Poland’s acclaimed nonfiction writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died on January 23 at the age of 74, was an unsurpassed chronicler of the Third World. His best-known works, widely read and translated, included Shah of Shahs, a documentary collage on Islamic revolution in Iran; The Soccer War, stories about upheavals in Latin America; Imperium, an insightful, at times metaphoric, account of the fall of the Soviet Union; and Shadow of the Sun, a collection of poetic sketches from “his” Africa.
He considered himself a “translator of cultures.” Tirelessly spanning the globe for half a century, he witnessed some thirty coups and revolutions, courageously confronting the powerful (he came to know Che Guevara, Idi Amin and Salvadore Allende) and patiently listening to the powerless.
I first met him as a budding AP journalist in my native Warsaw. Fresh out of university, I often worried that someone as shy as myself would never make a good reporter. It turned out that this great journalist, whom I had admired since my teenage years, was even shyer than I was. Late one evening, he stopped by to say that his fax machine had broken down, and could he please use one in our office if it’s not too much trouble? We started talking. I trembled and stumbled. He smiled and listened.
I later learned that just like me, he often dreaded asking questions, especially in public. But he never needed to. Self-effacing and delicate, he simply inspired trust. Desperate African mother, tired shipyard worker, hardened dictator or reckless revolutionary–across continents people from all walks of life would willingly share with him whatever they could: a shabby hut and a bowl of soup, their fears and their dreams.
Born March 3, 1932, he spent his early childhood in the ethnically diverse Pinsk (today part of Belarus). He was 7 years old when World War II began–perhaps the most formative experience of his life. Six decades later, when I knew him, he would still vividly remember what it meant to be hungry, how humiliated he felt lacking shoes, how it felt to go to bed in a frozen apartment. Even more acute was the intellectual poverty–going to school without books, pencils or even a simple notebook.
Paradoxically, it turned out to be invaluable journalistic training. His Pinsk experience allowed him to feel comfortable amid the poor, displaced and humiliated all over the world. He never had to struggle to imagine how they felt; he knew. This empathy was probably one of the most potent of his journalistic tools.
Another was his ability to transform his unique raw material into powerful metaphors. A master of the wide angle, Kapuscinski would often transcend beyond a seemingly mundane detail to capture something more elusive and important. This technique, employed perhaps most impressively in Emperor–ostensibly an account of the fall of Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie, but widely interpreted as a reflection on all dictatorships–became his trademark.
Kapuscinski’s beautiful, poetic prose, sometimes compared to magic realism of Latin American writers, appeared effortless. Deceptively. His harrowing trips were preceded and followed by painstaking research–countless hours spent in his secluded study, filled with books, maps and newspaper clips. He did not have a phone there, he never used the Internet and he couldn’t even be persuaded to use a computer. He shunned modern equipment. But he was an avid reader. He would enter into dialogue with generations of historians, writers, thinkers who had traveled the path he was about to take. Out of this dialogue came the richness of his work and the depth of his insights.
Fascism, communism, colonialism, racism–he experienced firsthand the greatest plagues of the twentieth century. If there was one common denominator, one root of all this evil, Kapuscinski believed, it was the scary divide between the haves and have-nots, rich North and deprived South. He aspired to being a messenger between these two worlds, a translator of cultures.
On numerous occasions in my journalistic career I felt discouraged because efforts to bridge these two distant worlds seemed futile. He would provide encouragement and inspiration. An invaluable mentor to scores of journalists all over the world, he was able to infect us with deep belief in the value of our profession.
We would flock to his book-filled attic to recharge batteries. He was someone who provided direction and perspective when we felt lost or confused. I haven’t been there since 2001. Interviewing him for the BBC just days after September 11, I never imagined it was my last time in his attic. “I greatly fear that we will waste this moment. That instead of meaningful dialogue, it will just be gates and metal detectors,” he said.
Six years later, thousands of miles away, I learned this week he already went through his last gate, and I did not manage to catch him. In the past I occasionally worked as his assistant and translator. But in reality, it was the other way around. Farewell, my Translator. Thank you for everything.