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Ryszard Kapuscinski


                    SHAH OF SHAHS



ON Dec. 31, 1979, Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Polish journalist in Teheran, Iran, walked over to the United States Embassy then held by militant students. As he describes it, ''In the background, among the trees, stood the lighted building where the hostages were held. But much as I scrutinized the windows, I saw no one, neither figure nor shadow. I looked at my watch. It was midnight, at least in Teheran, and the New Year was beginning. Somewhere in the world clocks were striking, champagne was bubbling, elaborate f^etes were going on amid joy and elation in glittering, colorful halls.''

While Mr. Kapuscinski stood shivering with cold outside that lighted building, inside, three of us, held hostage, were drinking in the New Year with tumblers of cold water. Angry and full of fear, we were pondering - and following our release, some of us would continue to ponder - the underlying reason for our captivity. Why had our Government, including the embassy, failed so dismally to predict and avoid this logical consequence of the Iranian revolution? Later on, along with many of our fellow citizens, we were to wonder why our Government continues to misjudge the impact of Islamic fundamentalism - why, for example, not one but two embassy buidings and a Marine encampment in Beirut, Lebanon, were such easy targets for the same elements that took over our embassy in Teheran.

Some of us have tried to bring home to the American people the significance of these developments for them. But without personal experience of revolution, how can Americans be led to understand - from such a great distance and with such a different historical perspective - what a religious revolution is all about?

''Shah of Shahs'' is a readable, timely and valuable contribution to the understanding of the revolutionary forces at work in Iran, vividly translated by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand. The author does not tell the reader about these forces but instead makes theater of them, so the reader almost becomes a participant. Equally effectively, he uses verbal snapshots - indeed, a section of the book is called ''Daguerreotypes'' - to provide a glimpse of Iran's history. We see the original Shiite Moslems, more than 1,000 years ago, defeated and beleaguered, finding welcome in an Iran itself subjugated by Arabs. Ultimately we see the Shiites' revolutionary faith prevail to become Iran's official religion, generating strains between secular and religious authority and finally erupting in the revolution of 1978. The reader senses the pain many Iranians felt when Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh fell in the early 1950's.

Mr. Kapuscinski presents the Iranian revolutionthrough the eyes of witnesses such as Mahmud Azari, who after many years abroad returned in 1977 to a Teheran he hardly recognized. There he met three writers. One had done well, particularly with his poems in praise of Mohammed Riza Pahlevi, the Shah of Iran (''Let the Shah stop somewhere and stand / And a broad river flows across the land''), for which he received a Pahlevi Foundation fellowship and enjoyed a villa with a swimming pool. Another poet, an old friend who had been jailed and tortured because of his opposition to the Shah, did not recognize Mahmud. He could only murmur, ''Take the rats away.'' But a third poet, a sycophant like the first, boasted of his courage in publishing the line ''Now is the time of sorrow, of darkest night.'' Mahmud concluded that when such opportunists dare to reflect national unrest in the face of official optimism and thus trim their sails in anticipation of a gathering storm, then revolution is a certainty.

Mr. Kapuscinski briefly and clearly illustrates other basic themes - the pathological cruelty not limited to the Shah's regime but endemic to Iranian society, the perils of too rapid Westernization (not only waste and corruption but the inferiority complex that results from setting up foreigners as role models). The Shah's much vaunted ''Great Civilization,'' he says, became the Great Injustice and the Great Humiliation.

Mr. Kapuscinski's reliance on dramatic effects has its drawbacks, notably the occasional uncritical repetition of amusing rumors. Was it really true that, because of Islam's prohibition of alcohol, ''Iran's remaining alcoholics are dying: Unable to purchase vodka, wine, or beer, they gulp one of a variety of chemical solvents, which finishes them off''? In fact, from my personal observation, Iranians could get all the liquor they wanted through an efficient, if costly, bootlegging operation run by the Revolutionary Guards. But on essentials, the author is dead accurate.

Mr. Kapuscinski might have paid more attention to the Iranians' belief that their revolution would someday spur revolution throughout the world. We see that belief in Lebanon today. But he has limited himself to 152 pages, and they are insightful and important.

Moorhead Kennedy         

New York Times, 7-4-1985


. ''A NATION trampled by despotism,'' writes Ryszard Kapuscinski in ''Shah of Shahs,'' ''seeks a place where it can dig itself in, wall itself off, be itself. But a whole nation cannot emigrate, so it undertakes a migration in time rather than in space. In the face of the encircling afflictions and threats of reality, it goes back to a past that seems a lost paradise.''


This will hardly justify to foreigners the extremes of Iran's recent Islamic revolution, which made its leadership, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his mullah brethren, symbols of almost lunatic fanaticism in Western eyes. But it amounts, at the very least, to a pebble on a badly out-of-balance scale.

There are other pebbles in this highly original report on modern Iran by a Polish foreign correspondent whose much admired previous book was ''The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat,'' about the fall of Ethiopia's Haile Selassie. Among them one might cite Mr. Kapuscinski's vivid account of the corruption that attended Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi's attempts to buy a modern civilization for Iran. Or his description of the Shah's secret-police organization, Savak, whose torture of one man prompted him to cry out, ''God, why have you chastised me with such a terrible deformity as thinking?'' These items may not come as fresh revelations exactly. But in Mr. Kapuscinski's hands, they help to give Iran's revolution a fresh and more objective perspective.

Not that balance is his primary aim. Instead, I would guess, Mr. Kapuscinski set out to lend the overthrow of the Shah the quality of legend, or even fable, so as to give it universal meaning. For he goes about his narrative in an odd and disarming way. At first he prowls around the Teheran hotel where he was staying in 1980, searching for clues to what was going on. But lacking an understanding of the Farsi language, he retreats to his room. There, amid a mess he has purposely created to make himself feel more at home, he begins to describe the research material he has collected during his stay.

At first he seems whimsical. ''Here's the oldest picture I've managed to obtain,'' he writes. ''A soldier, holding a chain in his right hand, and a man, at the end of the chain.'' The caption identifies the soldier as the grandfather of the last Shah. His prisoner is the assassin of Shah Nasir ad-Din, who had reigned for almost 49 years when he was killed in 1896. ''They have been trudging down the desert road in scorching heat and stifling air,'' Mr. Kapuscinski continues, ''the soldier at the rear and the gaunt killer before him on his chain, like a member of an old-time circus troupe and his trained bear working their way from village to village, earning food for themselves.''

But soon, as the author comes to pictures of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and of a crowd of people standing sullenly at a bus stop, we understand that these are cues in a sort of slide-show. Mr. Kapuscinski is establishing an ironic distance from his subject. He is recounting the modern history of Iran, but for him it is almost routine business, ''the twenty-seventh revolution I have seen in the Third World.'' He has no particular ax to grind. He is collecting images.

Sometimes the images are grim. In a film he sees of an anti-Shah demonstration, a crowd disperses under a hail of soldiers' bullets, leaving a legless invalid in a wheelchair, whose stuck wheel causes him to spin helplessly until the shooting stills him. At other times, Mr. Kapuscinski evokes a theater of the absurd - for example, when he recounts an interview with a man whose main occupation was pulling down monuments to the Shah. (Question: ''Am I to understand you had special hawsers for the job?'' Answer: ''Yes indeed! We hid our stout sisal rope with a ropeseller at the bazaar.'')

