Saturday, 11 August 2012

Kapuściński The Biography - the best novel about post-war Poland so far?

[a much longer version of an article first published in the Guardian's Review in print on 4.08.2012, an online version in here]

Ryszard Kapuscinski has been the biggest cultural Polish pride abroad, a rare example of internationally recognised name, like ‘Milosz’ or ‘Polanski’, who gained fame due to his vivid literary reportages on power back in the 1980s. Emperor, The Shah of Shahs, Soccer War gained interest not only because of their authors unique position – a star reporter directly from the darkness of the communist Poland, then in the midst of the martial law after a failed workers revolution, but perhaps mainly due to their unusual style – very personal, meticulous, literary, digressive. This wasn’t the usual way of writing journalism and similarly, Artur Domoslawski’s stylish, digressive, written in the unusual present tense, nearly 500 pages long Kapuściński – The Biography is not a conventional biography. Both the author and his hero – also, a friend, a master – stand out of what is accepted in first – the cold war world and now – the post-communist neoliberal Poland by pursuing the truth. And if The Emperor was by some called "the best post-war Polish novel", Domoslawski's book can easily compete as the best novel about this time.

First of all, anyone familiar with the 'reportage' or 'travel' literature will know ‘colouring up’ is one of its commonest devices (think Robert Byron, Curzio Malaparte, Bruce Chatwin, even Oriana Fallaci and others), although it should be perhaps called just ‘literature’. And this was one of the biggest paradoxes of Kapuscinski’s writing, but well showing the enigma this man was. Some say, from today’s, ahistorical perspective, his journalism, from historiography point of view, is simplistic, even naïve “Lonely Planet” style travel writing for beginners, stating the obvious, making mistakes any serious research would wipe out. But what does it matter some Berkeley professor who studied the life of Reza Pahlawi for 30 years, has a better expertise than a poor, sleeping in a car and rags-wearing journalist from the Soviet Bloc country had back in the 1960s? It just doesn’t stand.

Domoslawski is trying to unpack his enigmatic hero, a life-long shy, unconfident man, whose main preoccupation was to be liked (find me a photo without his trademark innocent smile): by the regime, by colleagues, by readers, by critics. it reveals a man with high level of uncertainty. A huge section is devoted to tracing the relative lack of criticism Kapuscinski’s experienced, which was set precisely not to touch the taboo of his past: if they started to criticise him, they’d also have to start a painful debate over the engagement of the current elites in communism and perhaps change their current course: that would be too dangerous for the status quo.

The paradoxical shifts in this great reporter’s career are worth studying not only for the fans of his writing, but because they show in a nutshell the complications of Polish history. How come someone could be first a dedicated socialist, highly engaged in building the new post-war system, then its flagship reporter, traveling to all the revolutions across the war, then a supporter of Polish opposition, who sat with workers in the shipyards and then reluctant supporter of the transition, who nevertheless never really felt comfortable in the post-89 Poland. The censorship, suppression of any criticism made him feel disappointed with the promises of freedom. “Poland is becoming a boring, provincial country” – he told Domoslawski, “and more so, than it ever used to be.”

To understand his importance it’s enough to recall the controversies that arose upon the publication of Kapusciński – Non-Fiction (its original title)  in early 2010, both in Poland and abroad. The main reason for the foreign commentators was how he feigned or colorized the truth, in service to the style or political gains – that he met Che Guevara, Lumumba, Idi Amin or Salvator Allende, that a few times he avoided death from a fire squad. In Poland the widow tried to stop the publication of the book, due to its unembellished descriptions of the writer’s private life (in particular his extramarital affairs). But much more dangerous was confirming Kapuscinski’s firm belief in socialist ideology while the system continued and his uneasy adaptation to the post-89 reality, where he, the star reporter of the previous system, despite his support for the opposition, had to live in a denial. an honest biography required dealing with the political manipulations of memory, that are the daily bread of the Polish social and political life – how could a hero, a master, turn out to be doubtful in the one and only path Poland took after 1989?

Kapuscinski’s biography was tightly and intimately connected with various aspect of communist order and cold war and contemporary politics in Poland is still incredibly determined by the relation to its past history. In the post-1989 Poland there were only two acceptable ways of looking at the previous 50 years, which keeps reproducing ritual wars in politics: one is regarding communist regime as illegitimate, but still something that just has happened and after which we draw a “thick line” between the past and the present. The other one condemns the system unilaterally, in strongest terms, considers it criminal and considers those, who worked within is basically traitors, that therefore should be tried (the infamous “lustration” and a wave of processes for collaboration, effected mainly by the Law and Justice party of the Kaczynski brothers). Kapuscinski, member of all kinds of socialist organisations and a flag PRL reporter, himself was accused of being an agent a few years before his death and spent the last few years of his life in constant fear. Domoslawski goes beyond this binarism and produces a refreshing, essentially left-wing commentary, in which we see rather Kapuscinski a left-wing, a lifelong anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist.

The reason his past could possibly come as revelation is because this mysterious man had to lay low and keep quiet about his involvement in PRL from the start of the ‘democratic’ times. Between the witch-hunt for the former agents, that started in the 2000s Poland by the paranoid right-wing government and the support of the Iraq war by the liberal elites, he truly must’ve felt lonely. While the Polish ex-oppositionist media – particularly Adam Michnik’s "Gazeta Wyborcza", publisher both of Kapuscinski and Domoslawski – fervently supported the Iraq war, Kapuscinski was a rare figure of the post-communist intelligentsia to publicly oppose the war.

