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.

Ryszard Kapuscinski. Click image to expand.
Ryszard Kapuściński

The Washington Post obituary of Ryszard Kapuściński, who died Jan. 23, calls him "among the most celebrated war correspondents of his generation." The Los Angeles Times obituary proclaims him the "most celebrated of Polish journalists, whose work earned international acclaim." In the Guardian, director Jonathan Miller speaks of Kapuściński's "magnificent reportage" from Haile Selassie's royal court. The Daily Telegraph obituary describes him as "Poland's most renowned foreign correspondent and a witness to much of the turbulent birth of the Third World."

The obits and appreciations published this week make much of Kapuściński's bravery in reporting stories from Africa, Central America, the Middle East, and elsewhere. He's credited again and again for witnessing 27 coups and revolutions, of enduring malaria, tuberculosis, and blood poisoning in backwater hellholes. He is said to have lived on almost nothing while filing brilliant stories about deprivation and oppression, and he cheated death time and again as it claimed others. Take, for example, the much-repeated account that he wrote about escaping death after a gang soaked him with benzene at a roadblock in Nigeria during civil war. Irony, in the form of demonic laughter, saved his life.

John Updike worshipped him. Gabriel García Márquez tagged him "the true master of journalism." But there's one fact about the celebrated war correspondent and idol of New York's literary class that didn't get any serious attention this week. It's widely conceded that Kapuściński routinely made up things in his books. The New York Times obituary, which calls Kapuściński a "globe-trotting journalist," negotiates its way around the master's unique relationship with the truth diplomatically, stating that his work was "often tinged with magical realism" and used "allegory and metaphors to convey what was happening."

Scratch a Kapuściński enthusiast and he'll insist that everybody who reads the master's books understands from context that not everything in them is to be taken literally. This is a bold claim, as Kapuściński's work draws its power from the fantastic and presumably true stories he collects from places few of us will ever visit and few news organization have the resources to re-report and confirm. If Kapuściński regularly mashes up the observed (journalism) with the imagined (fiction), how certain can we be of our abilities to separate the two while reading?

Should we regard Kapuściński's end product as journalism? Should we give Kapuściński a bye but castigate Stephen Glass, who defrauded the New Republic and other publications by doing a similar thing on a grosser scale? Do we cut Kapuściński slack because he was better at observing, imagining, and writing than Glass, and had the good sense to write from exotic places? Exactly how is Kapuściński different from James Frey in practice if not in execution?

Some Kapuściński sympathizers want us to understand his books as allegories about the place he came from—totalitarian Poland. As a reporter for the government news agency, he couldn't write the truth about his country, so he channeled his experiences in Sudan, Ethiopia, Angola, El Salvador, Bolivia, Iran, and Chile, among other places, to speak about Polish life under Communism. That's fine with me as long as nobody calls his footwork journalism.

John Ryle inventories Kapuściński's skills at inventing details in a Times Literary Supplementpiece published in 2001 and recently revised. Ryle, currently of the Rift Valley Institute, documents scores of embellishments, fabrications, errors, and fictions in Kapuściński's work, most of which even the greatest fan of the man's work would not have gleaned had they given every page a close reading. So much for understanding Kapuściński in his context.

Ryle quotes a 2001 interview in the Independent, in which Kapuściński complains about the excess of "fables" and "make-believe," saying, "Journalists must deepen their anthropological and cultural knowledge and explain the context of events. They must read." He also captures Kapuściński criticizing the shoddy reporting of other foreign correspondents, which establishes that he paid lip service to the traditions of accurate reporting, even if he didn't observe them in the field. He wasn't very consistent on this point. In a 1987 interview in Granta,he speaks disdainfully of journalistic conventions, saying:

You know, sometimes the critical response to my books is amusing. There are so many complaints: Kapuscinski never mentions dates, Kapuscinski never gives us the name of the minister, he has forgotten the order of events. All that, of course, is exactly what I avoid. If those are the questions you want answered, you can visit your local library, where you will find everything you need: the newspapers of the time, the reference books, a dictionary.

The liberties Kapuściński takes with events, places, and people matter for the same reason it would matter if an Ethiopian journalist had covered the Solidarity uprising but ginned up his story in order to speak allegorical truth to the authorities in Addis Ababa. Nice try, but no journalism.

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 slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (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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