But collectively the images serve to place the revolution at a distance from reality, to give it a fabulous cast and thereby make way for what may be a higher reality. As Mr. Ferdousi the carpet seller is apt to put it whenever the author pays a call to cheer himself up: ''What have we given the world? We have given poetry, the miniature, and carpets. As you can see, these are all useless things from the productive viewpoint. But it is through such things that we have expressed our true selves. We have given the world this miraculous, unique uselessness.''

''To use a carpet, for example, is a vital necessity,'' Mr. Ferdousi continues. ''You spread a carpet on a wretched, parched desert, lie down on it, and feel you are lying in a green meadow. Yes, our carpets remind us of meadows in flower. You see before you flowers, you see a garden, a pool, a fountain. Peacocks are sauntering among the shrubs. And carpets are things that last - a good carpet will retain its color for centuries. In this way, living in a bare, monotonous desert, you seem to be living in an eternal garden from which neither color nor freshness ever fades. Then you can continue imagining the fragrance of the garden, you can listen to the murmur of the stream and the song of the birds. And then you feel whole, you feel eminent, you are near paradise, you are a poet.''

In a grim sort of way, Mr. Kapuscinski has woven us a carpet.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt         

New York Times, 1-4-1985




                    THE EMPEROR



SILLY me. I set out to review a book about Haile Selassie called ''The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat,'' foolishly thinking it would be all about ... well, Haile Selassie and Ethiopia. Deeper research (ringing up the publisher and asking, ''Who is this guy Kapuscinski?'') revealed that in Poland in 1981 the book had ''spawned at least a score of stage adaptations.'' Funny. I hadn't known that Addis Ababa was profoundly embedded in the consciousness of Warsaw, let alone Gdansk. Idiot! In East Europe, allegory is the name of the political correspondent's game.

So for Emperor Haile Selassie read Edward Gierek, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party (the Communists) from 1970 till his removal in disgrace in 1980. ''The Emperor'' is an allegory penned with prescience, for it was published in Poland in 1978, two full years before the Autocrat (Polish version) did fall down.Ryszard Kapuscinski, who covered the upheaval in Ethiopia, is still in Poland, but the country's former top foreign correspondent is no longer working.

The book, agreeably slim, is divided into three parts: ''The Throne,'' a description of how Haile Selassie retained his perch on it; ''It's Coming, It's Coming,'' the tale of the failed 1960 palace coup, the student unrest thereafter and the remorseless inevitability of revolution; and ''The Collapse,'' the tragicomic removal of the Emperor from power in 1974 without his ever quite realizing (or wanting to realize) what was happening, until there was no one left with him in his palace save one ancient personal retainer.

On the real-life Ethiopian level, this is a strangely absorbing piece of investigation. The problem is that one is never quite sure whether one is in the world of Ethiopian fact or Polish political fable. Mr.Kapuscinski, we are told, befriended an Ethiopian official, now dead, whose job under Haile Selassie was to look after foreign journalists. Thanks to him, Mr. Kapuscinski was able to interview a score of officials who were not grand enough to be put to death or behind bars by the revolutionaries who took over in 1974, but who were close enough to the Emperor to convey, vividly from the inside, how the system had worked and how, in the end, it failed.

I suspect it is all a shade hyped up, a little too cleverly processed from stumbling interview to sleek literary parable. Yet it is often the most fantastic absurdity, the quirkiest anecdote, that turns out to be true. In morbid detail these lowly acolytes, the deep throats of royal Addis Ababa, tell Mr. Kapuscinski how it was. Among them are the Emperor's ''cuckoo,'' whose sole task was to bow as a signal that an hour had passed; the man whose job was to slide a pillow under the tiny Emperor's feet so that they should not dangle ridiculously when he sat down on the throne; the man appointed to wipe with satin cloth the souvenirs left by the Emperor's chihuahua on the feet of visiting dignitaries.

FOR all the corruption, vanity and government paralysis that prevailed during the last decade of his reign, Haile Selassie's achievements were, in fact, remarkable. With no better claim to the throne than those of some others, he managed to rule a huge medieval empire for nigh on 50 years and succeeded, if not in bringing it into the 20th century, then at least into the late 19th. Reforms that may seem to be almost macabre in their tardiness - the abolition of slavery, for instance - were bold acts of defiance against great landlords and provincial princes whose loyalty Haile Selassie needed. Even the decision to set up a university along European lines was a daring act of modernization bound to breed a generation of Ethiopians hostile to the old autocracy. And so it turned out.

It was only during the last decade that atrophy overwhelmed the Emperor and his entourage to the point where they can become the butt of Polish allegory. And what, by the way, came after them? A secretive, military junta, dogmatically pro-Soviet and quite as bloody as the regime of its predecessors. In a few months of 1977-78, around 20,000 Ethiopians, mostly left-wing students, were killed in an officially sanctioned ''Red Terror.'' In a nutshell, Haile Selassie was a more considerable historical figure than Gierek.

And we're back to Polish allegory. This is a tale of palace spies, of banquets where beggars pick up the bones, of an autocrat who prefers for the sake of security to acquire all information by word of mouth. It is a system obsessed with rank and title, with ''aristocrats,'' ''bureaucrats'' and humble, fiercely loyal ''personal people'' plucked out of nowhere. The King of Kings actually ''prefers bad ministers.'' It is a world of make-believe, where sneak visits to remote provinces require that special palaces be kept in readiness for the Emperor at all times, even in the Ogaden desert (I found that one hard to believe). No one is trusted; even the Crown Prince's loyalty is found wanting. Then comes a mania for ''development'' (viz., Gierek's feverish zest for never-digested Western technology bought for billions of never-repaid dollars). If projects go awry, scapegoats are found. (Or sometimes scape-lions; after the 1960 coup attempt, the Emperor's favorite palace roarers were apparently shot for letting the traitors in.)

THE ''development'' was, in any case, something of a hoax: 40 times as much was spent on the army and police as on agriculture. Eventually a famine, whose hideous reality had been hidden from the party boss - sorry, Emperor -who never wanted to hear bad news anyway, set off a chain of unrest leading to the collapse. Meanwhile, in the Emperor's court/ Communist party, various factions - described as Jailers, Talkers and Floaters -continued to wrestle each other to a standstill.

The mentality of a dictator on the way out is beautifully evoked. He cannot believe it. He congratulates the soldiers on what they are doing, so long as they continue to bow to the Unparalleled Excellence, the Indefatigable, the Exalted King of Kings - even as they take him to prison. It is only the type of car - a battered Volkswagen rather than the more usual Rolls-Royce - that offends. ''The Emperor lived among shadows of himself, for what was the Emperor's suite if not a multiplication of the Emperor's shadow?'' Even after the merciless revolutionary, Major Mengistu, jails the entire crown council and cabinet (most of whom are later shot), the Emperor manages to believe he is still ideologically acceptable: ''If the revolution is for the good of the people, I am for the revolution.''

''The Emperor'' is an intriguing parable. It lacks the brilliant simplicity of ''Animal Farm''; the people and places do not always fit the puzzle. But Mr. Kapuscinski has pulled off a clever coup, more for the admiration of Polish buffs than for Ethiopian ones. I can't help wondering what his ''straight'' reports for the official Communist Polish news agencies were like all those years.

