The information-gathering power of the modern bureaucratic state has dealt a serious blow to hagiography. Everyone has secrets, and these days everyone has a file, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Günter Grass. Earlier this year, the tyranny of the paper trail claimed another victim when Poland’s edition of Newsweek dug into the archives of that country’s Communist-era intelligence service and found documents suggesting that Ryszard Kapuscinski, the great itinerant chronicler of the developing world, had also been an informant. Kapuscinski had died just a few months before the disclosure, but his widow called the story “slander,” and the late author’s many admirers leaped to his defense, questioning the reliability of the archives as well as the motives of Poland’s right-wing government, which uses historical inquiry as a political weapon.
On closer examination, though, the documents–at least those that have so far been summarized in English–don’t say much about Kapuscinski that would surprise his readers. During the late 1960s and early ’70s, at a time when he was stationed in Latin America, he filed brief reports on local politics and Cuban foreign policy and wrote up character sketches of a few notables. His handlers, with a whiff of officious disdain, code-named him Poet. Years after closing his file, they reportedly concluded that the writer “did not pass on any essential material the secret police was interested in.”
Reading that last line, I couldn’t suppress a chuckle. All journalism is a kind of spycraft, which is one reason intelligence agencies everywhere try to recruit foreign correspondents. And in some ways, Kapuscinski–or at least the identity he created in his books–resembles a character from a pulp paperback. He mysteriously drops into war zones, hitching rides on cargo planes. He drives through burning roadblocks, as he writes in one famous (and famously overheated) passage in his book The Soccer War, “along a road where they say no white man can come back alive.” He is everywhere, behind and between the front lines, and yet no one ever seems to notice him. At a recent tribute to Kapuscinski’s life and work, held as part of a PEN literary festival, Salman Rushdie repeated the journalist’s maxim for survival: “I make myself seem not worthy of the bullet.” He made himself invisible, in other words: a secret agent. And yet, insinuating as he was, it’s hard to imagine a correspondent less likely to make a successful spy. Kapuscinski’s acolytes often hail him as an interpreter and explainer–of the Third World, of revolutions, of the experience of despotism–but I think they are missing his point. Kapuscinski describes, he evokes, but for all the unquestionable beauty of his words, he doesn’t produce actionable intelligence. He is an oracle of the indeterminate.
A few weeks after the revelation from the secret police archives, Kapuscinski’s final book, Travels With Herodotus, was published in the United States. Unlike Grass, the Polish author did not take this late-life opportunity to explain himself directly. Instead, he wrote an odd sort of memoir, recounting his early years as a journalist and revisiting many of the events that he described in his early works, this time with a focus on quieter moments between the bursts of gunfire. Against these memories, Kapuscinski juxtaposes long passages from Herodotus’ The Histories, a classic volume he describes as a constant companion. The implication is obvious enough: that the ancient Greek writer–the first historical figure “to realize the world’s essential multiplicity,” he says–is a stand-in for Kapuscinski himself.
This rather grandiose device allows Kapuscinski to write a veiled apologia, responding to the most persistent criticisms of his journalism: that he engaged in racist stereotyping, was factually sloppy and probably made things up. Herodotus, he writes, “did not, after all, spend his time sitting in archives, and did not produce an academic text, as scholars for centuries after him did, but strove to find out, learn, and portray how history comes into being every day, how people create it, why its course often runs contrary to their efforts and expectations.” If he made generalizations, he came by them honestly, through ceaseless travel, drawing his conclusions from observation, chance encounters and oral testimony. Kapuscinski says Herodotus relied on the wisdom of “ubiquitous guardians of memory” and cites as an example the West African griot, a wandering bard who tells tales of “what happened there once upon a time, what accidents, events, and marvels occurred. And whether what he says is the truth or not, no one can say, and it’s best not to look too closely.”