Swans Commentary » swans.com February 13, 2012  



The Other Side Of Ryszard Kapuściński


by Peter Byrne


Book Reviews



Kapuściński, Ryszard: The Other, 2008, Verso Books, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones with an introduction by Neal Ascherson, ISBN-13:978-1-84467-328-5, 100 pages.

Shah of Shahs, 1992, Vintage, translated by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand, ISBN 978-0678738015, 160 pages.


"If I can no longer have power over the Other it is because he overflows absolutely every idea I can have of him."
—Emmanuel Lévinas, Totality and Infinity

"It is possible for us to speak untruth not because we want to lie, but because our memory is imperfect, our recollections incomplete, or our emotions confused."
—Ryszard Kapuściński, A Reporter's Self-portrait


(Swans - February 13, 2012)   Ryszard Kapuściński published The Other in Polish in 2006, a year before his death. There is something uncharacteristic in this adieu with a whimper of the Polish author who banged along loudly with so many volumes devoted to faraway places of what he termed literary journalism. However, looked at closely The Other is less a diffident last word than a cri de cœur, a desperate attempt to put things right.

In his ambiguous and ambitious trajectory Kapuściński could hardly be expected not to have got a lot wrong. Consider. A Roman Catholic altar boy, adolescent prize poet, and fervid Communist Youth member, he joined the Party at twenty and remained within it from 1953 to 1981. He performed the ritual kowtowing to Stalin and then to Khrushchev. A dispute still rages in Poland as to whether he could have written so many books without his zealous political allegiance. It's certain that without it he would not have seen the world. On leaving the Party he never spoke against it, even in the 1990s. At twenty-four he began his travels as a correspondent for the Polish regime's periodicals. It's easy to imagine the twists and turns -- the compromises -- he had to resort to in order to stay on his career path until 1989.

Shah Of Shahs, first published in 1982, gives us a look at the long Cold War phase of his career. It relates the downfall of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran. The reader can't avoid combing this account of Iran and its 1979 revolution to see how the Soviet Union fares. In the first pages the author is holed up in a Teheran hotel while firing goes on outside. He laments the fact that times have changed. Newly independent nations no longer broadcast in world languages but only in their mother tongue. Now he can't learn anything from his transistor radio. He knows no Farsi. In front of the television set in the hotel lobby he has to ask the staff what's going on. Up in his room his only company is a pile of photographs and texts he collected about Iran. Thirty years later the writer will make a sacred goal of getting into the boots and sandals of the locals. But in Teheran he is as cut off from them as he would be back in Warsaw. The gap between himself and those he writes about will never stop troubling him.

Kapuściński's writing may not have got any closer than other Western travel writers to the people and countries he visited. But he visited so many exotic places and suffered so many accusations of exoticism in describing them that the problem haunted him. "Closer" is a matter of degree, a relative nearness. The absolute would be to feel exactly like a native inhabitant and to share his history of birth and a life lived in the country and culture in question. Like most absolutes this one is laudable but unattainable. Paul Gauguin made a much more heroic attempt at the end of the 19th century in Polynesia. But the contradictions in his conduct there and his tendency to cast his dark-skinned female models as Madonna figures hint at the impossibility of the task.

Before and after 1989, Kapuściński wrote as a European, albeit an enlightened one. He was well aware that his relation to non-Europeans was problematic. He nevertheless must have been shaken by the objections to his work that gathered in the "Third World." His reply to them would be contorted and at the end of his life lead to the lofty generalities of The Other.

In Shah of Shahs we watch him, a clueless outsider, setting in motion his practice as a travel chronicler. He will take up a photo and tell its story, filling in the background very much like a novelist. He introduces pages of his notes. He quotes short passages from relevant books. We are given transcriptions of taped statements from unspecified Iranians. Other conversations come directly from the author's notebooks. But they are in fact also statements since the author only contributes an occasional word. It's all very literary as Kapuściński doesn't identify the speakers and is obviously choosing their words. The method seems patchy to relate, but actually everything is knit together and advances to the rhythm of the author's energetic prose. The variegated approach is an artful illusion. Kapuściński clearly calls the shots and knows where he wants his enquiry to go. This isn't history and it isn't reporting. Nor is it quite fiction. It's imagination tweaking historical situations and anonymous half-invented characters till they become part of a story that's high in color and always people-centered. When later challenged, Kapuściński would call it "literary reportage" and indicate his models to be not journalists but the masters of travel fantasy in the Polish literary past. Someone has referred to their writing as "the art of elegant mendacity."