Xan Smiley         

New York Times, 29-5-1983


Reading a book in 1983 about the nearly 50-year reign of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia - who was deposed by Army officers in 1974 and died a year later - at first glance seems like reading about the forgotten ancient desert king of kings, Ozymandias, in Shelley's sonnet.

''The Emperor'' was written by Ryszard Kapuscinski, a foreign correspondent for the Polish press agency who risked his neck to gather the facts about the absolute monarch. The book was published in the Warsaw of 1978, when reform was in the air. According to the jacket, the book spawned stage adaptations in the Poland of 1981, appealing to audiences there even though the Emperor had ruled over a faraway dictatorship. As the details accumulate, this nonfiction story falls into place as a modern parable. One can almost hear the sound of sirens whining and the Solidarity workers scattering before the clubs of martial law in Poland.

The author returned to Addis Ababa after the Emperor's downfall and conducted a series of secret interviews. The subjects, identified only by initials, provided details that ring true and are startling to read in our partially civilized 20th century. The book's aim was modest: to piece together an account of how the Emperor governed and why he fell from power. The facts change the once-held international impression of Haile Selassie as a benevolent Lion of Judah who introduced some reforms and stood up for his regime in the League of Nations, to that of a benighted oppressor.

This isn't a full-scale biography of Haile Selassie but, rather, an impressionistic mosaic of his reign, the uprisings that led to his dethronement and takeover by a military junta and his final days of palace imprisonment. For those who came in late, the American edition of ''The Emperor'' might well have added a chronology of his life, including some of his efforts toward modernization, to help readers unfamiliar with the Haile Selassie years.

As the evidence unfolds - the network of palace spies, the bootlicking, the need to keep people in fear and in their place - the story has significance beyond Ethiopia and the third-world countries of Africa and Latin America. To this reader, it begins to resemble the familiar tales of the denial of human rights in the most loathsome military-run states today.

The voices in these clearly translated interviews are solemn, sometimes even literary, describing the Emperor's daily routine while he sat on the throne: ''His Distinguished Highness appears on the Palace steps in the morning and sets out for his early walk. He enters the park. This is when Solomon Kedir, the head of the Palace spies, approaches and gives his report. The Emperor walks along the avenue and Kedir stays a step behind him, talking all the while. Who met whom, where, and what they talked about. Against whom they are forming alliances. Whether or not one could call it a conspiracy. Kedir also reports on the work of the cryptography department. This department decodes the comunications that pass among the divisions - it's good to be sure that no subversive thoughts are hatching there.''

And while his subjects are starving - and, the author reports, foreign aid is diverted and sold by palace favorites - the Emperor amuses himself by feeding the royal animals: ''His Distinguished Highness sometimes stops before the lions' cage to throw them a leg of veal that a servant has handed him. He watches the lions' rapacity and smiles. Then he approaches the leopards, which are chained, and gives them ribs of beef. His Majesty has to be careful as he approaches the unpredictable beasts of prey.'' Another voice reports to the author that, later, Haile Selassie had some of his lions killed ''because instead of defending the palace they had admitted the traitors.''

One of the palace favorites around ''His Munificent Highness'' expresses surprise that outsiders care about the famine that has turned Ethiopians into walking skeletons: ''First of all, death from hunger had existed in our Empire for hundreds of years, an everyday, natural thing, and it never occurred to anyone to make any noise about it. Drought would come and the earth would dry up, the cattle would drop dead, the peasants would starve. Ordinary, in accordance with the laws of nature and the eternal order of things. Consider also, my dear friend, that - between you and me - it is not bad for national order and a sense of national humility that the subjects be rendered skinnier, thinned down a bit.''

When the Emperor was finally removed, only his gaudy uniforms and private fleet of 27 automobiles remained: ''He prized the Rolls-Royces for their dignified lines, but for a change he would also use the Mercedes-Benzes and the Lincoln Continentals.'' At the end of this fascinating book, the imperial Lion of Judah is left with a shattered reputation boundless and bare in the sands.

HERBERT MITGANG                  

New York Times, 30-7-1983




'War is proof that man has failed'

As a child in Warsaw, Ryszard Kapuscinski grew up thinking starvation, poverty and cruelty were facts of life. As we prepare to mark 60 years since the end of the Second World War, he recounts his incredible story of survival - and warns that we are still just as vulnerable to ignorance and hatred

04 January 2005

Total war has a thousand fronts; during such a war, everyone is at the front, even if they never lie in a trench or fire a single shot. When I go back in memory to those days, I realise, not without a certain surprise, that I remember the beginning of the war better than its end. Its onset is clearly fixed for me in time and place. I can conjure up its image without difficulty because it has retained all its colours, all its emotional intensity.

It starts with my suddenly noticing one day, in the azure sky of a summer's ending (and the sky in September 1939 was wondrously blue, without a single cloud), somewhere very, very high up, twelve glittering silver points. The entire bright, lofty dome of the sky fills with a dull, monotonous rumble, unlike anything I've ever heard before. I am seven years old, I am standing in a meadow in eastern Poland, and I am staring at the points that are barely moving across the sky. Suddenly, there's a dreadful bang close by, at the edge of the forest. I hear bombs exploding. It is only later that I learn they are bombs, for at this moment I do not yet know that there is such a thing as a bomb; the very notion is foreign to me, a child from the deepest provinces who had never even listened to a radio or gone to the movies, who didn't know how to read or write, who had never heard of wars and deadly weapons.

I see gigantic fountains of earth spraying up into the air. I want to run towards this extraordinary spectacle, which stuns and fascinates me, because, having as yet no wartime experiences, I am unable to connect into a single chain of cause and effect those shining silver planes, the thunder of the bombs, the plumes of earth flying up to the height of the trees, and the danger of imminent death. I start to run there, towards the forest and the falling and exploding bombs, but a hand grabs me from behind and throws me to the ground. "Lie still!" I hear my mother's shaking voice. "Don't move!" And I remember my mother, as she presses me close to her, saying something I don't understand and that I want to ask her about later. She is saying, "There's death over there, child".

It's night and I'm sleepy, but I am not allowed to sleep; we must run, we must escape. Where to, I don't know. But I do understand that flight has suddenly become some sort of higher necessity, a new form of life, because everyone is fleeing. All the highways, roads, even country paths are full of wagons, carriages, and bicycles; full of bundles, suitcases, bags, buckets; full of terrified and helplessly wandering people. Some are making their way to the east, others to the west, still others to the north and the south. They run in all directions, circle about, collapse from exhaustion, fall asleep anywhere they can, and then, having caught their breath for a moment, they summon what's left of their strength and start once again their confused and endless journey.

I am supposed to hold my little sister tightly by the hand. We can't get lost, my mother warns. But I sense, even without her saying it, that the world has suddenly become dangerous, foreign, and evil, and that one must be on one's guard. I walk with my sister next to the horse-drawn wagon; it is a simple wooden cart lined with hay, and high up on the hay, on a linen sheet, lies my grandfather. He is paralysed and cannot move.

When an air raid starts, the panicked crowd, until then patiently trudging along, dives for the shelter of the ditches, hides in the bushes, drops down in the potato fields. On the empty, deserted road only the wagon remains, and on it my grandfather. He sees the planes coming towards him, sees them abruptly descending, sees them taking aim at the abandoned wagon, sees the fire of the on-board guns, and hears the roar of the machines over his head. When the planes vanish, we return to the wagon and mother wipes my grandfather's perspiring face. Sometimes there are air raids several times a day. After each one, sweat trickles down my grandfather's exhausted face.

