Kapuscinski is an extremely personal writer, yet his literary persona is elusive, always vanishing just shy of the moment of true revelation. He wrote about every place he went, but to assemble these accounts into a biographical narrative, a reader must jump around from chapter to chapter and book to book. It was not Kapuscinski's way to tell the story straight. He wrote fairly little about his early life, at least in his main body of work. (There are apparently quite a few of his books that have yet to be translated from Polish.) Kapuscinski was 7 years old in 1939, when Germany and the Soviet Union carved up Poland, and his hometown, now part of Belarus, fell on Stalin's side of the bargain. In his book Imperium, he describes how the NKVD marched into town and leveled its church with cannon fire. "A person who lived through a great war is different from someone who never lived through any war," Kapuscinski writes elsewhere. "They are two different species of human beings. They will never find a common language."
The search for words, and their ultimate failure, is a recurring Kapuscinski theme. In Travels With Herodotus, he writes of his unquenchable desire as a young man simply "to cross the border." A committed Communist, he joined the staff of a youth newspaper at 23 and quickly became such a journalistic star--based on an investigative report into lousy working conditions at a steel factory--that he was offered a rare overseas posting, to India. With his faltering English, the young Pole was lost there. "I understood that every distinct geographic universe has its own mystery and that one can decipher it only by learning the local language," he writes. But even after he learned to speak, Kapuscinski was still confused, and he wondered whether his mind "was too fully imbued with rationalism and materialism to be able to identify with and grasp a culture as saturated with spirituality and metaphysics as Hinduism." Later, he visited China, where there was a new language, and a new set of misunderstandings. Then he moved on to Africa, the place he'd love best.
By this time, Kapuscinski was a correspondent for the Polish Press Agency, based in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam. It was 1962, and colonialism was ending with a rush. Tanzania's future president, Julius Nyerere, was talking of creating "African socialism," and Dar was a gathering place for Marxists, Maoists, Pan-Africanists, liberation fighters and covert operatives--even Che Guevara for a while, while he fomented revolution in Congo. "It seemed now as if half the world had converged upon it," Kapuscinski later wrote, and he was struck "by the fact that these worlds met, mixed and coexisted without the mediation, and to some degree, without the knowledge and consent of Europe." Kapuscinski was caught up in the heady mood. In a remembrance recounted to Anna Mateja and first published in the Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, the diplomat Jerzy Nowak recalls walking along Dar's Indian Ocean shoreline with Kapuscinski and listening as his journalist friend expressed outrage at the continent's poverty and his conviction "about this necessity of doing something for millions of people."
Kapuscinski soon discovered, as all journalists do, the limits of his perishable discipline. As Africa's optimism turned to tumult, he drove around, took notes and filed stories constantly, "because only when the folios full of [a wire reporter's] collected correspondence are breaking at the seams and spilling out of the cabinets back at the home office can he count on their saying approvingly: That one's all right." According to Kapuscinski's oft-quoted jacket bio, he witnessed twenty-seven revolutions and coups in his career, which means he actually missed quite a few: There were forty in Africa alone in the first two decades of the independence era. He had adventures, and serious scares. In The Shadow of the Sun, his book on Africa, Kapuscinski recounts his efforts to get to Zanzibar to cover its 1964 uprising and his even more harebrained attempt to escape the island in a motorboat, which was tossed back to shore by a monsoon. He constantly works such motifs: Life in the places he covered is about confusion, weakness, sickness, extremities of heat and cold, boredom and irrational dangers that appear without warning.
Elements missing from the narratives--though not from his actual existence, one presumes--include genuine friendship, familial love, sexual desire and explicit violence. Killing in a book by Kapuscinski is like sex in a Billy Wilder movie: The genius is all in the suggestion.
Another thing that is absent from Kapuscinski's writing is deep political analysis. Let me qualify that. He is brilliant at describing two types of phenomena: the way an individual ruler amasses and then squanders power, and the way the masses mobilize for war and revolution. Yet there is a curious generality to the way he treats these subjects. He mentions facts like dates and names perfunctorily, or not at all. (In Another Day of Life, his book on Angola, the historical background information is stuck in a final, tacked-on chapter titled "ABC.") It's as if every lesson is meant to be universal. This is one reason his masterful portrait of Haile Selassie, The Emperor, could simultaneously be permitted by Poland's Communist authorities as a study of a failing reactionary and read by anti-Communists as an allegory for the Polish regime itself.
As this example suggests, playing down his political judgments may have been a practical adaptation. Every drama Kapuscinski described--from the fall of Lumumba in Congo to the rise of the ayatollahs in Iran--was, to some extent, a proxy battle of the cold war. Yet he seldom gets into the geopolitical calculations, for good reason. In The Soccer War, he writes that after one of his first trips to Africa, where he'd been sent to cover fighting in Congo as a guest of a beleaguered and brutal leftist rebel faction, he returned home to an angry confrontation with "a certain comrade from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs," who briefly rescinded his authorization to travel abroad. "What have you been writing, you?" Kapuscinski recalls him saying. "You call the revolution anarchy!" Maybe we can imagine the compromises a man like Kapuscinski might make in order to retain the precious privilege of crossing the border.
However he managed it, Kapuscinski kept moving: to Latin America at the end of the 1960s, to Ethiopia and Angola at their times of upheaval, to the Middle East and Iran to witness the fall of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. In 1981, with the declaration of martial law in Poland, he resigned from the Communist Party. His movements, like those of all Poles, were restricted. But it was around this time, when his journalistic journeys ceased, that Kapuscinski crossed another kind of border.