Saints and sinners, or, my hero’s life.

I just finished reading a biography of Ryszard Kapuscinski, by Artur Domoslawski, a Polish journalist.

Having known next to nothing about Kapuscinski the human being except what he himself saw fit to reveal in his books (not that much) it was an interesting read. This was a guy who adored his mother, poetry and football. He was also a compulsive book-underliner, someone who hated unnecessary confrontation and someone with no sense of direction–all quirks that I have, which I found kind of amusing.

He also exaggerated the poverty of his village background to emphasize how far he had come– his parents were actually middle-class professionals, schoolteachers, although they did live in the middle of nowhere, in what is now Belarus.

He was a true believer in Soviet-style communism until the Solidarity era, even though he himself had done a few hard-hitting investigative pieces on its failures.

He rarely if ever lied, but if other people’s inaccurately drawn conclusions would make the story interesting, he didn’t bother to correct them (for example, he didn’t “befriend” or even get a chance to interview Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba or Kwame Nkrumah, but he did get at least see and hear the last two in person…

He “never treated any woman as an equal partner in conversation,” according to one of his friends. I did notice that women, except for one teenage Angolan girl soldier, were barely even named in his books, and he never once mentions his wife and daughter– although he had enough respect for his wife to encourage her not to drop her ambition of becoming a doctor (she did become a doctor).

The legend that he picked up a gun and fought in Angola is probably true– “You can’t be understanding towards someone who’s got you in their sights,” he later said, although for a journalist to carry a weapon in self-defense now would be breaking all of the unwritten rules of war reporting.

A few passages, then, that your humble servant, the compulsive book underliner, compulsively underlined:

“Passion, passion, you’ve got to have a passion!”

“Being occupied with the revolutions of the poor south is neither a job suited to making a fortune nor a painful practical duty– it is a passion (he adored that word) an intellectual, often strongly personal commitment,” says Domoslawski (233)

“I was shaped (says Kapuscinski) by everything that shapes so-called Borderlands man (he was born near the Polish border with the Soviet Union in what is now Belarus). Borderlands man is always and everywhere an intercultural person, someone in-between. He is a person who learns from childhood, from playing in the yard, that people are different and that otherness is simply a feature of mankind…” (p12) 

“As I sit here in Lagos I realize that I’ll never have a time in Africa like I had in Dar. That was totally exceptional, because I met you two, and we were together. Here I feel homesick for Dar, but for Dar with you, I mean the sort of Dar that no longer exists. We only grow fond of a place if there’s someone we love in that place.” (p. 155)

(A neat reflection on the nature of missing things. We rarely if ever ONLY miss places. we miss the experiences we had in those places, which are inextricably tied up with the people we had them with. I love Ottawa, but if I went to Ottawa and didn’t find Devan, or my old Carleton crowd of Cameron, Mbonisi, Jean-Sébastien and Eugène– who are already scattered to the four winds–there would be something lonely and barren about it, it wouldn’t be home, or at least not the home I lived in and loved for the better part of five years. I wrote a song once, in dubiously grammatical French, that (in translation) began: “Home is not a place, it’s a moment, a moment that we’ve let go by before we we even realize…”)

Switching away from personal reflections and onto the geopolitical cynicism of which he was a deservedly renowned observer (which still very much exists today and almost invariably stomps on the little guy)

“From now on, Washington will conduct a war against communism in Latin America. In practice, this involves supporting even the most bestial of regimes as long as they are capable of stifling movements for social liberation, not just communist or pro-Soviet movements but also the softest movements for agricultural reform, social legislation, democratic elections and the dismantling of the post-colonial ownership structure.” (173)

“What was my motivation in writing about Guatemala, for instance? The main reason was to defend these people, the guerillas, to defend their dignity, their rationale. We hear terrible things about these people, the most disgraceful stories, because the entire information system distributed all over the world is a system of the right. It never utters a single word about what the regimes are like…or the reality that forces those militants to fight. It will only keep repeating its condemnation of terrorists. But keep in mind that all national liberation movements, including the Polish liberation movement during the last war, were defined by the official media as ‘terrorism’…” (200)

(Domoslawski observes) “Kapuscinski shows without ambiguity that in the Third World countries, the ‘free’ West shares responsibility for the enslavement of societies…Kapuscinski soon draws the conclusion that viewing the world through the Cold War spectacles of East and West, Communism and Capitalism, obscures rather than clarifies the picture. He finds the north-south perspective more important and more accurate– the division into the affluent world and the world of poverty and exclusion, and all the consequences of that division.” (204)

Domoslawski, a journalist himself, points out where Kapuscinski gets it right: “Is it in showing great events and great history from the worm’s, rather than the bird’s eye view that Kapuscinski’s magic lies? Unquestionably that is one of its major sources.” (290)

And a few quotes from the man himself…

“If we don’t smooth out the inequalities of the world even to a minimal degree, we shall end up killing each other.” (360)

“Without empathy it is impossible to share the joys and sufferings of the people we write about.” (393)

“Everything I did, I did with immense conviction.” (he liked to say). (p57)

Kapuscinski was a maverick who, although he said, wrote and did a lot of admirable things, also did some things that weren’t admirable at all– emotionally neglecting his wife and daughter, putting political necessities above friendships, getting extremely defensive at the slightest criticism–and used the proverbial journalism ethics rulebook as it suited him, failing to correct errors, specify confabulations and composites or attribute…many observers even say that The Negus, the book he wrote about Haile Selassie’s court, practically belongs in the fiction section of any bookstore. But while pointing all this out, Domoslawski quotes Clayborne Carson, the history professor who discovered that Martin Luther King committed some plagiarism in his doctoral thesis.

“It isn’t good to admire people for being perfect, because if they turn out to have faults or stains on their résumé–and they always have–our faith is bound to collapse in ruins. Better to admire our idols for the extraordinary things they do, despite being completely ordinary people.”

The guy wasn’t perfect; he was no saint. Damien isn’t perfect. Hugo Chavez wasn’t perfect. My parents and friends aren’t perfect, neither are yours. But all have done things we can admire, once we stop expecting people to be perfect.


About msmarguerite

Young Quebec City-based freelance journalist. once and future nomad. I blog about life, about travel, about things I notice and every so often about work. I enjoy language learning, singing, swing dancing, skating and...other stuff, sometimes. My heart is somewhere in East Africa, Haiti or Eastern Europe. English, français, русский, malo slovensko, un poco de espanol, um pouco de português ndiga ikirundi, mwen ap aprann kreyòl...
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