We find ourselves in an increasingly bleak landscape. There is smoke along the distant horizon. We pass empty settlements, lonely, burned-out houses. We pass battlefields strewn with abandoned implements of war, bombed-out railway stations, overturned cars. It smells of gunpowder, of burnt things, of rotting meat. We encounter dead horses everywhere. The horse - a large, defenceless animal - doesn't know how to hide; during a bombardment it stands motionless, awaiting death. There are dead horses in the roads, in ditches, in the fields a bit further out. They lie there with their legs up in the air, as if shaking their hooves at the world. I don't see dead people anywhere; they are quickly buried. Only the horses - black, bay, piebald, chestnut - lie where they stood, as if this were not a human war but a war of horses; as if it were they who had waged among themselves a battle to the death and were its only victims.

A cold and hard winter arrives. Under difficult circumstances, one feels the cold more keenly; the chill is more penetrating. Winter can be just another season, a waiting for spring; but now winter is a disaster, a catastrophe. That first winter of the war is truly bitter. In our apartment the stoves are cold and the walls are covered with thick white frost. There is nothing to burn; there is no fuel to buy, and it's too dangerous to steal any. It's death if you're caught filching coal or wood. Human life is worth little now, no more than a lump of coal or a piece of kindling. We have nothing to eat.

Mother stands motionless for hours at the window, staring out. You can see people gazing out at the street like this in many windows, as if they were counting on something, waiting for something. I roam around the yards with a group of boys, neither playing nor explicitly hunting for something to eat; that would mean hope and then disappointment. Sometimes the smell of warm soup wafts through a door. When that happens, one of my friends, Waldek, sticks his nose into the crack and begins feverishly to inhale the odour and to rub his stomach with delight, as if he were sitting at a sumptuously laid table. A moment later he is sad again, and listless.

One day we hear that they are going to be giving away candy in a store near the square. We immediately line up - a string of cold and hungry children. It's the afternoon already, and getting dark. We stand all evening in the freezing temperatures, then all night and all the following day. We stand huddled together, hugging each other for a little bit of warmth, so as not to freeze. Finally the store opens, but instead of candy we each get an empty metal tin that once used to contain fruit drops. Weak, stiff from the cold, and yet, at that moment, happy, I carry home my booty. It is valuable because a residue of sugar still remains on the inside walls of the can. My mother heats up some water, pours it into the can, and we have a hot, slightly sweet, beverage: our only nourishment that day.

Then we are on the road again, travelling westwards from our town, Pinsk, because my mother has heard that our father is living in a village outside Warsaw. He was captured at the front, escaped, and is now, we think, teaching children in a small country school. When those of us who were children during the war recall that time and say "father" or "mother", we forget, because of the solemnity of those words, that our mothers were young women and our fathers were young men and that they desired each other strongly, missed each other terribly, and wanted to be together. And so my mother sold everything in the house, rented a wagon, and we set off to search for our father. We found him by accident. Riding through the village called Sierakow, my mother suddenly cries out to a man crossing the road: "Dziudek!"

From that day we live together in a tiny room without water or electricity. When it grows dark, we go to bed, because there aren't even candles. Hunger has followed us here from Pinsk. I search constantly for something to eat - a crust of bread, a carrot, anything. One day, father, having no other recourse, tells his class: "Children, whoever wants to come to school tomorrow must bring one potato." Father didn't know how to trade, didn't know how to do business and received no salary, so he decided he had only one option: to ask his students for a few potatoes. Half the class don't show up the next day. Some children bring half a potato, others a quarter. A whole potato is an enormous treasure.

Next to my village lies a forest, and in that forest, near a settlement called Palmira, is a clearing. In this clearing, SS men carry out executions. At first, they shoot at night and we are woken up by the dull, repetitive sound of gunfire. Later, they do it also by day. They transport the condemned in enclosed, dark-green trucks, with the firing squad bringing up the rear of the convoy in a truck without a covering.

The firing squad always wear long overcoats, as if a long overcoat belted at the waist were an indispensable prop in the ritual of murder. When such a convoy passes by, we, the village children, observe it from our hiding place in the roadside bushes. In a moment, behind the curtain of trees, something that we are forbidden to witness will begin. I feel a cold tremor running up and down my spine - I'm trembling. We wait for the sound of the salvoes. There they are. Then come the individual shots. After a while, the convoy returns to Warsaw. The SS men again bring up the rear. They are smoking cigarettes and talking.

At night the partisans come. They appear suddenly, their faces pressed against the window. I stare at them as they sit at the table, always excited by the same thought: that there is still time for them to die tonight, that they are marked by death. We could, of course, all die, but they embrace the possibility, confront it head on. They come one rainy night in autumn and talk to my mother in whispers (I haven't seen my father for a month now, and won't until the end of the war; he's in hiding). We get dressed quickly and leave: there is a round-up taking place nearby and entire villages are being deported to the camps. We flee to Warsaw, to a designated hiding place. I see a large city for the first time: trams, multi-storey buildings, big stores. Then we are in the countryside again in yet another village, this time on the far bank of the Vistula. I can't remember why we went. I remember only walking once again next to a horse-drawn wagon and hearing the sand of the warm country road sifting through the wheels' wooden spokes.

All through the war I dream of shoes. To have shoes. But how? What must one do to get a pair? In the summer I walk barefoot, and the skin of my soles is as tough as leather. At the start of the war, father made me a pair of shoes out of felt, but he is not a shoemaker and they look strange; besides, I've grown, and they are already too tight. I fantasise about a pair of big, strong, hobnailed shoes that make a distinctive noise as they strike the pavement. The fashion was then for high-topped boots; I could stare for hours at a good-looking pair. I loved the shine of the leather, loved listening to the crunching sound they made. But my dream of shoes was about more than beauty or comfort. A good, strong shoe was a symbol of prestige and power, a symbol of authority; a shoddy shoe was a sign of humiliation, the brand of a man who has been stripped of all dignity and condemned to a subhuman existence. But in those years, all the shoes I lusted for trod past me in the street with indifference. I was left in my rough wooden clogs with their uppers of black canvas, to which I would sometimes apply a crude ointment in an unsuccessful attempt to impart a tiny bit of lustre.

Late in the war, I become an altar boy. My priest is the chaplain of a Polish Army field hospital. Rows of camouflaged tents stand hidden in a pine forest on the left bank of the Vistula. During the Warsaw Uprising, before the Russian army moves on the city in January 1945, an exhausting bustle reigns here. Ambulances speed in from the front lines, which rumble and smoke not far away. They bring the wounded, who are often unconscious and arranged hurriedly and in disarray, one on top of the other, as if they were so many sacks of grain (only these sacks are dripping blood).

The medics, themselves half-dead from fatigue, take the wounded out, lay them on the grass, and then drench them with a fierce spray of cold water. Those that give some signs of life they carry into the operating tent (in front of this tent there is always a fresh pile of amputated arms and legs). Those that no longer move are brought to a large grave at the rear of the hospital. There, over that yawning tomb, I stand for hours next to the priest, holding his breviary and the cup with holy water. I repeat after him the prayer for the dead. "Amen," we say to each of the deceased, "Amen," dozens of times a day, but quickly, because somewhere beyond the woods the machinery of death is working non-stop. And then, one day, everything is suddenly quiet and empty - the ambulances stop coming, the tents disappear. The hospital has moved east. In the forest, only the crosses remain.

