Ryszard Kapuscinski – journalist with a mission

Born in Pinsk, now in Belarus, Ryszard Kapuscinski is one of the most renowned journalists of our time. Often referred to as “the poet of reportage”, his numerous works illustrated general truths about our world and compelled the readers to immerse themselves in diverse cultures.

Ryszard Kapuscinski studied history at the University of Warsaw and found his calling as a journalist at 23 years old when he joined the Banner of Youth – a newspaper for young communists. Soon after writing a controversial piece on the social issues prevalent in Nowa Huta – an industrial district of Cracow meant to be one of the showpieces of communist Poland – he was forced to go into hiding. Following a change of heart among Poland’s regime, he was sent on a trip to India in September 1956, the first of his many journeys outside of the boundaries of his home country. From that point on, he would embark on many travels across the developing world reporting on wars, coups, and revolutions in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

In his early years as a journalist, Kapuscinski developed a technique of having two notebooks – one for writing down facts he would later pass on to the Polish News Agency (PAP) which allowed him to earn his living, and another dedicated to his personal reflections and experiences that would later turn into his famous books. There were many memories left from his distant travels that he could not write about as a journalist. Instead, he encapsulated his seemingly incommunicable insights in what became known as “literary reportages” verging on fiction. Kapuscinski’s best-known book is just such a reportage-novel on the fall of the extraordinary figure Haile Selassie’s regime – “The Emperor”, which has been translated into over 30 languages. Although Kapuscinski focused on the dictatorship in Ethiopia, many readers saw the book as an allegory of Communist power in Poland, or of autocratic regimes in general.

The journalist often referred to Africa as his home and reported on many crucial events in the continent’s history. In the 1960s and 1970s, Kapuscinski witnessed firsthand the end of European colonialism on that continent. His book “Another Day of Life” (1976) is a unique and deeply perceptive account of the collapse of Portuguese colonialism in Angola, permeated by his personal experiences and close relationships with the people involved in the bloody civil war this country went through on its path to independence. Kapuscinski was the only Eastern European journalist during the chaotic summer of 1975 in Luanda where he discovered a sense of loneliness and helplessness previously unknown to him.

Among his other books was “Shah of Shahs” (1982), on the last Shah of Persia, and collections of stories such as “The Soccer War” (1978), “The Shadow of the Sun” (1998), Imperium (1993), essays and reportage on the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the mechanisms of dictatorships, and five volumes of essays and poems, “Lapidarium”. The volumes of this series are a record of the shaping of the reporter’s observations into philosophical reflections on the world, its people, and their suffering.

Kapuscinski was a compassionate writer who turned private experiences into a greater social synthesis. His writing about developing countries is permeated by a sense of curiosity and openness that made him popular across all continents. Even though he witnessed numerous acts of violence, death, and suffering, his attitude to humanity remained optimistic. He used an array of stylistic devices, psychological portraits, and sophisticated narrative techniques as his means of interpreting the world, which brought him closer to his readers.

Yet even before Kapuscinski’s death, in 2007, his works were criticized for straying away from facts towards fiction. He blurred the line between fact and fiction which led to a debate about the accuracy of his writing and the extent to which it should be regarded as journalism or literature. Kapuscinski responded with the explanation that his work had been allegorical. The writer’s assistant, Bozena Dudko says that his literary reportages should not be treated in the same way as reportages in a newspaper.

The reassessment of Kapuscinski’s legacy does not undermine the fact that Kapuscinski was a brilliant writer and journalist who was able to communicate the incommunicable, speak of the unspeakable, and bring his readers closer to the truth about the world. He won a number of prestigious awards all over the world for his outstanding contribution to reporting and literature. He is also the patron of the prestigious Ryszard Kapuscinski International Award given annually for the best literary reportage.

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