Poland: Ryszard Kapuściński – Fiction or ‘Non-Fiction'?

Not only the Polish social media are discussing this one! A discussion of the newest book about the life and work of journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, written by Artur Domosławski, has reached the UK, the United States and other regions of the world. ‘Non-Fiction’ was published in early March and raised a lot of controversy due to its portrayal of a well-established, legendary Polish reporter, Kapuściński, as a person we have not known so well. A major issue around this reporter's life is the fact that he sometimes added bits of his own stories to his reports.

The Guardian is posting the words of the new biography's author, Artur Domosławski:

Sometimes the literary idea conquered him. In one passage, for example, he writes that the fish in Lake Victoria in Uganda had grown big from feasting on people killed by Idi Amin. It's a colourful and terrifying metaphor. In fact, the fish got larger after eating smaller fish from the Nile. […] Kapuściński was experimenting in journalism. He wasn't aware he had crossed the line between journalism and literature. I still think his books are wonderful and precious. But ultimately, they belong to fiction.

Kapuściński's wife has turned to court with an appeal to stop the publication of the book. However, this was overruled as she took part in the process of its writing, allowing Domosławski to access documents of her husband. She was referring to the facts of the new book damaging her husband's reputation, like his affair, for instance. The idea of a foreign correspondent who was inconsistent with his reports of events is distant from the so far rather flattering image of Kapuściński that the Polish readers had.

First strong criticism of the new biography arrived [PL] from Bronisław Bartoszewski, a politician and a professor who works with the same publisher:

There are publishing houses that publish guides on certified brothels with many stars, but I do not think I would like to publish my history book in a place like that, nor would I like to see them publishing the lives of saints at the same time.

This opinion provoked a series of comments referring to Bartoszewski's lack of degree, unethical behavior, as well as his inconsistent approach towards the publisher.

Krzysztof opposes [PL] him openly:

Dear Mr Bartoszewski,

It's not the first opinion of yours after which I start to lose all the respect that I used to have for you. Biographies are designed to show people's lives, with their entire luggage of experiences. No matter what. If you want to write/read about statues, I suggest something about Warsaw's Little Mermaid [a statue that is a symbol of Warsaw]

Some of the commentators – like skowronek, for instance – support [PL] Bartoszewski:

I hope that prof. Bartoszewski will resign from co-operation with Świat Książki. This publisher is unreliable with very low standards of publications. I am surprised that the professor is considering doing so just now. Publishing the book about Kapuściński is a disgrace and an obvious move to seek publicity, and let's not pretend it is not a way of counting on more sales, even at the expense of a great writer. A writer who is one of the few who became famous worldwide. But this is exactly our Polish morality, if someone is extraordinary, we spit on them, if someone is an average person or even lower, we raise them up to heavens. It's making me sick.

The news [PL] that the book will be published provoked a new wave of various reactions.

Nasan wonders [PL]:

In this country everything is a scandal, everything is a taboo, everything offends someone, everyone feels humiliated. At the same time, no one restrains themselves from using the most vulgar language when criticising people who hold different opinions.

Liloop refers to the fear of truth [PL]:

Why do we fear the truth so much, regardless of what it would be. This hiding of the truth is exactly the prosthesis of the old system. Something happened or not. If it happened, it's truth. If it didn't, it is not. He did it – he is responsible, he did not – he isn't.

Furry embraces the notion of truth with an interesting, historical explanation [PL]:

Sadly, history is not an exact science. One person remembers things one way, another one differently. Moreover, both are equally convinced they are right and are happy to fight for their opinion till the last drop of blood. Basing truth on documents? What documents, those of the Security Services? Hm…

Blogger Kalarepa86 refers to the point made by many that one needs to read the book before making judgments:

Hmmmm in the light of words spoken by the author of this book I think it's worth learning what his opinion is  – I think if someone sympathizes with Kapuściński, this opinion will not diminish theirs. Since I am writing an essay I think I have to (I will not hide I am truly curious as well) grab this book and work out my own opinion about it, have my own opinion and mention it in my essay.

The author of ‘Non-Fiction’, Artur Domosławski, posts on his newly set-up blog [PL]:

I particularly thank those who support me and keep their fingers crossed. I also thank those who ask questions and express their doubts without being aggressive. I am happy that this book causes so much interest and discussion.

Bozena2k responds to the post above, saying [PL]:

More and more often we deal with useless people whose only chance to gain publicity is to throw some mud at others, those who grew extraordinarily. The type and form of the mud is not the point. In the end the receivers are similarly useless people, who will be able to breathe with relief: maybe we are low-lives, but those who are not one of us believed in communism, cheated on their wives, avoided truth… Well, these are the times when people like you win.

Both with those dead ones who cannot protect themselves, both with their widows, whose emotions they do not have to consider and with those for whom it is disgusting to dig into private lives of people, who achieved something beautiful and grand.

Kryst.ynak has a different opinion [PL]:

I read the biography of Ryszard Kapuscinski. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND why there is so much fuss about it.  The book is well-written, supported by facts. Supported with quotes of people who surrounded and knew Kapuscinski from the side of his works. I write “from the side of his works” on purpose as I feel that no one really knew him as a man. He came, sat down, smiled, left.

Discussions continue in all of the above-mentioned places, as well as on both the author's [PL] and Kapuściński's [PL] Facebook fan page. A Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, has created a special coverage site for the debate, here [PL]. You can read an interview with the author in English, published by the New York Times, here.


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  • I found this book in the supermarket lately. Basically, I like Kapuszciński, but books in Poland are too expensive , so I didn’t buy it. Now I would think again.

    Did he invent certain details? I think, yes. When I was reading “Kirgiz schodzi z konia” about Caucasus and Central Asia, I could tell that there are some details that are not confirmed in any source I know. I wasn’t sure, but now it seems pretty real that he could creatively enrich the journalist narrative.

    Thanks for the article. Living in Poland I learn more from your articles rather from any other sources of info ;)

  • Thank you, Alexey, I am glad you find those articles useful.

    Yes, the book seems to raise a lot of controversy around several topics, so I am glad we have voices looking at the book launch from different points of view.

  • I think that Kapuscinski was one of the best Polish journalists, I was lucky to talk with him in ’70 about bush war in Angola (about Cubans, South Africans, UNITA, Savimbi, etc), I like his narration and he is not less or more controversial than Oriana Fallaci.
    I am not willing to comment about \comments\ of Mr Bartoszewski now (a controversial person)…

  • I guess it has to do with humanizing a figure we prefer to see as super-natural. The almost funny thing is that we love to look and to find out to know as much as posible about our heroes, and then we become disappointed when they don’t meet our expectations…

    I might be repeating a lot of people with this, but I feel that regardless of the tone of the biography, the works of RK, and even more, the mentality and the spirit behind them are far more powerful than if he went to brothels or if the books were fiction or non fiction.

    Kapuscinksi has been one of my most beloved writers/thinkers for years. Realizing his humanity and that of those around him confirms that we are capable of a lot more than we think. Great post!

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