RYSZARD KAPUSCINSKI: A LIFE
By Artur Domoslawski
RYSZARD Kapuscinski, one of the 20th century's most celebrated political journalists, died in 2007. Posthumously, he found his biographer in a young admirer, Artur Domoslawski. Unsurprisingly, the biography created a cultural explosion in Poland. The fascinating but perplexing story it tells is of a great writer, a political trimmer and a compulsive confabulator. Nor is it a mere biography. Domoslawski understands that an account of Kapuscinski's life necessarily involves an exploration of how the younger generation of Poles ought to judge those entangled in the country's communist era.
Kapuscinski was born in Pinsk shortly before World War II. During Poland's Stalin era, while working as a journalist, he joined the communist party. Domoslawski discovers that Kapuscinski was at the time a communist zealot, although one driven more by enthusiasm than malice. Could he, though, have been unaware of the crimes of the Stalin era? Domoslawski is convinced he could not.
Although Kapuscinski covered his Stalinist tracks almost immediately, he adhered to the communist cause for almost another 30 years, moving opportunistically from one political position to another.
In 1955, he was part of the post-Stalin ''thaw''. From 1956, he supported the moderate communist nationalist Wladyslaw Gomulka. In 1968, a faction of the party with which he was aligned turned to anti-Semitism. Kapuscinski was fortunate to be abroad.
To the considerable surprise of colleagues at the magazine Kultura, Kapuscinski remained a committed communist during the dreary post-1970 Gierek era, although a mild critic of its bureaucratic deformation.
Briefly, he was swept up in the excitement of the Solidarity Revolution of 1980. When his colleagues at Kultura quit the communist party in 1981, despite great anxiety, so did he. Yet he never abandoned his natural caution.
In December 1981, martial law was declared. During the long struggle between the party and underground Solidarity, Kapuscinski sat determinedly on the fence, distancing himself from close party friends but refusing to write for Solidarity publications.
After the fall of communism in 1989, Kapuscinski fashioned a new identity as an anti-communist of the left. When he published his book on the collapse of the Soviet Union, Imperium, he conveniently forgot to mention his long adherence to the communist cause. By now, as Domoslawski shows, he was crippled by fear of political exposure.
He had good reason, for Kapuscinski had not merely been a political weathervane. His career as a Polish foreign correspondent and then world-famous author had been entirely reliant on the patronage of a number of highly placed Polish communist politicians, most importantly the talented but sleazy Ryszard Frelek.
Kapuscinski's reports of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles in Africa and Latin America suited his patrons. On his return from foreign assignment, he would provide his political friends with detailed political briefings. Yet there was more than this. Four months after his death, Kapuscinski's security file was opened. As it turned out, in the years before 1972 he fulfilled several minor commissions overseas for the Polish intelligence service, including one probably ineffectual denunciation of a 1968 Polish Jewish emigree.
As Domoslawski argues, there is a profoundly paradoxical connection between Kapuscinski's compromised politics and his literary greatness. Kapuscinski's reputation was earned by the books that grew from his foreign assignments, in particular The Emperor, about Haile Selassie's Ethiopian court, and The Shah of Shahs, about the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
The privilege of living abroad rested on maintaining friendship at the highest political levels. To succeed he had to remain sensitive to the ebb and flow of power in communist Poland.
By interleaving passages from The Emperor and The Shah of Shahs in his accounts of Kapuscinski's delicate corridor manoeuvrings, Domoslawski suggests that grubby political experience provides the answer to the central mystery of his towering literary achievement - the source of Kapuscinski's almost unrivalled understanding of the nature of power in its purest form.
Kapuscinski's politics are not Domoslawski's only unpleasant discovery. He goes to academic experts on the court of Haile Selassie and the fall of the Shah and is disconcerted to discover that they are more impressed by Kapuscinski's sensitivity to atmosphere than by the conscientiousness or truthfulness of his research. He takes seriously the most serious Kapuscinski critics, such as the Africanist John Ryle, who characterised Kapuscinski's writing as myth, not history, and, even worse, as a species of ''gonzo orientalism''. However, Domoslawski argues - in my view plausibly - that at least Kapuscinski's finest work will survive such criticism because with its artistry the distinction between fiction and non-fiction was eroded.
More dismayingly, Domoslawski also discovers that the character ''Ryszard Kapuscinski'' who appears in his subject's journalism and books is in reality a rather extravagant literary invention. Kapuscinski claimed to be a witness to the Mexico City massacre of Plaza de las Tres Culturas. In fact, he arrived four weeks later. For years he allowed his publisher to claim on the back cover of a book that he was a friend of a hero, Che Guevara. In fact, he never met him.
Kapuscinski told several stories about near-death experiences before firing squads. Domoslawski discovers they were fabrications. His closest friends were aware of his Walter Mitty character. One told Domoslawski that he divided by two everything that Kapuscinski told him.
In his final years as a world-famous writer, Kapuscinski lived in terror not only that his intelligence file would be opened but that his many literary lies would be exposed. After his death, Kapuscinski's young friend and admirer wrote this book, the one he so feared. And yet, quite strangely, despite everything it reveals, at the end the author's and readers' respect for Kapuscinski is far from destroyed.
There are several reasons why. Domoslawski is an enemy of what he calls ''anti-communist correctness''. He grasps the nature of the dreadful political world in which Kapuscinski was trapped, from which he never escaped. He does not deny Kapuscinski's failures of judgment. But he refuses to moralise cheaply at his expense.
It is true that Domoslawski sees the weaknesses of Kapuscinski's character - his grandiosity, his selfishness, his cowardice. But he also, and lovingly, sees its great attractiveness - Kapuscinski's vulnerability, charm, kindness, energy, generosity, curiosity, appetite for life.
Above all else, as he shows in the many haunting Kapuscinski passages he chooses to reproduce, Domoslawski understands that his subject is one of the handful of 20th-century political writers whose work might still interest readers in a hundred years' time. For that, he knows, very much indeed can be forgiven.
■Robert Manne is Professor of Politics and Convenor of the Ideas & Society Program at La Trobe University.