This book, while letting all kinds of critical voices – colleagues, friends, family, his professional critics, specializing in the areas Kapuscinski stood out the most: Africa, Latino-American revolutions, Iran – still, more than anything is a conformation of the greatness of the reporter. When Kapuscinski started to gain fame abroad, the Empire and the cold war itself entered a new, dangerous stage. He dropped his communist Party card and joined the liberal opposition supporting the Solidarity movement, and, preventing his American editors, removed the potentially inflammatory fragments about the role of the CIA in the overthrowing the Mossadegh regime. He subsequently gained an international recognition for his beautifully written reports from the conflict and other disasters-ridden Third World countries during the cold war, mostly Africa, always identifying with the weaker and politically misrepresented.

Domoslawski has lots of admiration for his hero’s dedication and sacrifice. Yes, plenty of questions arise about what was the real "cost" of the free traveling around the globe equipped with hard currencies. However his contemporary critics can allege about the pay back he had to do to the Party for his career – being a member of the intelligence, namely – the poor, mostly hungry, often ill and endangered by death Kapuscinski definitely didn’t gain much in comparison to his not only Western colleagues. What did he gain in return? – speculate his friends in the book – ill and endangered by death, how did he himself measure his ‘success’ as a writer from some communist country? It must have been a tremendous political passion and humanism, that made him such a profound critic of the wars in Africa or, especially, the Cuban revolution. He was wholeheartedly supporting Castro and rebelliants, and it was his passion for socialism, not cold war anti-americanism, that gave him insight into the negative role of USA in feeding the dictatorships worldwide. His reportings from Latin America could’ve been written yesterday. Yet this mutual appreciation had also darker sides: did Kapuscinski realise that his friends in Politburo were involved eg. in bashing students in anti-Semitic witch-hunt in Poland 1968? He found himself in the net of connections, that at the same time allowed him to travel and write and brought him suspicion from the persecuted friends.

And the book, not only because the constant speculations about the level of Kapuscinski’s engagement in the regime, reads at times a bit like a John Le Carre novel. The question of identity, one’s own image, of truth, of confabulation, shifts constantly and gains new meanings, turning the whole book into one great quest in search of Kapuscinski’s personality. Who he was? Not even the closest friends or family can answer this question.

His story remains determined by his origins – born in the 1930s in Pińsk, part of the pale of settlement, a Jewish town plagued by all possible atrocities of the WW2, although his own life was not in danger, he experienced enough of misery – holocaust, invasion first of Russians, then of the Nazis, and of Russians again, that it is believable everything he’s done subsequently was inspired by this image. He was from a poor family – and for the first time for people like him the PRL createrd chances. He took it with all belief of the neophyte – as a youth and student organizations activist, and then as debuting reporter. Maybe there his later need for bigging himself up and confabulation came from, having to do with social class and complexes of being from a peripheral country? He had to become what he aspired to be. One of his friends say “Rysiek produced a great work. However, in order to do it, he had to create himself, his own image. In the mid-1980s in America I observed how he learned that a writer must create his own image to gain success. He put a great deal of work into it – it was hard for him, but he passed that exam with flying colours. The image of a fearless war reporter. He reckoned without this legend no one would listen to a writer from a faraway Poland.” That would explain also, why he kept saying his father was nearly killed with 20,000 Polish officers in Katyn in 1940. And this myth of Kapuscinski really started a life on its own, sometimes to the harm of its creator.

Domoslawski is not a mindless unanimous communism-monger, but points out the disadvantages where he must. He gives full details of his character's espionage (he had the code names “Poeta” and “Vera Cruz”), in particular the notorious case of him spying on the academic and reporter Maria Sten in Mexico). But it's striking, how similar role in the end both of them ended up playing: Domoslawski is a reporter specialising in Latin America, freely presenting his soft or not so soft left views in this otherwise liberal newspaper, similarly to his hero, he's kept in reporting from faraway, at an arm's length.

Kapuscinski is an especially neeeded character today. In Poland of the last 20 years everybody behaved, as if communism was just an anomaly in our history, with everything Polish being necessarily anti-communist: church, Home Army, opposition. But mention it to them, Poles will remain curiously precious about “their” communism, as it happened only in there. Kapuscinski was seeing beyond this localism; that’s why he was capable of seeing Cuba, Iran or Guatemala as valuable struggles in “our” socialist case, and not in the simple cold war, pro-American black and white dichotomy.

When the moment came for coming to terms with the crumbling Soviet Empire, he completely missed his chance. Imperium (1993) (some of the many photos he did there here)is a book written in denial, a book, in which its author, normally so engaged, who could’ve told us the most griping story of his own engagement, disappears. Kapuscinski reacts with the biggest act of censorship - the argument must’ve been that it would be announcing to people in the new Poland, that he was a communist, so he had to choose to present himself as a victim. Truth be told this system left no other way than being at the same time both a victim and a beneficiary of it: both were equally true. But when it comes to history, in the post-1989 Poland there was no space for grey areas, there was only black and white, either you’re a victim or a perpetrator. He had to have an answer for his potential critics: How could I resist the system, look how powerful it was! The earlier reporter was trying to write the other, nuanced version of history – the feted Kapusciński of the new Poland was unable to do so. A hero is most revered when he’s silent - that’s why this book is valuable, both in bringing back the true voice of the reporter and for making clear where he stayed silent. For that only, Domosławski’s book is a truly great achievement.

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