Tag Archives: Ryszard Kapuściński

Kapuściński, the Award, and the Biography

The Ryszard Kapuściński Award for literary reportage was established and announced last month, on the third anniversary of the author’s death, by the City of Warsaw and Poland’s largest daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza. As the Polish Book Institute reports:

The award will be given on a yearly basis to the finest piece of literary reportage published in book form in the Polish language. The goal of the competition is to pay posthumous tribute to Ryszard Kapuściński, a resident of Warsaw for over 60 years, through this distinction and the promotion of the most valuable works of reportage, which take up important problems of contemporary life, prompt reflection, and increase our knowledge of the world of other cultures.

The winner will be awarded 50,000 zł, and should the award be given to a foreign-language writer, the Polish translator will also be given an award (15,000 zł.). The first winner will be declared in May of this year.

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This is not the only recent news about Kapuściński. The reporter Artur Domosławski, author of several books of reportage on North and South America, recently finished a biography of the renowned Polish journalist, Kapuściński Non-Fiction: The Man, the Reporter, and His Times, which is to be published by Świat Książki next month. Kapuściński’s widow, Alicja, who is the patron of the City of Warsaw / Gazeta Wyborcza award, has filed a civil suit demanding that the book be banned from distribution.

Evidently the manuscript was earlier turned down by Jerzy Illg, the publisher of Wydawnictwo Znak, who had commissioned it, though not for the reason conjectured by the increasingly Fox-Newsy newspaper Rzeczpospolita — i.e. the old hat about Kapuściński’s links to the Polish secret service — but because, as Illg told a Polish AP journalist, “Rysiek was my friend, and I wouldn’t be able to look him in the eye if I were to publish a book like that.” Świat Książki maintains that the nearly 600-page book will be released on March 3rd.

So what is all the fuss about? From Domosławski’s comments on his blog, it sounds like there’s not much to it:

My book reveals quite a few things and tries to explain a lot, but it is not some cheap attempt to unmask its subject. Those who expect me to examine Kapuściński’s life and pass judgment on his involvement in Communist Poland will be surprised at how I defend him. Those who are waiting for stories from the gutter will be disappointed… I think a lot of people will be amazed that anyone would want to take a book like this to court.

Of course, no writer is ever completely objective about his own work; and the epitaph to the book – Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life” – sounds like nothing so much as an invitation to pry. Domosławski, who was one of Kapuściński’s protegés and as a friend of the family was given access to his private archive, evidently violated Alicja Kapuścińska’s trust and her expectations for her husband’s legacy.

At the same time, from his own statements and the several reviews that have so far appeared, it seems that he wrote the book in good faith and strove for objectivity about his subject. In a review posted two days ago (“The Dark Side of the Icon”), blogger Sergiusz Pinkwart describes Domosławski as “Kapuściński’s beloved adopted son” — counterpart to the “heir-apparent,” Wojciech Jagielski — and as having been “able, like no one else, to talk competently with Kapuściński about his great obsession: poverty and social exclusion in the third-world.” Pinkwart also recounts some of the less-than-rosy elements of the biography: Kapuściński had affairs; did indeed collaborate with the Polish secret service; and made things up in his books. But while those things may be understandably problematic, and not just for the family, none of them strikes me as unexpected or even so terribly alarming, not even the single new bit of information, i.e. the affairs.

What is probably even more troubling for a lot of people in Poland is that Domosławski’s biography violates Polish hagiographic conventions of fame, according to which any besmirching of a great Pole’s reputation is considered an assault on the nation. It seems that the controversy over Kapuściński’s biography is already also a debate about the way celebrity is constructed in Polish culture. As Andrzej Stasiuk wrote in his blurb for the book:

Domosławski follows his trail, attempts to get at the truth, and is unconcerned about some people’s desire for yet another Polish saint. Thankfully this book is not a hagiography, rendering its subject a kind of mental eunuch. Poles love to worship images like that, because they don’t demand anything from them, just a little national fatuousness for the tickling.

The biography will no doubt also play a part in the ongoing debate in Poland about the communist past, just as that debate has evidently influenced Domosławski’s approach. In a review posted yesterday on his blog, the reporter Wojciech Orliński describes how Domosławski “conducts… a cross-examination” in the book. A few years ago, Polish Newsweek reporters suggested that Kapuściński was being let off the hook for his involvement with the Polish secret service and suggested that he would have fared differently in America (the gold standard, of course): “After all, in the USA, if it came to light that a renowned, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist had collaborated with the CIA, he would be discredited at once in the eyes of his readers,” they insisted. According to Orliński, Domosławski was sceptical and interviewed a number of American journalists to find out what they thought; and they provided “any number of scenarios, both real and hypothetical,” that call into question the Newsweek reporters’ speculation.

