Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The complicated Mr. Kapuściński

I've read a few books by Ryszard Kapuściński and thoroughly enjoyed them. He was a marvelous raconteur. The one book of his I posted about was Travels with Herodotus, a half-memoir and half-reflection on Herodotus' The Histories. Reading it just after re-reading The Histories was perfect timing, amplifying my pleasure of it.

The liberties Kapuściński took in his writings and his collaboration with the Communist intelligence agency in Poland has been a problem in reading his work. Artur Domosławski's recently translated Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life documents many of the issues that have followed Kapuściński and his books. (I haven't read the book yet, so I'm relying the reviews I've read, including those listed below.) The most recent review I've read is by Paul Ost in Dissent magazine. Read the whole thing for Domosławski's take on the development of Kapuściński's outlook and politics. The part I find most interesting, though, is the point Ost makes in the review of Kapuściński's exaggerations as compared to his silences. Why exaggerate the mundane or what isn't important while leaving out fascinating experiences? The obvious answer is because he was a master storyteller. But to Ost's point, these were choices that made Kapuściński who he was as much as the other details Domosławski covers:
“Passion, passion, passion!” Domosławski quotes Kapuściński telling a friend, speaking of the indispensable quality that makes for good creative work. The only serious weakness of this biography is that we don’t see the passion that is so clearly stamped into Kapuściński’s character. Domosławski focuses more on the logistics of his travels and the veracity of selected texts than on the passions that animated him. We get glimpses of these in descriptions of his encounters with friends and in the reminiscences of those friends. But something about the man remains a mystery. Kapuściński could sit for days with street people and guerrillas, listening but not writing. Other times, he carried a gun, in Angola apparently used it—yet the same man who often overstated banal events kept silent about this. There’s something here way beyond fascination with the third world that one wishes his pupil Domosławski had tapped into. Domosławski gives us a Kapuściński of the Left, but tells us too much about his relationship to the Party and not enough about the ardor in all his choices.

Yet this remains an extraordinary book offering a complex picture of a man and his time, and provoking in the reader the deepest reflections—on literature and journalism, the nature of political commitment, and the challenges to maintaining that commitment as the world changes around you.

I still plan on reading the biography since it seems to be generally well done about a writer I still enjoy reading. For some more reviews of the biography that go into detail:

A good overview on the problems the biography raises can be found in Neal Ascherson's essay on the book and Kapuściński's writing.

A review of the biography by Peter Englund at Financial Times.


LMR said...

Thanks for the post, it helps me remember that I need to read Kapuściński; he's another writer I keep postponing.

Dwight said...

I hate to add to anyone's TBR pile...wait, I guess I don't or I wouldn't post at all. Caution: I find him addictive.