There is a scene somewhere in Ebony in which Kapuściński and his travelling companion discover a huge poisonous snake in the shed where they have to spend the night. I don’t have my copy handy, perhaps it was cobra or maybe another kind of snake. For some reason, they have to put the serpent to death. They use a petrol can as their weapon. They press it down on the snake trying to crush it. They both lie down on the jerry can in an attempt to mash the beast to a pulp. The snake will not give in and they can feel it straining to free itself. At times it even manages to lift the metal container with the two human bodies on it, threatening to escape and attack them.
For me this scene, this dozen or so sentences, are the best thing Kapuściński has ever written. I think “Kapuściński” and I see the battle with the snake. I don’t care if he made it all up or if it really happened. Maybe it didn’t.After all, the idea of directly challenging something as poisonous as hell and as fast as lightning is risky at the very least. Yet the image of the writhing serpent’s body capable of lifting the weight of two grown men in the struggle is an absolute triumph of literature. In my imagination I try to conjure up the dry rustling sound of a body beating against the metal can.
Well then. So what was it about him? Was it the truth of his stories that moved us or rather his literary skill? Would we have cared about the truth if it had been presented in a clumsy, boring, pretentious way? Would it have affected the way we think? To put it bluntly, would it have provided us with sufficient entertainment to keep our interest at least for a while? Would we have stopped reading him if the truthful proportions of fact to fiction had been revealed to us? At what density, what percentage of one to the other does the solution start having an intoxicating effect? Or a nauseating effect? And would the pure, distilled and transparent truth have had the ability to affect us at all?
As far as I am concerned, I think I have always read him for the sake of reading; for the sheer joy of reading. The joy of sentences, paragraphs, excerpts and stories he was able to weave from details, minute observations, tiny scraps. Was it all true? Was it 100 percent fact, like a police report? I could not care less. As years go by we lose our capacity for naive reading – the magic of childhood and youth. A writer is a liar although he himself may be under the impression that he is writing the truth. One always writes for one’s own sake and not on behalf of truth.
Could Kapuściński have sensed the advent of a new era that was going to render old forms of communication obsolete? After all, he was a clear-sighted researcher of the world and must have known which way the wind was blowing. He must have realized that we are living in a time when genres are getting confused, in hybrid times. Genres such as the novel, the reportage, or the cinema are undergoing radical change. And if the novel has changed, why should the reportage of all genres stay unchanged and be ultimately sentenced to become an anachronism? He must also have been aware that our life is changing radically. It is becoming more and more fictional. He knew, after all, that we are increasingly dealing with images, phantoms and mirages and less and less with reality.Reality in the ancient, old-fashioned sense at any rate. That is, a reality that can be experienced through direct contact. For example, while travelling. Or through stories told by a traveller. Truth has retreated into the past. Why should we demand it of a reporter, of all people, if we no longer demand it of ourselves, accepting personal, individual truths? We have come to accept truths that are completely individual and unique. Isn’t it hypocritical to demand the one and only truth of the journalist while we ourselves are content with our own truth, perfectly adapted to circumstances?
Everything is being worn out, broken and ageing, we are bombarded with new models of things, new models of behaviours, new models of ideas. This is the world we have created. Truth also has to be perfected, tuned and face-lifted, otherwise nobody will give a damn about it.
Kapuściński, just like all of use, had his own truth. He had his own truth of Africa and South America, of the poor and the rich, of life. He did everything he could to convince us he was right. At the same time it is the reader’s God-given right not to believe a single word an author has written. Or to believe him only in parts, to take what we need to fit into the world. One can also believe the author absolutely, but that is the worst solution of all.
And this is precisely what I find most fascinating about the book “Kapuściński non-fiction” – the making of a writer’s vision, the mixing of the real and the unreal that emanates from a writer’s head, entering the world and somehow managing to alter it, in spite of everything.
Yet this is just one of the aspects Artur Domosławski has tackled. “Kapuściński non-fiction”, a multi-faceted, exhaustive story not only of a man but, to the same extent, of an era in which he happened to live, has become, more or less intentionally, also a book about us readers, before it was even published.