And later? The passages above are a few pages from a book about my wartime years that I began to write and then abandoned. I wonder now what the book's final pages would have been like, its conclusion, its epilogue. What would have been written there about the end of the Second World War? Nothing, I think. I mean, nothing conclusive. Because, in some fundamental sense, the war did not end for me in 1945, or at any time soon afterwards. In many ways, something of it endures in me. For those who lived through it, war is never over, not in an absolute way. It is a truism that an individual dies only when the last person who knew and remembered him dies; that a human being finally ceases to exist when all the bearers of his memory depart this world.

Something like this also happens with war. Those who went through it will never be free of it. It stays with them as a mental hump, a painful tumour, which even as excellent a surgeon as time will be unable to remove. Just listen to people who lived through a war, when they sit down around a table of an evening. It doesn't matter what the first topics of conversation might be. There can be a thousand topics. But in the end there will be only one: reminiscences from the war. These people, even after years of peace, will superimpose war's images on each new reality, a reality with which they are unable fully to identify because it has to do with the present, and they are possessed by the past, by the constant returning to what they lived through and how they managed to live through it; their thoughts an obsessively repeated retrospection.

But what does it mean, to think in the images of war? It means to see everything as existing at maximum tension, as reeking of cruelty and dread. Because wartime reality is a world of extreme, Manichaean reduction, which eliminates all intermediate hues, all things gentle and warm, and limits everything to an aggressive counterpoint, to black and white, to the most primal battle of two powers: good and evil. No one else on the battlefield! Only the good (in other words, us) and the evil (meaning everything that stands in our way, that opposes us, and that we force wholesale into the sinister category of the enemy).

The image of war is imbued with the atmosphere of force, a nakedly physical force, grinding, smoking, constantly exploding, always on the attack, a force brutally expressed in every gesture, in every strike of a boot against pavement, of a rifle butt against a skull. Strength, in this universe, is the only criterion against which everything is measured - only the strong matter; their shouts, their fists. Every conflict is resolved not through compromise, but by destroying one's opponent. And all this plays itself out in a climate of fury and frenzy, in which we feel always stunned, tense and threatened. We move in a world brimming with hateful stares, clenched jaws, and gestures and voices that terrify.

For a long time, I believed that this was the world, that this was what life looked like. It was understandable: the war years coincided with my childhood, and then with the beginnings of maturity, of rational thought, of consciousness. That is why it seemed to me that war, not peace, is the natural state. And so, when the guns suddenly stopped, when the roar of exploding bombs could be heard no more, when suddenly there was silence, I was astonished. I could not fathom what the silence meant, what it was. I think that a grown-up confronted with that quiet could say: "Hell is over. At last peace will return." But I did not remember what peace was. I was too young for that; hell was all I knew.

Months passed, and war constantly reminded us of its presence. I continued to live in a city reduced to rubble; I climbed over mountains of debris, roamed through a labyrinth of ruins. The school that I attended had no floors, windows, or doors - everything had gone up in flames. We had no books or notebooks. I still had no shoes. War as trouble, as want, as burden, was still very much with me. I still had no home. The return home from the front is the most palpable symbol of war's end. Tutti a casa! But I could not go home. My home was now on the other side of the border, in another country called the Soviet Union. One day, after school, I was playing soccer with friends. One of them plunged into some bushes in pursuit of the ball. There was a tremendous bang: my friend was killed by a landmine. War thus continued to lie in wait for us; it didn't want to surrender. It hobbled along the streets supporting itself with wooden crutches, waving its empty shirtsleeves in the wind. It tortured at night in bad dreams those who had survived it.

But above all, war lived on within us because for five years it had shaped our young characters, our psyches, our outlooks. It tried to deform and destroy them by setting the worst examples, compelling dishonourable conduct, releasing contemptible emotions. "War," wrote Boleslaw Micinski in those years, "deforms not only the soul of the invader, but also poisons with hatred, and so deforms, the souls of those who try to oppose the invader." And that is why, he added, "I hate totalitarianism because it taught me to hate." Yes, to leave war behind meant to internally cleanse oneself, first and foremost to cleanse oneself of hatred. But how many made a sustained effort in that direction? And how many succeeded? It was certainly an exhausting and long process, a goal that could not be achieved quickly, because the psychological and moral wounds were deep.

When there is talk of the year 1945, I am irritated by the phrase, "the joy of victory". What joy? So many people perished! Millions of bodies were buried! Thousands lost arms and legs; lost sight and hearing; lost their minds. Yes, we survived, but at what a cost! War is proof that man as a thinking and sentient being has failed.

When there is talk of 1945, I remember that, in the summer of that year, my aunt, who miraculously made it through the Warsaw Uprising, brought her son, Andrzej, to visit us in the countryside. He was born during the uprising. Today, he is a man in late middle-age, and when I look at him I think how long ago it all was. Since then, generations have been born in Europe who know nothing of what war is. And yet those who lived through it should bear witness. Bear witness in the name of those who fell next to them, and often on top of them; bear witness to the camps, to the extermination of the Jews, to the destruction of Warsaw and of Wroclaw. Is this easy? No. We who went through the war know how difficult it is to convey the truth about it to those for whom that experience is, happily, unfamiliar. We know how language fails us, how often we feel helpless, how the experience is, finally, incommunicable.

And yet, despite these difficulties and limitations, we should speak. Because speaking about all this does not divide, but rather unites us, allows us to establish threads of understanding and community. The dead admonish us. They bequeathed something important to us and now we must act responsibly. To the degree to which we are able, we should oppose everything that could again give rise to war, to crime, to catastrophe. Because we who lived through the war know how it begins, where it comes from. We know that it does not begin only with bombs and rockets, but with fanaticism and pride, stupidity and contempt, ignorance and hatred. It feeds on all that, grows from that. That is why, just as some of us fight the pollution of the air, we should fight the polluting of human affairs by ignorance and hatred.

'When There is Talk of War,' translated by Klara Glowczewska, appears in the new issue of Granta, priced £9.99.

"In jedem Fremden wohnt ein Gott"

Ryszard Kapuscinski, polnischer Essayist und seit Montag neuer Bruno-Kreisky-Preisträger im STANDARD-Interview

Ryszard Kapuscinski, der große polnische Essayist ("König der Könige") und Zeitgeschichtsschreiber ("Der Fußballkrieg") wurde am Montag in Wien mit dem Bruno-Kreisky-Preis ausgezeichnet. Cornelia Niedermeier sprach mit ihm.

STANDARD:In Ihrer Rede bei der Verleihung des Kreisky-Preises am Montag sagten Sie, das wichtigste Problem der Menschheit im Moment sei nicht, wie manche behaupten, der Kampf gegen den Terrorismus, sondern die ungleich schwerere Aufgabe, möglichst vielen Menschen ein menschenwürdiges Leben zu ermöglichen.

Ryszard Kapuscinski: Wenn man behauptet, die wichtigste Aufgabe heute sei der Kampf gegen Terrorismus, dann ist das Manipulation. Eine Manipulation insofern, als es die Aufmerksamkeit ablenkt von dem wirklich wichtigsten Problem, mit dem wir uns heute konfrontiert sehen. Milliarden von Menschen fühlen sich durch den Terrorismus überhaupt nicht bedroht. Sie wissen überhaupt nicht, was Terrorismus ist. Aber sie wachen morgens auf und wissen nicht, was sie an diesem Tag essen sollen. Diese Menschen werden aber ausgeblendet. Man will sich nicht mit ihnen befassen . . .

