The Passenger

The Passenger

In a posthumously published memoir, Ryszard Kapuscinski looks back on his life as a pathbreaking literary journalist who covered the Third World during the cold war.


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.”

Once, when asked to name his style of literature, Kapuscinski used the Latin phrase silva rerum: “the forest of things.” His life was a dense bramble of intense and fleeting experiences, and it seems they were not acquired without cost. In Kapuscinski’s telling, Herodotus is a rootless wanderer, capable of empathy that “is sincere, but superficial.” In The Soccer War, he described his existence as a reporter similarly:

Pack the suitcase. Unpack it, pack it, unpack it, pack it: typewriter (Hermes Baby), passport (SA 323273), ticket, airport, stairs, airplane, fasten seat-belt, take off, unfasten seat-belt, flight, rocking, sun, stars, space, hips of strolling stewardesses, sleep, clouds, falling engine speed, fasten seat-belt, descent, circling, landing, earth, unfasten seat-belts, stairs, airport, immunization book, visa, customs, taxi, streets, houses, people, hotel, key, room, stuffiness, thirst, otherness, foreignness, loneliness, waiting, fatigue, life.

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.

The Emperor, published in the United States in 1983, was the first of Kapuscinski’s many books to be translated into English. It’s difficult to exaggerate the wonder the book inspired. Here, from a drab corner of the Eastern bloc, was a journalist who wrote about dictatorship like a magical realist. The book’s setup is simple: Kapuscinski travels to Ethiopia to cover the country’s Marxist revolution. In the evenings, after work, he visits Selassie’s fugitive courtiers, who confide impressions of their deposed ruler: his canniness, his vanity, his delusions. When the book was published, Kapuscinski rejected allegorical interpretations–which were especially popular among Polish intellectuals–but by the end of his life, he seems to have embraced them. “For within every great book,” he writes in Travels With Herodotus, “there are several others.”

In a way, The Emperor is Kapuscinski’s least characteristic work, in that for the most part, he leaves the narration to others, the courtiers he calls by anonymous initials. (Whether those initials belonged to real people, we shall see, is an open question.) More typical–and in many ways superior–is Another Day of Life, a book he published in Poland two years before The Emperor, though it was not translated until 1987. It is the story of his experiences in the Angolan capital of Luanda in 1975, as the Portuguese colonial army retreated and three armed factions did battle. Its first sentence reads: “This is a very personal book, about being alone and lost.” Most of his books were written with considerable retrospective distance, but Kapuscinski published Another Day of Life immediately after the events he describes, and the prose bristles with the specificity of fresh recollection. The departing Portuguese, packing to leave, erect a “wooden city, the city of crates,” which sails off on ships one day. Every town looks “like a ghastly, corroding movie set built on the outskirts of Hollywood and already abandoned by the film crew.” Ragged army uniforms inspire a marvelous Kapuscinski sentence: “This is an indigent war, attired in cheap calico.”

The Soccer War, a collection of magazine-length stories, and Shah of Shahs, about the Iranian Revolution, followed in quick succession, completing a period of remarkable creative output. These books are full of unforgettable images. On New Year’s Eve 1979, Kapuscinski stands outside the captured US Embassy in Tehran, shivering as he peers into its lighted, empty rooms, thinking of the parties going on back home. In The Soccer War‘s title story, he stumbles through the blacked-out streets of the Honduran capital, looking for a telex machine so he can wire news of the outbreak of hostilities with El Salvador. Blind and lost, he knocks over a metal garbage can, which rolls down a sloped cobblestone street. “I lay on the pavement, hugging it, frightened, sweating,” Kapuscinski writes. “I had committed an act of treason: the enemy, unable to find the city in this darkness and silence, could now locate it by the racket of the garbage can.”

