10.10.14

Artur Domosławski - Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life (Kapuściński non-fiction)

Rating 7.6

Role-playing anyone?

Suppose you are a young journalist hired by the best newspaper of your homecountry. You're talented and ambitious, but not that experienced. Among your colleagues in the newsroom there's a middle aged and well read reporter who everyone looks at in awe. Not only this guy travelled and reported from four continents. This guy is unanimously considered the dean of reporters nationwide and even gained recognition abroad.

Step by step you get to know the great reporter.
He's getting bald, but is still athletic. He's charming, polite and considerate: no wonder women adore him. He smiles to everyone and dishes out compliments and tips to the younger journalists, including you. It doesn't matter that most of those tips are rather generic as they come from Him, the Maestro.

In the meantime you write and publish your own stuff, you get experience and gain some credit into the journalism circles. Now the Maestro pops up very rarely in the newsroom. After all, he has a score of prestigious invitations to oblige. He's often abroad leading seminars, workshops, collecting prizes and meeting his evergrowing readers.
And yet, the Dean of Reporters does spend some of his precious time with you. He invites you at his home. He calls you. He talks politics with you. You two even argue sometimes. That's a privilege and you know it.

Do you know Him well? Not that much. True, you'd like to know the Maestro better, but he doesn't like private questions and always looks reluctant when asked about his youth and his earlier adventures abroad.
You notice that reticence, but that doesn't bother you much. You've your own features to work on and your own travels to write home about.

Then the Maestro passes away.
A few months later you start working on your next book: His biography.

Now some questions arise:
- Why would you like to write this biography?
- What are you going to write about those years and those topics He never talked about?
- Who are you going to interview to learn more about Him?
- Where are you going to take your readers, people who loved His books and wish to know more about Him?
- When are you going to stop in making speculations and writing hidden details of His private life?
And, first and foremost:
- How would you like to portray this friend of yours, this dean of reporters turned into national hero?

I believe Artur Domoslawski posed similar questions to himself and I'm glad he did.
For this Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life (the original Polish title, Kapuscinski non-fiction, should have been kept) was certainly not an easy book to write. Which doesn't mean that this biography is not interesting to read; in fact quite the contrary.

I do understand Kapuscinski's widow and many reviewers bearing a grudge on the author upon the publication of this book. The dean of Polish journalism and one of the most famous reporters worldwide to date doesn't come out as an entirely positive character from this biography.
To those - like me - who loved Kapuscinski's reportages and essays, Mr Domoslawski could look rather ruthless in writing about the dark sides of the great Polish journalist. Especially considering how he knew him quite well and was a colleague of his. Sometimes the author seems to enjoy digging into Kapuscinski's dirty laundry revealing his extramarital relationships, the troubles with his estranged daughter as well as his political involvement in communist Poland.

Tu quoque, Brute!
Well, to some extent.

True, Mr Domoslawski is far from being soft with his old pal Ryszard and could have easily left out some of the nastiest stuff about him, but I don't look at him as if he stabbed dead Kapuscinski in the back.
Hundreds of pages here are devoted to the great reporter travels and accomplishments and there is literally a ton of quotations from his most and less famous works.
To me it looks crystal clear how the author studied Kapuscinski's oeuvre very carefully and delivered a great insight on his complex personality. Had Mr Domoslawski ignored the shadows drawn by the shining sun of the great reporter, it would have been harder to appreciate what the dean of Polish journalists left us.

And what did Kapuscinski leave us is essentially fantastic literature written with passion and dedication, books full of illuminating observations on the human nature and brilliant analysis on power in politics.
As it happened, most of this excellent literature was delivered through reportages which were - strictly speaking - works of art rather than dry chronicling.
Kapuscinski did embellish or dramatize some of his facts and was aware of that: he just couldn't admit that in public as everyone labelled him a journalist. And yet he considered himself an author, an intellectual, a poet and, coming fourth, a reporter.

Towards the end of his life, Kapuscinski became a victim of his own myth: readers and fellow journalists expected him to tell them how to become reporters, how to put facts into beautiful words.
But what he would have liked to teach them was rather how to put beauty into facts. Unless that he couldn't say that. They regarded him as a Maestro of factual objectivity, but he pursued feelings not objectivity and loved to take sides.

Domoslawski explains this inner dilemma (and others) very well and this goes to his credit.

Five stars don't belong here, see my mild criticism above, but four do fit well.

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