Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Ryszard Kapuscinski is dead

The Polish writer and journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski died on 23 January. Kapuscinski, who gained international acclaim for his books chronicling wars, coups and revolutions in Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the world, died of a heart attack, his literary agent said. He was 74.

Kapuscinski was born in 1932 in the then Polish (now Belarusian) city of Pinsk. When Hitler invaded Poland from the West in September 1939, Stalin lived up to his part of the infamous non-aggression pact by invading Poland from the West. The eastern border city of Pinsk was among the first to fall to Soviet forces. Aged 7, Kapuscinski became a starving refugee and fled the city with his family ahead of the Soviet invasion. His father, a teacher and Polish army officer, was captured and interned by the Soviets but escaped to fight in the Polish underground. After the devastation of World War II, young Ryszard became a poet and earned a history degree at Warsaw University. He married a paediatrician, Alicja, with whom he had a daughter.

But Kapuscinski was never much of a family man. He joined the official Polish news agency PAP. Aged 23, he was posted to India, his first trip outside Poland. It was to start a life-long love affair with travel. From 1958 to 1981, he was PAP’s sole foreign correspondent. In that time, he witnessed 27 coups and revolutions, befriended many leaders, and was sentenced to death four times, according to his American publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. One of his first assignments was to Africa. He covered the independence of the Congo crossing illegally into the country from Sudan. He stayed in Africa for several years because the PAP could not afford to send him home until he became seriously ill with malarial meningitis.

Kapuscinski recovered and continued to travel to the world’s hotspots in Africa, Asia and South America. As a representative of a Communist country, Kapuscinski gained access to leftist revolutionaries across the world: Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Ben Bella in Algeria, Che Guevara in Cuba. He immersed himself in the locality of each country and would never contact home except to file his news reports.

He eventually decided Communist newspaper articles could not do justice to the complex political situation he encountered across the globe and the notes he took on them. Kapuscinski began to document his experiences in the 1970s with a series of insightful books. One of his most famous was “The Emperor” which was published in 1978. It described the atmosphere at the court of Haile Selassie towards the end of the Ethiopian leader’s reign. Ostensibly a straight forward account of Selassie’s trouble, the book was also a sly critique of Kapuscinski’s native Communist Poland. Fellow journalist Frank Bajak described the book “a meditation on the mechanisms of authoritarian rule and the retinues of unpopular regimes”.

Kapuscinski himself admitted “it's not about Ethiopia or Haile Selassie — rather, it's about the Central Committee of the [Polish] Communist Party”. In the same interview, he described his writing as the combination of three elements. These elements were travel as exploration (not as a tourist), reading literature on the subject of his travel and reflection on the places and readings he experienced.

1978 was a fruitful year for Kapuscinski. As well as “The Emperor” he also published a series of stories called “The Soccer War.” The book is a collection of dispatches from his postings in the Third World. The title story is about the 1969 six-day war between El Salvador and Honduras. The war was fought over immigration and land rights but was exacerbated by World Cup qualifying games between the countries. In 1982 Kapuscinski wrote “Szachinszach” (Shah of Shahs in English). Kapuscinski was in Iran when the Shah was toppled in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The book documents the immediate events surrounding the revolution and also traces the history of British and American interference in Iran.

Kapuscinski travelled and wrote into his old age, although he no longer visited what he called the "really wicked places". In 1993, he wrote "Imperium" about the fall of the Soviet Union. His friend, the sociologist and writer Jadwiga Staniszkis told Polish Radio that Kapuscinski died before he could write a book about Poland. "I think Kapuscinski was planning eventually to write a book on Poland, in a sense waiting to find a key, because usually he worked by finding some concrete event which was at the same time a sort of symbolic moment," she said. "Kapuscinski was looking for something like that in Poland. He was enthusiastic about Solidarity. For him it was not solidarity of intelligentsia. He was conscious of the deep moral transition inside the common people."

Kapuscinski’s books were translated into more than 20 languages. “The starting point is observation, travels, that which I see, that which I encounter, people, what I myself live through,” Kapuscinski said in a 1994 interview. “But all of that is to be able to impart universal truths, to lead to wider reflection, historical reflection.” Ryszard Kapuscinski died in Warsaw on 23 January, 2007 after complications with heart surgery.

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