There are so many scenes like this that I struggle to choose the ones to quote: situations so vivid, so funny and frightening, so perfectly apt. So perfect, in fact, that one can’t help but suspect they were creations of Kapuscinski’s imagination. The verisimilitude question has been there since the beginning. In an otherwise ecstatic 1983 review of The Emperor for The New Yorker, John Updike wrote, “One wonders how much of the elegant style of Abyssinian testimony…was smuggled in by way of Mr. Kapuscinski’s Polish.” More recently, in a voluminous takedown published in the Times Literary Supplement, John Ryle claimed that the courtly patterns of speech The Emperor‘s anonymous narrators used–all those titles and honorifics–do not exist in Amharic. Ryle also pointed out many other misperceptions, exaggerations and inaccuracies in Kapuscinski’s work, coining a derisive nickname for his style: “tropical baroque.”

Did he really knock over that trash can? Kapuscinski might ask in reply, Did Samuel Johnson really kick a stone outside church one day, saying, “I refute it thus”? Just as Boswell invented the modern biography, Kapuscinski viewed himself as a writer working outside existing categories. “New Journalism was the beginning, in liquidating the border between fact and fiction,” he said in a 1987 Granta interview. “But New Journalism was ultimately just journalism describing the strangeness of America. I think we have gone beyond all that. It is not a New Journalism, but a New Literature.”

At the same time, Kapuscinski was resolutely vague about what, precisely, he’d invented. In Travels With Herodotus, he falls back on the old fabulist’s defense, the mutability of memory, saying, “The past does not exist. There are only infinite renderings of it.” I think this a failure on his part, and I think this failure matters. But I can’t bring myself to dispense with what’s true in Kapuscinski just because some things are falsified. Like many journalists of my generation, I traveled to Africa with copies of his books in my backpack, and rereading them now, I am struck by how many essential things he got right. I never went to Angola, but I once drove a pickup truck across Mozambique, a country evacuated by the Portuguese under similar circumstances, and I’ll be damned if the crumbling towns along the road didn’t look just like abandoned film sets. I’ve been to the bus station in Accra, and it really does bring to mind, as Kapuscinski writes in The Shadow of the Sun, the “caravan of a huge circus that has come to a brief stop.” His reputation lies in his rendering of war, but I think he’s at his best when he’s describing the dull rhythms of daily life. In his hands, an interminable wait for the bus to depart becomes an epiphany, as he stares into the mute faces of his fellow passengers and ponders the African concept of time.

“What, in the meantime, is going on inside their heads?” he asks. “I do not know. Are they thinking? Dreaming? Reminiscing? Making plans? Meditating? Traveling in the world beyond? It is difficult to say.”

Anyone who’s ever sat through a long, unexplained delay can relate to the experience of feeling trapped inside one’s own consciousness–I’ve felt the same thing on a stalled subway–but because Kapuscinski is a white man writing about Africans, such passages are subjected to special scrutiny. He’s been called a racist, and certainly his fondness for generalization leads to some cringe-worthy pronouncements. “The Hindu is a relaxed being, while the Chinese is a tense and vigilant one.” “Latins are obsessed with spies, intelligence conspiracies and plots.” “Any group of Iranians immediately organizes itself according to hierarchical principles.” “With Armenians one must typically expect to talk only about Armenians.” I’m inclined to see these as forgivable misjudgments from a man who came of age in a time when notions of distinct national and racial identity had not yet been banished from polite conversation–but then again, that’s easy for me to say, since Kapuscinski never wrote about Americans. I think the debate does touch something fundamental, though. Ultimately, Kapuscinski sees the world as composed of tribes, and for all his travels among them, he doesn’t believe that they can ever really communicate with one another.

In Another Day of Life, Kapuscinski describes a general mobilization of young Angolan men and reflects that a child born in that year, 1975, would be 25 when the next millennium came. “Half of humanity will have slant eyes. Half of humanity will not understand what the other half is saying,” he predicts. “The white race will enter the vestigial phase.” He opens Shah of Shahs with a vision of protesting masses on the streets of Tehran: “On a million screens an infinite number of people are saying something to us, trying to convince us of something, gesturing, making faces, getting excited, smiling, nodding their heads, pointing their fingers, and we don’t know what it’s about.” At the book’s end, he returns to the image, no less confounded. “I am trying to understand them, but over and over again I stumble into a dark region and lose my way. They have a different attitude to life and death. They react differently to the sight of blood.”

