Ryszard Kapuscinski - the Polish writer who turned reporting into literature

Ryszard Kapuscinski, photo: de.wikipedia.org

The internationally-renowned Polish journalist and writer Ryszard Kapuscinski died in a Warsaw hospital on January 23, at the age of 74. He was probably Poland's best-known living author. His books, translated into thirty languages, can be described as a chronicle of the parts of world ravaged by war and conflict.

Foreign travels took Kapuscinski to many hotbeds of tension and scenes of upheavals. He witnessed 27 revolutions, mostly in Africa where he was Poland's only foreign correspondent in the 1960s and 70s. Hampered by the constraints of newspaper articles, he soon turned to writing books. One of the best-known of his 19 books, 'The Emperor', was an account of the downfall of Ethiopia's dictator Haile Selassie. For Polish readers, it brought to mind their own totalitarian leaders. 'The Shah of Shahs' described the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. In his books, Kapuscinski explored the structure of power in today's world.

"The most important problem is that we're living in the world in which the fruits of progress and development are very unjustly divided, and people, thanks to the TV and the media, the poor people, who are the majority, are feeling very strongly, very deeply this injustice, this situation to be marginalized. And this has produced among them a very strong feeling of frustration, of unhappiness. Eventually of hate and revenge."

Ryszard Kapuscinski is often described as a man who elevated the art of reportage to literature. For sociologist and writer Jadwiga Staniszkis, his books are indeed first-rate literature.

"He was an excellent writer, able to prepare pictures of very complicated events without being a judge. He was not taking sides. He was not a moralist in any way. He was trying to find solutions and was able to write about deep structures of the problems, not just about people."

Kapuscinski was born in Pinsk, a small town now in Belarus in 1932. It was overran by Soviet soldiers when he was a boy, and he later spoke on many occasions about his experiences with totalitarianism. In 'Imperium' he chronicled the break-up of the Soviet Union. Yet, he didn't write a single book about Polish matters. Jadwiga Staniszkis again:

"I think Kapuscinski was planning eventually to write a book on Poland, in a sense waiting to find a key, because usually he worked by finding some concrete event which was at the same time a sort of symbolic moment. Kapuscinski was looking for something like that in Poland. He was enthusiastic about Solidarity. For him it was not solidarity of intelligentsia. He was conscious of the deep moral transition inside the common people."

Ryszard Kapuscinski was said to have been among the candidates for last year's Nobel Prize for literature. He died two months before his 75th birthday.