.” Here, again, the insinuating tone creeps in. Kapuściński wrote an article commemorating the battle of Grunwald in 1410 at first secretary Gomułka’s behest but in such a way that it did not fulfil communist expectations. “Kapuściński turned out to be a master of the duck and dive,” Domosławski writes, not entirely approvingly; “... he was not the kind of person who thinks his mission is to give moral testimony”, he continues, conveniently forgetting that he resigned in solidarity with his fellow journalists because of the political pressures put on them and that his refusal to undergo “verification” after the imposition of martial law meant he was offered a job in an insurance company. True he was also offered a posting anywhere in the third world but this was not something he could have expected and in any case he turned down the offer.


Domosławski interleaves a chapter on the reporter’s contacts with fairly senior fellow party members with extracts from The Emperor, drawing an analogy been the two-faced courtesans of Ethiopia and Kapuściński (“... one was more important if one had the Emperor’s ear more often” – Kapuściński had the ear of some party members). But it is difficult to see how – or why – a party member like Kapuściński would avoid such people. (It’s not called “totalitarianism” for nothing: first secretary Gomułka personally intervened with Kapuściński’s editor about at least one of his articles.) I also find myself wondering if journalists in capitalist democracies scrupulously keep their distance from the great. To judge by the number who go on to become political press officers, not all that many treat politicians as – in the words of the adage – dogs treat lamp posts.


Poland is making rapid strides in catching up on the West but there remain areas where there is still much progress to be made. For example, it is perfectly possible – accepted even – for twenty-eight-year-old footballers to have no published biographies. In a few years’ time the term autor widmo (“ghost writer”) will no doubt have passed into everyday use, but for now Polański’s film of that name sounds a little strange in Polish – more like “the phantom author” than “PR hack who writes to order”. Biographies are much scarcer in Poland than in the English-speaking world and no one, it seems, is quite sure what the procedure is for dealing with delicate subjects, such as a subject’s love life. Least of all Domosławski. The first thing you notice on reaching this mercifully short chapter is that his normally fluent style falls. To pieces. In short sentences. Fragments. Like this: “It’s always about love – of one kind or another. He needs it. He needs admiration; he needs intimacy. A romantic lover who runs to the station at six in the morning with a bouquet of flowers because she has arrived.” Or this: “After a couple of months of passion he says it’s over. He has to write, to concentrate, enough of this madness. Two days later he rings. She gives the concierge five zlotys to open the gates after 11. Later he breaks it off again, and again ...” I do not know either what the accepted protocol is for intimate biographies of the recently deceased, but the chapter struck me as insensitive. The anonymous long-time lover gets to patronise Mrs Kapuściński, who helped Domosławski every step of the way. His reprinting of some of Kapuściński’s poetry with the implication it was written with the Other Woman in mind and not Mrs Kapuściński also seems unnecessarily cruel. There are other occasions when his style fails him, though not as severely: when considering the question of whether Kapuściński can be considered a thinker and when writing of his very last days.


Domosławski has been criticised for doing a hatchet job but at times he seems to lack the investigative journalist’s killer instinct. His treatment of the censorship of the American edition of Shah of Shahs, from which references to US involvement in the 1953 overthrow of prime minister Mossadegh were cut, is disappointing. Domosławski accepts the publisher’s explanation that there is no censorship in America and concludes that Kapuściński himself made the cuts, though not, as he claimed in one conversation, at the publisher’s request. But the translator, William Brand, did not receive a manuscript from the author. In other words, he presumably worked from the published, complete Polish version. How could he have failed to notice that fifteen pages were missing from his translation? Surely the galley proofs would have been sent to him for a final check? Domosławski does not push Brand hard enough on this intriguing question, preferring to speculate on why Kapuściński censored his own book.


This biography offers an interesting survey of recent Polish history but its discussion of the borderline between fact and fiction in Kapuściński’s work and in the image he cultivated of himself is marred by an over-eager desire to unmask the great reporter. Kapuściński appears to have had a habit of saying things like “Pinochet? Yes, I was there then. It all started with the murder of Schneider.” This is not quite the same as saying “I was an eye-witness to the overthrow of Allende and the installation of Pinochet” but for Domosławski it seems close enough. There is plenty of valid material for discussion without dragging in such dubious examples as Kapuściński’s non-existent claims to have known Idi Amin. The biography, being so long, does not invite casual readers. Unfortunately, there is a possibility that when the discussions have blown over and the reviews are forgotten people will say “Kapuściński? But didn’t that Polish guy prove he made it all up?” The answer to that question is no.

Robert Looby teaches English and translation at the Catholic University of Lublin. His research interests include translation and censorship.