Some time ago I talked to a certain professor of literature. I knew he already had the text and asked him what he thought. He replied: I haven’t read it yet but judging by the controversy it must be very good. He was right. DomosławskiÂs book is great because, by telling the story of the famous reporter, it simultaneously tells the story of our failures and inferiority complexes. It demonstrates how woefully unprepared we are for encountering a reality that does not necessarily match our expectations. It demonstrates how strongly we are attached to our own haughty dreams, while showing our childish helplessness when faced with a picture that is more complex than our naive projections.
Who would have thought that a person enjoying such universal esteem as Władysław Bartoszewski, without disgracing himself by reading it first, would compare Domosławski’s book to a brothel guide, thereby furnishing proof not only of a lack of common sense but also of common arrogance.The writer’s widow has tried to prevent the book’s publication through the courts. Failing that, she has resorted to blackmail, threatening to withdraw permission for printing and reprinting Kapuściński from publishers who print Non-fiction. Instead of protecting her husband’s memory – which is no doubt what she imagines she is doing – she has exposed it to ridicule. The publisher in Kraków who has decided to drop the biography makes falsely sentimental noises to the effect that he would not have been able to look his friend (i.e. Kapuściński) in the eye had he published such a thing. We are left to guess that had he published a panegyric, he would have had no problem looking the author in the eye. One publisher, when talking to me, lowers his voice dramatically: You wouldn’t like your daughter to read that sort of thing about you one day.
Ryszard Kapuściński wanted to be famous. He was a boy from the swampy town of Pińsk who rose to world fame. Yet he used to fume and suffer when a newspaper wanted to publish his photograph without Garcia Márquez even though it could just as easily have printed a picture with Gabriel which did exist as proof of the writers’ friendship. So he was famous and wanted to be even more famous. Fame exerts a pull, there is never enough of it since one never knows where it might end; in theory it can expand ad infinitum.These days fame has a lot to offer, especially for a boy from Pińsk. Fame makes the world his oyster. But nothing is for free. Fame demands its due. It gives you a lot and it demands a lot in exchange. One cannot be famous only to the extent one chooses.One cannot be famous only for one selected reason. Or in one selected area. Fame is a package, it is a total service. If you are very famous, you are equally famous to the wise and to the idiots. If you are very famous your entire life becomes famous, not just its selected parts. This is a lesson the defenders of the writer’s imaginary honour do not get. Basking in the warmth of his fame – like the Kraków publisher – they pretend not to understand the mechanisms of this phenomenon.
Artur Domosławski’s book paints an ambiguous and fascinating picture of a writer and a man. Only against the backdrop of weakness, of the compromises and failures does real greatness become visible. Immaculate heroes are infantile heroes. If we choose them instead of real characters, we infantilize ourselves while also infantilizing our collective memory. Kapuściński was like Poland: torn, willing to compromise, certainly scared, certainly selfish, but at the same time full of strength and determination. In spite of the times and his complicity he kept weaving his unique and beautiful narrative.
After all, to paraphrase an old joke, the reason we value him is not because he was friends with Ryszard Frelek [journalist, diplomat, foreign relations expert and communist official] and a skirt-chaser but because, apart from Frelek and everything else, he has left us ‘The Emperor’, ‘Shah of Shahs’ and ‘Ebony’. Or perhaps not apart from but in spite of.
At the same time, “Kapuściński non-fiction” opens a space for discussion of the state of our consciousness. Judging by the stir it has caused before it was even published (and in some cases, before it was even read), it is clear we are poorly equipped to function in the present-day world of media. Our consciousness is still stuck somewhere in the 19th century when it was still possible to keep one’s private and public image apart. We have not yet internalized Andy Warhol’s casual prophecy that the time has come when everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. Famous, i.e. public, generally accessible.
Except that our fame may not always relate to our achievements. Quite often it will be a totally autonomous phenomenon following its own rules incomprehensible to many.
P. S. The discussion has turned truly national. Bishop Życiński himself has raised his voice in alarm. Referring to the writer’s participation in the Second Congress of Christian Culture he has pronounced something resembling a declaration of his immunity. If memory does not fail me, public rebukes of specific artists from the highest representatives of the church hierarchy have been pretty rare: one, from Cardinal Wyszyński, concerned [Jerzy Grotowski’s] Teatr Laboratorium while another, from Cardinal Glemp, was directed at [Czesław] Miłosz. This augurs well for Artur Domosławski’s book, filling me with glee.
Translation: Julia Sherwood
This article was originally published in Polish in the Gazeta Wyborcza on 02, March 2010.