STANDARD:. . . und ihre Probleme nicht lösen.

Kapuscinski: Die reiche Welt möchte die Frage der ungerechten Verteilung des Reichtums nicht lösen. Daher redet sie lieber über Terrorismus. Und die Manipulation wirkt. Die Menschen fragen heute ständig: "Was passiert im Irak?" Der Irak aber ist ein verhältnismäßig kleines Land. Und der Rest der Welt? Das interessiert momentan überhaupt niemanden. Unser Problem ist, dass 263 Menschen einen Reichtum besitzen, der ungefähr 43 Prozent des gesamten Vermögens der Welt ausmacht. Das sind die Verhältnisse, über die wir eigentlich reden sollten. Der Terrorismus ist hier ein Ablenkungsmanöver.

STANDARD:Worauf, denken Sie, sollte man den Fokus der Weltöffentlichkeit richten - jenseits von Irak und Nahem Osten?

Kapuscinski: Kein seriöser Kommentator kann Vermutungen darüber äußern, wie die Welt in zwanzig Jahren aussehen wird. Wir können nur beobachten, was heute passiert, und das analysieren. Doch es ist klar, dass eine der größten Veränderungen der gegenwärtigen Situation der Weltpolitik in dem Moment eintreten wird, wenn China sein Schweigen beendet.

Momentan schweigt China zum Terrorismus ebenso wie zum Irak. Es widmet sich seiner mit Höchstgeschwindigkeit vollzogenen Entwicklung. Doch in dem Moment, wo die Führer Chinas beschließen, offen Stellung zu beziehen, ist das eine Stimme, die auch die USA sehr, sehr ernst nehmen müssen. Das wird die Situation der internationalen Politik stark verändern. Bis dahin werden sich die Gewichtungen nur unerheblich verschieben. Konflikte, aber nichts substanziell neues.

"Kleinere" Veränderungen - wie nun die Erweiterung der Europäischen Union, die, geht es nach dem Wiener Kardinal Schönborn, vorerst eine christliche bleiben soll.

Kapuscinski: Er ist Kardinal. (lacht) Er muss das sagen, das ist sein Job. Auch ein Kardinal muss für sein Brot sorgen. Als ich letztes Jahr in Italien war, sagte dort ein anderer Kardinal, man müsse alle Muslime ausweisen. Zwei Millionen Menschen. Im Ernst: Wir leben im 21. Jahrhundert in einer Welt immenser Migrationsbewegungen, immenser demografischer Veränderungen. Da ist es unmöglich, eine einzige Identität für einen ganzen Kontinent zu schaffen.

Europa will seine Stärke erhalten. Aber seine Bevölkerung ist alt, ein Drittel der europäischen Bevölkerung ist über 60. Um eine dynamische Industrie weiterzuentwickeln, muss man also junge Arbeitskraft importieren. Und dafür gibt es momentan vor allem eine Quelle: Nordafrika. Und Nordafrika ist muslimisch. Europa muss sich also entscheiden: Entweder es ist christlich - oder es ist stark.

Die neuen Europäer werden in der Mehrzahl nichteuropäischen Ursprungs sein.

STANDARD:Im Oktober erscheint in Polen Ihr neues Buch "Reisen mit Herodot". Eine Rückkehr zu den Anfängen der europäischen Geschichtsschreibung?

Kapuscinski: Herodot war der erste Reporter, der Erfinder der Reportage - er reiste, sprach mit den Menschen, erfuhr ihre Geschichten und schrieb sie auf. Er schrieb das erste Reportagebuch der Weltliteratur. Das war vor 2500 Jahren. Und seither hat sich das Genre nicht geändert.

In meinem Buch verschränke ich die beiden narrativen Ebenen: Passagen von mir, von meinen Reisen nach Asien und Afrika, wechseln ab mit Passagen aus dem Werk Herodots. Tatsächlich reiste ich auf meinen ersten Reisen immer mit Herodot im Gepäck. Und eine der Grundfragen, die dem Buch zugrunde liegen - ich war mir dessen im Schreiben selbst nicht bewusst -, ist die Frage nach der Existenz des Fortschritts. Und es zeigt sich, dass der Fortschritt in ethischer Hinsicht nicht existiert. Dieselbe Grausamkeit, derselbe Hass, dieselben Folterqualen wie vor 2500 Jahren.

Fortschritt ist eine Frage der Technik. Der Mensch ist noch immer derselbe wie vor tausend Jahren.

STANDARD:Und für das nächste Jahr planen Sie bereits ein weiteres Buch - über Europa.

Kapuscinski: Es soll Ein anderes Europa heißen. Ein Europa der Minderheiten, der Wildnis, jenseits der Metropolen Paris, London, Wien. Wenn Menschen heute von Europa reden, meinen sie die EU und all ihre politischen, bürokratischen Probleme.

Aber vor einiger Zeit war ich zum Beispiel in Wales, bei einem Freund. Es gab da nichts. Keine Straße, keinen Menschen. Nur eine Herde wilder Pferde. Das war wie eine asiatische Steppe, wie im Land der Skythen. Aber es war Europa. Heute.

STANDARD:In einem Ihrer Bücher steht ein Satz, den man als eine Art Urmotiv Ihres Schreibens lesen kann. "Ich bin Detektiv einer positiv verstandenen Fremdheit, mit der ich in Berührung kommen möchte, um sie zu verstehen." - Ist das eine Gegenphilosophie zur Scheu vor dem Fremden?

Kapuscinski: 500 Jahre lang war die Welt dominiert von der europäischen Kultur, der Kultur der Kolonialherren. Nun wurden die einst kolonialisierten Länder nach und nach unabhängig. Und jetzt sind sie stolz auf ihre eigene Kultur, wollen in ihrer eigenen Identität respektiert werden. Der einzige Weg zu einer friedlichen Zukunft ist also, sich zu öffnen für die Vielzahl der fremden Kulturen. Vor allem wir Europäer müssen verstehen, dass wir nicht länger die Grundbesitzer des Planeten sind.

Denken Sie an Homers Odyssee: Wo immer Odysseus auf seinen Reisen hinkam, wurde der Fremde freundlich aufgenommen. Denn damals unterschied man noch nicht so eindeutig zwischen der Welt der Götter und der Welt der Menschen. Man konnte also nie wissen, ob der Fremde vor der Tür nicht vielleicht doch ein Gott war. Und das ist es, was vielleicht so etwas wie meine Philosophie ist: In jedem Fremden wohnt ein Gott.

(DER STANDARD, Printausgabe, 26.5.2004)

Detektiv des Anderen: Ryszard Kapuscinski referiert in Wien
Seine Analysen der Macht, ihrer Symbole und ihres Zerfalls - in Äthiopien wie im Iran, in der Sowjetunion wie in Angola - zählen zu den Meisterwerken der Gegenwart

30. November 2004

Wien - Ryszard Kapuscinski einen Reisejournalisten zu nennen, käme der Bemerkung gleich, sein Landsmann Karol Wojtyla sei Pfarrer in Rom.

