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Author Of Critical Kapuscinski Bio Defends His Account Of 'A Complicated Man'

  • Breffni O'Rourke
  • Anna Zamejc

Ryszard Kapuscinski died in 2007

Ryszard Kapuscinski died in 2007

Ryszard Kapuscinski is something of a national hero in Poland, and a writer of high regard in the rest of the world. But now a former colleague, journalist Artur Domoslawski, has published a biography of him which casts a negative light on much of his writing.

In his 600-page work, "Kapuscinski Non-Fiction," Domoslawski characterizes the writer's famous books -- many based on his experiences as Poland's sole foreign correspondent in the 1960s and 1970s -- not as fact-based documentaries, but "ultimately" as works of "fiction."

Kapuscinski, who died in 2007 at the age of 74, first travelled to Africa as a young journalist in 1957, and fell in love with that continent. He visited it frequently over the next 40 years, sending home rich and vividly detailed reports of developments there. He also reported on other parts of the world, including the Soviet Union.

Many of his reports were filed from the epicenter of wars and revolutions in Africa and Latin America, and he claimed to have come perilously close to death at several points in his career. In a 2004 documentary, "A Poet on the Frontline," directed by Gabrielle Pfeiffer, Kapuscinski denied he had an attraction to danger, saying "danger is a terrible thing. There is no attraction. I never saw people who don't feel fear."

His 1976 book "Another Day of Life" kicked off a literary career which was eventually to see his works published in over 30 languages. It is a compelling description of the end of Portuguese colonialism in Angola.

There followed other highly-considered works -- including "The Emperor," describing the life and death of the eccentric ruler of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie; and "Shah of Shahs," about the fall of the Iranian ruler Reza Pahlavi. Another book, "Imperium," is considered one of the best works on the fall of the USSR.

Kapuscinski himself openly acknowledged that his work was not straight news coverage, often referring to his work as "literary reportage."

But biographer Domoslawski writes that sometimes the literary side dominated over the reporting side. Speaking to RFE/RL, he says he did not seek to demonize a man whom he still considers a great writer.

"Perhaps we are not ready to discuss our myths, to speak about our great men in a non-fairy-tale-like way, maybe we are not ready for stories for adults which sometimes hurt and prove bitter," Domoslawski says.

"The choices of Kapuscinski were often difficult and I wrote the book -- I hope you will acknowledge that as soon as you've read it -- with empathy and even admiration for him. I tried to explain the circumstances in which he acted and why he acted like that."

Fabricated Meetings

In "Kapuscinski Non-Fiction" Domoslawski accuses Kapuscinski of fabricating an account of a meeting with Che Guevara, of wrongly claiming to have been present at a 1968 massacre in Mexico, and of lying about a close call with a firing squad in the Congo, among other things.

Domoslawski's book also raises the issue of Kapuscinski's relations with Poland's communist authorities, noting his remarkable freedom to travel over many years, and questioning whether he spied for the communists while visiting the world's trouble spots.

His widow, Alicja, has already acknowledged that maintaining contacts with the Polish authorities was a price her husband had to pay for being allowed the freedom to travel. She strongly opposed the publication of Domoslawski's book, and unsuccessfully sought to block "Kapuscinski Non-Fiction," saying it damages her husband's reputation.

The biography raised a firestorm of commentary in the Polish press even before its publication, with many writers and observers speaking out in defense of Kapuscinski.

In comments published in the Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza," writer Andrzej Stasiuk argued, "Would we care about the truth if it was served up in a dull, pretentious way? Would it be able to affect our thinking?... I read Kapuscinski for the pleasure of reading Kapuscinski. I read his works for the sentences, paragraphs, fragments, the history he creates by pulling together details, second-long observations, crumbs. But is this the truth? I don't care."

Many have criticized the book's reported forays into Kapuscinski's private life, including allegations that he fabricated details about his father's life and glossed over his relationship with the communist elite.

Another author, Tomasz Lubienski, wrote in "Gazeta Wyborcza," "There are a few pages in the book that will certainly boost sales, but they also prove that Domoslawski was not a good disciple of Kapuscinski, who was a refined man. It's about the private life of the man who wrote 'The Emperor.' That's unnecessary and it pushes the book into the gutter."

Domoslawski says he is perplexed by the onslaught of criticism by people who have not yet read his work. He hopes that readers will come to see "Kapuscinski Non-Fiction" not as a condemnation, but as an honest portrait of a man in all his complexity.

"I wanted to tell a true account of a complicated man living through complicated times, a man whom I knew well, who fascinated me throughout my professional life, who was my friend and my master," Domoslawski said.

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