The lies of Ryszard Kapuściński—or, if you prefer, the "magical realism" of the now-departed master.
The lies of Ryszard Kapuściński—or, if you prefer, the "magical realism" of the now-departed master.
Media criticism.
Jan. 25 2007 6:18 PM

The Lies of Ryszard Kapuściński

Or, if you prefer, the "magical realism" of the now-departed master.

(Continued from Page 1)

Ryle writes that the

criticisms do not rob Kapuściński's work of its bright allure, its illuminating moments, its often lively sympathy for the people of the countries he writes about, but they warn us not to take it seriously as a guide to reality.


A "guide to reality" is a pretty good pocket definition of journalism, if you ask me.

Some Kapuściński enthusiasts believe that his "techniques" are defensible because they allow writers to reach a higher truth than does the low-octane variety of journalism. Slate's Meghan O'Rourke writes that our culture needs a label for the hybrid bred by Kapuściński, and such writers as Joseph Mitchell and Truman Capote, whose books straddle the wall between fiction and nonfiction. Dave Eggers attempts such labeling (successfully, I'm told) in his new book, What Is the What, which bills itself as the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng done as a novel.

Truth in packaging for wall-straddling authors would calm my savage, beating heart, but I'm still bothered by the conceit. Every news story ever published could be better—contain a higher truth, if you will—if reporters were allowed to make up stuff. The measure of a journalist, especially a foreign correspondent, is to achieve the effect of Kapuściński without scattering the pixie dust of magical realism. Dexter Filkins, John Burns, Anthony Shadid, Carlotta Gall, and other geniuses of foreign correspondence have astonished readers without "allegorizing." To create a special category of international reporting that is true—except where not specified as true—would diminish the true masters' feats.


Feats don't fail me now. Kapuściński fans are invited to pour benzene over my naked body and set it afire with e-mail to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at