Es ist schwer, das Phänomen Kapuscinski treffend zu charakterisieren. Immer besteht Gefahr, je nach Blickwinkel, einen wesentlichen Aspekt seines Werks zu unterschlagen. Ein Forscher der Macht, ein "Detektiv des Anderen", "einer positiv verstandenen Fremdheit, mit der ich in Berührung kommen möchte, um sie zu verstehen", untersuchte Kapuscinski Entstehung und Zerfall politischer Systeme, untersuchte deren Organisation und ihre Symbole, untersuchte Werte, Rhythmen, Rituale fremder Kulturen. Nie ohne tiefen Respekt vor der Würde jedes einzelnen Menschen.

Rhythmus der Sprache

1956 wurde er, 24-jährig, als Korrespondent ins eben unabhängige Indien geschickt. Nach Polen kehrte er in den kommenden Jahrzehnten nur zurück, um seine Notizen zu sichten und sie, den Rhythmus der Muttersprache im Ohr, zu Büchern zu verdichten. Werken jenseits herkömmlicher Genres, in ihrer spezifischen Verknüpfung präzisester journalistischer Recherche mit tiefer philosophischer Reflexion, von Essayismus und fiktionaler Prosa. Bücher, die auch aufgrund ihrer stilistischen Brillanz zu den Hauptwerken polnischer Literatur des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts zählen.

König der Könige. Eine Parabel der Macht, seine literarische Reportage vom Zerfall der absolutistischen Herrschaft Haile Selassies in Äthiopien (1978), wurde in New York zu einem der 150 wichtigsten Bücher des Jahrhunderts gekürt.


Aus hunderten fiktionalisierter Berichte setzt Kapuscinski darin das Bild eines Schreckensregimes zusammen. Der jede Reise begleitende Fußkissenträger des (körperlich sehr klein gewachsenen) Königs kommt ebenso zu Wort wie jener niedere Lakai, dessen Aufgabe Jahrzehnte hindurch darin bestand, hohen Würdenträgern des Hofes die Pisse des königlichen Schoßhundes von den Schuhen zu wischen.

Wie genau Kapuscinski seine Sprache dem jeweiligen Thema anpasste, geht aus Interview-Bemerkungen zur Entstehung von König der Könige hervor, veröffentlicht in Die Erde ist ein gewaltsames Paradies (2000): "Meine Kritik der autoritären Struktur der Macht drückte sich darin aus, dass ich ihre Unzeitgemäßheit bloßlegte. Dabei ging es zugleich darum, die Überholtheit unseres autoritären Systems in Osteuropa darzustellen. Also las ich sorgfältig die alte, feudale polnische Literatur des 16., 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts. Ich fand wundervolle, vergessene Wörter, die plastisch und farbenreich waren, und ich entwickelte daraus ein eigenes Vokabular."

In den Berichten von Diktaturen und Bürgerkriegen Lateinamerikas (Der Fußballkrieg, 1978) wiederum inspirierte ihn der "Rokoko-Effekt", der barocke Reichtum der spanischen Sprache. Nach 1989 reiste er 60.000 Kilometer durch den Dauerfrost Sibiriens, durchquerte die sich auflösende Sowjetunion von Brest bis Magadan, von Workuta bis Termes. Imperium. Sowjetische Streifzüge (1993) zeigt Detailbilder, Momentaufnahmen des zerfallenden Reiches. Etwa aus Workuta jenseits des Polarkreises, einem Kohlerevier, dessen Erschließung für hunderttausende Opfer des stalinistischen Terrors den Tod bedeutete - und in dem noch heute Bergleute bei -40 Grad Kälte in monatelanger Dunkelheit wenig mehr verdienen als die tägliche Mahlzeit.

Verirrt in der nächtlichen Schneehölle Workutas hätte Ryszard Kapuscinski fast das Leben verloren. Ein Risiko, das er, Augenzeuge Dutzender Revolutionen und Bürgerkriege, wiederholt in Kauf nahm. Ebenso wie Krankheiten. Etwa Malaria oder afrikanische Tuberkulose. Seine Reisen, denen intensive Lektüre vorausgeht, heißen niemals Erholung. "Mein Reisen bedeutet Aufmerksamkeit, Geduld zur Erkundung, Wille zum Wissen, zum Sehen, zum Verstehen und zur Akkumulation des gesamten Wissens. Solches Reisen ist Hingabe und harte Arbeit." Hingabe auf der Suche nach etwas so Ungreifbarem wie Wahrheit.

Cornelia Niedermeier


Ryszard Kapuscinski died 23th January 2007



June 10, 2007

On the Road With History’s Father




By Ryszard Kapuscinski. Translated by Klara Glowczewska.

275 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $25.


Ryszard Kapuscinski disappeared in the dead of winter, January 2007, half as well known as his influence would lead one to expect. He went into the beyond Nobel-less, like Joyce and Proust and Nabokov, but to many who read him he was as exalted: “deity” was used, more than once, in his assorted funeral songs. While such desperate formulations as “world literature” conjure up bongos, beads and sitting Indian-style, the books Kapuscinski wrote may actually qualify, as evocative and singular in English as they are in their native (and what is said to be austerely fine) Polish. For many of us, the day of his death was a dark, cold day.

Until 1983, most Western readers would have mistaken the man for Polish espresso. Kapuscinski’s first book to appear in English, thanks to the translation of the husband-and-wife team of William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand, was “The Emperor” (originally published in Polish in 1978), a spell-casting oral history of Haile Selassie’s rule over Ethiopia. “The Emperor” was followed in 1985 by what many believe to be Kapuscinski’s masterpiece, “Shah of Shahs” (originally published in 1982), a short, tense, fragmentary account of the 1979 Iranian revolution. In 1987 came “Another Day of Life” (originally published in Polish in 1976), his bizarre and shattering reportage from Angola as its former Portuguese overlords fled for their lives. These three books brought Kapuscinski acclaim in the West as perhaps the world’s leading literary journalist. The acclaim was rather tardy, seeing that for the past three decades Kapuscinski had been filing dispatches from the Indian subcontinent, Asia, Latin America and, most often, Africa, initially in the service of a Polish youth journal as its first and only foreign correspondent and later for the Polish Press Agency. As his now famous about-the-author note from “The Shadow of the Sun” (2001) informs us, Kapuscinski “witnessed 27 coups and revolutions” and “was sentenced to death four times,” a biographical précis many nonfiction writers would do anything, short of earning it, to have.

Kapuscinski’s African dispatches largely made his name. Like his countryman Joseph Conrad, to whom he is often compared and to whom he bears almost no resemblance, Kapuscinski has become embedded in the continent’s literary firmament. Upon Kapuscinski’s death, however, the young Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina attacked “the racist writer Kapuscinski” as being the author of some of his “all-time classic lines about Africa,” such as “In Africa, the notion of abstract evil — evil in and of itself — does not exist.” It is hard to blame those angered by some of Kapuscinski’s more careless statements about Africa. His risky generalizations may suggest a seeming lack of recognition of Africa’s varied and heterodox cultures, but that seems a minor sin in light of how deeply he attempted to understand it and how much of his life he spent there. Kapuscinski knew, of course, how complicated his subjects were. “The European in Africa,” he wrote in “The Shadow of the Sun,” “sees only part of it” and can only fall short when attempting to describe “the immense realm” of African psychology. His subject matter was local but his tone was cosmic, dislocated and sometimes surreal. His miner’s light lingered deep in recesses of totalitarianism, mysticism and revolution — places where truth begins to lose access to the photosynthesis of fact. A coloration not often noted by those in opposition to Kapuscinski is that his is the Africa of a man from a subject country who discovered it just as its nations were snapping the leashes of their colonial masters. In the end, great nonfiction writing does not necessarily require any accuracy greater than that of an honest and vividly rendered confusion. The limits of human perception cruelly bind us all.