Comparisons may be odious but it situates both writers to compare Shah Of Shahs, 1982, with V.S Naipaul's Among The Believers of 1981. Naipaul's begins his voyage in the newly created Islamic Republic of Iran though he then goes on to visit other Muslim lands. He too centers on people, but they are rarely anonymous nor do they strike us as the creatures of a novelist. Naipaul listens to their opinions as they reveal their political and economic place in their society. For his part Kapuściński uses what his speakers supposedly say as chapters in a kind of history -- popular, but not fact-based -- of contemporary Iran, which is the story he wants to tell. Naipaul seeks to discover the mindset of specific individuals. He's not storytelling though he does exercise a novelist's eye for detail.

The American edition of Shah of Shahs that appeared in the United States in 1985 was censored. Fifteen pages were cut that told of the CIA's successful effort to overthrow prime minister Mossadegh in 1953. But, as always with Kapuściński, ambiguity hovers. It has never been clear whether the Americans insisted on the excision or whether the writer censored himself. As for the Soviet Union in the integral 1982 edition of the book, it's conspicuous by its absence. This will lead us eventually to the ambiguity that sits on top of all the others in Kapuściński's writing life, the allegory alibi.

At twenty-four Kapuściński was writing from India. He covered fifty countries for PAP, the Polish Press agency. It was impossible to escape criticism considering the number of places and peoples he put into words. His occasional and surprising denial of any kind of journalistic objectivity left him without a defense. African complaints were the sharpest. Kapuściński claimed Joseph Conrad as his predecessor, and Africans had never been accepting of that Pole's view of them either. The Kenyan author, Binyavanga Wainaina, says of Kapuściński:

Any African knows the particular flavor and danger of his kind of language. It is responsible for many deaths. It is the language that seeks to justify your incapacity, to distance your humanity from his centre. Now, much of what he says is (and this is where the threat of Kap is at its most dangerous even though a twelve-year-old African would laugh at some of his propositions) by the very nature of his language compelling to the exact person he wants: the liberal European, the American who has never been to Africa, and who has deep inside him, inbuilt by the ideas of Conrad and Blixen and CNN and countless made-for-television dramas, an idea that "Yes, the African is indeed a strange being, maybe even a child who needs a firm (but loving) hand."

This unsparing view, which can be read in on Wainaina's blog, is taken farther by John Ryle's review in the Times Literary Supplement of July 27, 2001:

The Shadow of the Sun also contains a startling number of implausible generalizations about "Africa" and "Africans." Such generalizations are dubious by definition: Africa is just too big and various a continent, with too many cultures and histories and too many contrasting natural environments for any but the vaguest commonplace to apply to all of them. The physical and cultural distance between Chad and Cape Town, or Kinshasa and the Ogaden, is as great as that between Manhattan and the Andes, or Osaka and the Hindu Kush. Initially Kapuściński seems to recognize this: in a prefatory note he announces "in reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist." Yet a few pages later he is coming up with the first of an increasingly unlikely string of assertions about the continent and its inhabitants.

Ryle then touches the crux of the problem. He admits that the book under review, which concerns Haile Selassie, is set in a brilliant literary framework. However, the author has bent and invented facts to make history fit into his esthetic conception. By invoking the cover of "literary journalism," as he did, Kapuściński seemed to have settled the question. He was not writing history or dealing in facts. As Ryle points out, he could at the same time condemn generalities and place them at the center of his writing. Likewise he will deliver stern lectures about the need for scrupulous reporting and respecting facts. His dancing between opposites never ended.

