Was Ryszard Kapuscinski Beyond the Truth?


in Archive


It’s a shame the 20th century was such an unrelenting nightmare. Especially if you were anywhere near Central or Eastern Europe (though by no means exclusively so). Those who perished more often than not perished in suffering and fear. Those who lived had to make do.

“Making do” could mean a lot of things. Keeping your mouth shut while the Nazis rounded up everyone else on the block. Mentioning something you overheard your neighbor say to the local Stasi agent to deflect suspicion from yourself. Perhaps outright collaboration with the secret police. It was a dirty business, and it reached down deep. We like to pretend of ourselves and our heroes that there was a way to remain untainted. But that was the cruel genius of the police states of the 20th century. Whether out of Soviet or National Socialist motivations the point of the total state was to reach into every crevice, every nook and cranny of the life world, every aspect of a personality and a social structure. The aim was to control everything and to make everyone complicit. Everything. Everyone.

The recent revelations about Nobel Laureate Günter Grass having served with an SS Unit at the end of World War II and famed writer Ryszard Kapuscinski having sometimes played informant for the SB (the Polish Secret Police) serves to further confirm the point. But it doesn’t lessen the blow. These are depressing revelations. The more the files are opened up, the more we are bound to be treated to further unsavory revelations. Sometimes I think they should just burn all that crap in a field in Ukraine somewhere and forget about it. Those files are like one last insult from the low, dishonest century just past, still reaching out from the grave to muddy the waters of the present.

The case of Kapuscinski is particularly intriguing. One of the more intrepid journalists of the 20th century, Kapuscinski spent a lot of time in forgotten or never-even-known-in-the-first-place towns in Africa, Latin America, and the former Soviet Empire. He wrote straight journalism for the Polish Press Agency, but his most important works were a blend of storytelling, prose poetry, and historical narrative that attempted to capture something more fundamental about the places and people he experienced. Works like The Emperor (a narrative of the last days of Haile Selassie’s court) and Shah of Shahs (about the downfall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) were more than reporting, they were about the soul of a time and place.

Recently, Kapuscinski died. But he left to us a posthumous publication called Travels with Herodotus. In the book, Kapuscinski explains that he had the writings of Herodotus — the ancient Greek writer often referred to as “The Father of History” — as a constant companion during his travels and that the stories Herodotus tells were a touchstone for his impressions of the modern world. Indeed, Kapuscinski all but names himself as the modern incarnation of Herodotus. This is notable in reference to Kapuscinski because there was another name given to Herodotus, an accusation that goes all the way back to his near contemporary, Thucydides. The dig is that Herodotus is “The Father of Lies.” Indeed, in the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides accuses Herodotus (though without explicitly naming him) of writing down “any story that comes his way” and of being less than devoted to the cause of truth.

That same accusation has dogged Kapuscinski. Even before the revelations about his work for SB came to light, Kapuscinski had been taken to task repeatedly for presenting works that seemed to blur the boundary between journalism and fiction while helping themselves to the authority of the former. He was accused of being a liar.

So it’s tempting to see the Herodotus book as Kapuscinski’s response. If so, he is saying, in essence, “I am a liar. And so what?” And even more audaciously, he also seems to be claiming, “I am a liar in the service of something greater than truth, if you conceive of truth merely as accuracy in relation to the ‘facts.’” There’s a passage from Travels with Herodotus that cuts right to the heart of this claim. Kapuscinski is describing how he came to like and admire Herodotus in reading him. He says,

“It was an affinity with a human being whom I did not know personally, yet who charmed me by the manner of his relationships with others, by his way of being, by how, whenever he appeared, he instantly became the nucleus, or the mortar, of human community, putting it together, bringing it into being.”

The emphasis in those pages is on the figure of the storyteller and his role as the “nucleus of human community,” the one responsible for “bringing it into being.” And it is hard not to think that Kapuscinski sees himself that way, as somehow responsible for the unity and possibility of human community itself. In those same pages Kapuscinski speaks of Herodotus, and thereby himself, as “someone unique and irreplaceable, one who could interpret the world and guide his fellows through it.” His defense of himself as a writer (and as a potential liar) revolves around this conception of himself as being beyond truth and lies. Kapuscinski saw himself, it seems, as a kind of guarantor of the possibility of communication in the first place, as at the very root of the process by which we even have the capacity to lie or to tell the truth. He saw himself as a source, and the source cannot be judged in the same way that other things can.

I’ll admit that I came to writing about Kapuscinski with the intention of defending him, praising him. I think his writings are unique and that they traverse a ground between fiction and nonfiction that tells us something important about who we are. I think he is right that we need historians who are also storytellers, who understand that mode of human communication. But the more I’ve looked over those passages the more I think it is too complicated for simple praise or blame. If I’m right that Kapuscinski is defending himself in these pages, then it is an odd and troubling defense. It has the flavor of grandiosity to the point of feeling desperate, creepy. I don’t know if it is a healthy thing to think of yourself as someone tasked with interpreting the world and guiding everyone else through it, as the nucleus of human community.

In the beginning of Travels with Herodotus, Kapuscinski talks about his youth and the beginning of his fascination with Herodotus. It arose out of the ashes of a nation and a community utterly destroyed. He writes, “We were children of war. High schools were closed during the war years and although in the larger cities clandestine classes were occasionally convened, here, in this lecture hall, sat mostly boys and girls from remote villages and small towns, ill read, uneducated. It was 1951.” 1951 in Poland is a big deal. It is the dazed landscape of civilization in ruins.

Like everyone who emerged from that experience, Kapuscinski will always be defined by that destruction and its aftermath and by the choices and compromises he had to make in its wake. He wrote some beautiful books, but the more we look back at those books the more we have to see them as strange treasures. Kapuscinski constructed for himself an identity as a savior and interpreter and protector of human community. He saw himself as a mythical hero of the human story. That made him great, but great in the way that leaves an odd taste in the mouth. Kapuscinski was willing to do almost anything to tell his story. But that isn’t necessarily a good thing. If nothing else, it reminds us just how long are the arms of Western civilization’s traumas. • 6 August 2007