After the Berlin wall fell, Kapuscinski went back to work, traversing the former Soviet Union for his final work of original reportage. Imperium may be his weakest book. Russia, of course, was a place every Pole knew all too well, but proximity seems to have wilted his descriptive powers. By this time, Kapuscinski had won worldwide fame as a literary stylist, and his flourishes had started to overwhelm his writing. The sentence fragments. The exclamation points! The trick of deploying adjectives in triplicate, once a poetic device reserved for special occasions, is put to use on every page, and it comes to feel forced, pretentious, tiresome. Kapuscinski seems to summon his old narrative vigor only when he visits the Caucasus, a region falling into ethnic conflict. At this moment, when the cold war’s twin towers of Babel are collapsing, the Polish journalist declares that “three contagions” threaten the world: nationalism, racism and religious fundamentalism.

All three share one trait, a common denominator–an aggressive, all-powerful, total irrationality. Anyone stricken with one of these plagues is beyond reason. In his head burns a sacred pyre that awaits only its sacrificial victims. Every attempt at calm conversation will fail…. A mind touched by such a contagion is a closed mind, one-dimensional, monothematic, spinning round one subject only–its enemy. Thinking about our enemy sustains us, allows us to exist.

So he was right about the future. But he was wrong about many things, and of these, I believe the most important was his evident belief that the confusion he felt everywhere was an inborn and incurable human condition. It is possible to come to understand another place, but it takes sustained attention. You have to stop moving for a while. Kapuscinski never did. He once wrote that every time he tried to slow down, “a red light starts blinking on the map–the signal that at some point on this overcrowded, restless and quarrelsome globe, something is again happening.” Particularly in his last two books, both semi-memoirs, Kapuscinski describes moments of great joy, but they are almost always experienced alone, or in the company of some passing companion who does not possess a name or a persona.

For all his efforts to know the world, Kapuscinski seems not to have known many people, at least in the literary sense. I can think of only a handful of memorable characters in all his books. The fawning attendants of Haile Selassie, in awe of the emperor’s power. Carlotta, a daring, doomed soldier who escorts Kapuscinski to the front in Angola. Mahmud Azari, an Iranian translator who returns home from London in the last days of the Shah and ends up participating in the revolution, though not before being forced into superficial collaboration by some sinister men from the ruling party. As Colin Thubron pointed out recently in The New York Review of Books, Azari’s experience of authoritarianism could be taken to stand for Kapuscinski’s own. And it seems to me that, in fact, all of his characters–whether or not they really existed–could be seen the same way, as reflections of the author’s personality. His true journey may have been an inward one.

But what a fascinating trip it was. In Travels With Herodotus, where his identification with his title character is nearly explicit, he writes:

We do not know in what guise Herodotus traveled. As a merchant (the proverbial occupation of people of the Levant)? Probably not, since he had no interest in prices, goods, markets. As a diplomat? That profession did not exist yet. As a spy? But for which state? As a tourist? No, tourists travel to rest, whereas Herodotus works hard on the road–he is a reporter, an anthropologist, an ethnographer, a historian.

At the end of the book, Kapuscinski pays a visit to Herodotus’ hometown, which is now in Turkey. As usual, he is alone, and as he checks into his hotel, he notices that the boy at the front desk is suffering from “an acute case of periostitis, with a face so horribly swollen that I was afraid the pus would tear his cheek apart at any moment.” As it happens, a barracks sentry in Another Day of Life suffers from the same condition, described almost identically, and while some might see this remarkable coincidence as one more opportunity to level the accusation of fictionalization, the sentimentalist in me would like to accept it as the author’s allusive signal that his story has come full circle. Kapuscinski visits a museum, where he looks at some ancient objects that have been retrieved from the bottom of the sea. Then, in a concluding paragraph, set apart by a line break, he describes one final encounter:

I returned to the hotel. At reception, in place of the dolorous boy, stood a young black-eyed Turkish girl. When she saw me, she adjusted her facial expression so that the professional smile meant to invite and tempt tourists was tempered by tradition’s injunction always to maintain a serious and indifferent mien toward a strange man.

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