Kapuscinski’s final book, “Travels With Herodotus,” is about the Father of History, a man so bound by his fifth-century-B.C. perception and experience as to appear by modern standards almost intellectually comatose. “He had never heard of China,” Kapuscinski writes, “or Japan, he did not know of Australia or Oceania, had no inkling of the existence, much less the great flowering, of the Americas. If truth be told, he knew little of note about western and northern Europe.” He also believed that Ethiopian men ejaculated black semen. Yet, to Kapuscinski, Herodotus was “the first globalist” and “the first to argue that each culture requires acceptance and understanding.” How much Herodotus actually traveled we cannot know, and a good deal of “Travels With Herodotus” is occupied with Kapuscinski’s ceaseless wonderings about his early life (“Did he build sand castles at the edge of the sea?”), family history (“Might Herodotus’s father have been a merchant himself?”) and personality (“Perhaps he had a naturally inquiring mind?”). The book’s true nature, however, is that of an unabashed memoir, the author’s first, and it opens with Ryszard, age 19, studying Greek history at Warsaw University. Although a Polish translation of Herodotus was not available until 1955, shortly after Stalin’s death, Kapuscinski became a lifelong pupil of Herodotus’s time, “a world of sun and silver, warm and full of light, populated by slender heroes and dancing nymphs.” It was also a world that seemed determined to destroy itself through internecine warfare.

Kapuscinski graduated and became a journalist. After being censured, hounded, and then exonerated by the authorities for writing an exposé of a grisly Polish factory intended to be a Communist showcase — a story curiously unmentioned here — Kapuscinski was rewarded with his first foreign assignment. He had asked for Czechoslovakia, the strangest place he could then imagine. He was given India. His editor presented the young journalist with a gift: “It was a thick book with a stiff cover. ... On the front, stamped in gold letters, was Herodotus, THE HISTORIES.”

Kapuscinski took the book with him everywhere — to India, to Afghanistan, to China, to Cambodia, to Rangoon. “Sometimes,” he writes, “when the offices emptied in the evening and the hallways grew quiet ... I reached for The Histories of Herodotus, lying in my drawer.” We are thus intended to believe that Herodotus served as Kapuscinski’s lifelong companion and was, in some ways, his intellectual hero. Yet one will search in vain for any mention at all of Herodotus in Kapuscinski’s previously published books in English. Is it all a device? If so, similar slipperiness has earned Kapuscinski no small amount of criticism from the sheriffs of nonfiction, most recently Slate’s Jack Shafer, who plucked the press tag out of Kapuscinski’s fedora earlier this year in a piece titled “The Lies of Ryszard Kapuscinski.” But calling Kapuscinski a liar is akin to one of the Pharisees investigating Jesus’ story of the prodigal son and proclaiming that the young man in question never left home at all. (As for the recent revelation that in the early 1970s Kapuscinski agreed to report to the secret police — though not on his fellow Poles — in exchange for some freedom to travel, it is intensely disappointing, of course. Much of what Kapuscinski wrote concerned the distortive and corrupting power of totalitarianism. If the allegations are true, then his personal life gave way where his art held firm. We can lament and condemn his weakness without completely forgetting his strength.) Obviously, one should not set out to consciously deceive in a piece of writing that purports to be true. From this understanding the gradations begin.

A nonfiction writer’s style provides the first corresponding clue as to how we are to approach the facts at hand. The style of the plain-spoken, rigorously invisible journalist semaphores one kind of approach, that of the poetical, allusive and interactive journalist another. These are not competitive styles. One is contentedly earthbound, while the other mingles in a Milky Way where morality is not a matter of proper dates and chronology but of representational accuracy, context, language. Its mode of communication is not discursive, or even necessarily informative, but visionary. It is called poetic license for a reason: one has to earn it. As Kapuscinski once said, impartial, unopinionated fact “is exactly what I avoid.” He continued, “If those are the questions you want answered, you can visit your local library.”

There is distressingly little to argue over in “Travels With Herodotus.” The narrative floats about like an uncaptained trireme — in the Sudan, Kapuscinski meets some questionable individuals, smokes a joint with them, goes to a Louis Armstrong concert and then ponders the Nile, which gets him thinking about Herodotus — and the pectorals of his language have lost some definition. “I burned the midnight oil studying up on guerrilla warfare in the jungles of Burma and Malaysia,” he writes at one point. Whether the presumably comparable Polish phrase being approximated here by his longtime translator Klara Glowczewska is as hoary can only be guessed. It may be unreasonable to expect a writer in his 70s to strive toward the same kind of originality as he did in his relative youth. But the writer in question is Ryszard Kapuscinski. There is a reason we do not allow our superheroes to grow old.

Those who know Kapuscinski’s work have their favorite moments. The scene in “Shah of Shahs” wherein Kapuscinski imagines a moment in which a police officer threatens a man in a crowd, who for the first time in his life “doesn’t budge ... and this is precisely the beginning of the revolution.” His description of how half of the Angolan city of Luanda was shipped away in crates during its siege, “as if a pirate fleet had sailed into the port, seized a priceless treasure and escaped to sea with it.” The sorcerer casts a few enchantments in “Travels With Herodotus,” but only one of them comes within range of either of the above. It occurs with Kapuscinski’s account of the construction of the Great Wall of China, built over thousands of years with “dedication and devotion” and “exemplary discipline.” And then the classic Kapuscinskian reversal: “This is how the world’s energy is wasted.”

A nameless energy gathers as one reads deeper into “Travels With Herodotus,” and one begins to realize that, in many ways, Kapuscinski’s previous books, however brilliant, were somewhat impersonal. Here, finally, we experience the early tremors Kapuscinski underwent for the privilege to write them. Not all of it is painful; much of it, in fact, is delightful — especially the revelation that Kapuscinski learned English from Hemingway. And one finally sees that in writing about Herodotus Kapuscinski is actually writing about himself. Herodotus tried to get the best information available, Kapuscinski notes, “and, given the epoch, this speaks to a tremendous expenditure of effort and to great personal determination. ... And if he knows something, how does he know it? Because he heard, he saw.”

Kapuscinski saw more, and more clearly, if not always perfectly, than nearly any writer one can think to name. Few have written more beautifully of unspeakable things. Few have had his courage, almost none his talent. His books changed the way many of us think about nonfiction and made many of us want to travel for ourselves and see for ourselves. Herodotus, Kapuscinski reasonably imagines, interviewed many of his subjects by campfire. “Later, these will be called legends and myths, but in the instant when they are first being related and heard, the tellers and the listeners believe in them as the holiest of truths, absolute reality,” he writes. And so “the fire burns, someone adds more wood, the flames’ renewed warmth quickens thought, awakens the imagination.” When the last page of this book is turned, note how much smaller and colder the world now seems with Kapuscinski gone.

Tom Bissell’s most recent book is “The Father of All Things.” He is working on a travel book about the Twelve Apostles.


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