As criticism piled on, some of Kapuściński's defenders came up with an explanation that got him off the veracity hook. His "magic journalism" was not about exotic places. It was an allegory of life back home in Poland under Communism. Shah of Shahs, for instance, wasn't about the spendthrift Mohammed Reza Pahlevi at all. It was about Edward Gierek's regime and his attempt to spend his way into the hearts of Polish workers. Though Kapuściński had categorically denied the allegory dodge in 1987 in his interview by Bill Buford, now -- post 1989 -- he smiled on the idea like the Cheshire Cat. For the times had changed. Factual inaccuracies were one thing, but it was now revealed that he had been a secret agent of the regime's police for a decade from 1967. The miasma of ambiguity increased big time.

In The Other Kapuściński puts a lid on his career as a writer. The strangeness of his trajectory is that the altar boy turns up again. He embraces former pope John Paul II and the papal guru, Józef Tischner, a priest-philosopher. The Polish triumvirate then nestles in the arms the French moral philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas who is a pure distillation of Judeo-Christian goodness, all detritus filtered out.

Kapuściński, as his African and other critics keep reminding us, was fond of generalities. The Other is given entirely to capacious concepts. The fact that the book consists entirely of lectures delivered in his last years may have led to this emphasis. That our world is "global," "multicultural" and "fragile," full of "demagogy, disorientation, fanaticism and bad will" is certainly true, but hardly fresh news. Kapuściński divides history into huge swaths and large segments, making the dubious assertion that Europe has been an exception in showing curiosity about the rest of the world. The post-Enlightenment, he says, -- three full centuries -- has been marked by three "turning points," namely, that of anthropologists, of multiculturalism, and of Lévinas. Now, with due respect for the Lithuanian-born French philosopher's life of reflection on "the problem of the Other," it is more than disconcerting to see him attributed this quasi-messianic role.

Kapuściński notes that Lévinas concerns himself especially with the Other who is near at hand. Despite the philosopher's exquisite sensitivity in developing and delineating this relationship it's hard to understand his practical meaning as different from what we have been advised since anyone can remember from various church or liberal pulpits. Genuine love of our neighbor would imply an identification with and responsibility for him, which is the heart of the philosopher's message.

To extend this love -- or recognition or sympathy or help -- to all humanity, internationally, as it were, is Kapuściński's exhortation here. The summons is a noble one, but anyone who has made an effort to put it into practice foreign policy-wise will not have been encouraged. It's remarkable that in America's current wars, even the adman's phrase of "winning hearts and minds" -- which after all would be a kind of love -- is no longer evoked. The Afghans, for example, who were previously grouped under a broad cliché, are now thought of as altogether impenetrable, which effectively excludes any approach to them in the way of affection. Watch an American movie portraying Afghanistan and you will see the psyches of "our boys" probed down to the fiasco on their last date back home. But the Afghans will appear like so many aimless wraiths out of place in their own country.

As for the Iraqis, a big hug won't work either. It's now generally agreed they have no hearts or minds. Otherwise they would have been lavishly grateful for having been liberated and would have understood that any US forces remaining with them couldn't be subject to the law of the land. In Northwest Pakistan the Pentagon has even given up separating the inhabitants into enemies and bystanders. They are all targets for the ham-fisted surgery of its drones. Our knowledge of the Somalis as human beings is zero, which however has proven to be the ideal level of knowledge for starting an undeclared war with them. In the case of the Iranians we have even blanked out the approximations Kapuściński gave us about them in 1982, a sure sign that the drummers of war have picked up their sticks.

In the end it all comes down to respecting our fellow men. Kapuściński has always said his aim was to get under the skin of the distant people he observed. No surprise that he failed to the point (as Binyavanga Wainaina said) of making a twelve-year-old African laugh at his propositions. The kind of absolute knowledge he wanted about the Other isn't available. Writers will always fill in their ignorance with imagining. In the case of the Catholic Church, it's hopeful to see an institution whose realpolitik has always been the "clash of civilizations" ante litteram now make a gesture, if only philosophic, in another direction. Lévinas's thoughts are beautiful. The belief that no idea I can have of him exhausts the mysteries of a stranger sitting next to me in the morning bus is enough finally to give the banal hiccup of "have a good day" real sense.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published February 13, 2012