I for one look forward to reading Domosławski’s biography; and I imagine that if it does end up released in Polish, it won’t be long before English-language readers will be able to read it, too.

After Kapuściński: Institute of Reportage (InstytutR) opens in Warsaw

The Polish Instytut Reportażu has just opened in Warsaw, established in response to a couple of problems that are hardly limited to Poland: dwindling financial resources for investigative journalism and the need to train new generations of reporters. Wojciech Tochman, author of Like Eating a Stone: Surviving the Past in Bosnia (Portobello / Atlas & Co., 2008), Mariusz Szczygieł, winner of the Prix AMPHI and the Europe Book Prize for his book Gottland, and Paweł Goźliński, Head of Gazeta Wyborcza‘s reportage section, are the founders and make up the Board. Joanna Czudec, formerly of the Book Institute in Kraków, has just moved to Warsaw to become its Director. And there is an Advisory Board that includes Wojciech Jagielski, author of Towers of Stone: The Battle of Wills in Chechnya (Seven Stories, 2009); Alicja Kapuścińska, widow of Ryszard Kapuściński; and Hanna Krall, author of The Woman From Hamburg and Other True Stories (Other Press, 2005), among other books in English. These are all absolutely fantastic people to have working together, and this is an exciting project that will no doubt go a long way to securing the future of journalism in Poland, hopefully with effects in other countries as well.

I took the liberty of translating the Institute’s mission statement:

Why an Institute of Reportage?

“We know too little about too much.”

There are various ways for people to gain more knowledge.
One way is reportage.

It was invented to provide as many people as possible with knowledge about other people.
To enable as many people as possible to understand another person.

So, since Polish reportage (and Polish literary journalism likewise) is our passion…

And since Polish reportage is rather expensive, and reporters, publishers, and editorial boards are less and less able to cover the costs of fieldwork…

Since more and more young people are interested to learn journalism, but have no one to teach them…

Since there has thus far been no central resource for information about Polish reporters and their writing…

Since more and more often we hear how it is reportage, not novels or films, that has most accurately described what has happened in Poland and the world since the fall of communism, and that a lot of journalistic writing could easily be adapted for the theater…

And since Warsaw itself seems to us to provide such excellent material for reporters…

We have established here, in Warsaw, the Institute of Reportage, which aims to do everything possible to make full sentences out of those dependent clauses above.

Sentences, and an assignment. For the coming years.

Since we know too little about too much (as Ryszard Kapuściński, the greatest representative of our vocation, writes in Travels With Herodotus), we need to support reportage. Because the more we know about the world around us, the better, safer, and more stimulating our lives will be.

Paweł Goźliński, Mariusz Szczygieł, Wojciech Tochman
Founders, InstituteR

Known in brief as InstytutR, the institute has a website up that features extensive information on recent and upcoming journalism-related events; the program for its year-long course in journalism (an impressive syllabus that involves a three-day intensive block course every month, with classes taught by Goźliński, Krall, Szczygieł, and Tochman, along with other well-known Polish reportage authors like Agata Tuszyńska, Jacek Hugo-Bader (whose reportage on Russia, White Fever, has just been bought by Portobello in the UK), and Lidia Ostalowska; as well as information on books, radio and theater tie-ins, and photoreportage. So far the website is only available in Polish. But an English-language version is in the works, so make sure to check back for it.

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Why an Institute of Reportage? —

“We know too little about too much.”

There are various ways for people to gain more knowledge.

One way is reporting.

It was invented to provide as many people as possible with knowledge about other people.

To enable as many people as possible to understand another person.

So, since Polish reportage (and Polish literary journalism likewise) is our passion…

And since Polish reportage is rather expensive, and reporters, publishers, and editorial boards are less and less able to cover the costs of fieldwork…

Since more and more young people are interested to learn journalism, but have no one to teach them…

Since there has thus far been no central resource for information about Polish reporters and their writing…

Since more and more often we hear how it is reportage, not novels or films, that has most accurately described what has happened in Poland and the world since the fall of communism, and that a lot of journalistic writing could easily be adapted for the theater…

And since Warsaw itself seems to us to provide such excellent material for reporters…

We have established here, in Warsaw, the Institute of Reportage, which aims to do everything possible to make full sentences out of those dependent clauses above.

Sentences, and an assignment. For the coming years.

Since we know too little about too much (as Ryszard Kapuściński, the greatest representative of our vocation, writes in Travels With Herodotus), we need to support reportage. Because the more we know about the world around us, the better, safer, and more stimulating our lives will be.

Paweł Goźliński, Mariusz Szczygieł, Wojciech Tochman
Founders, InstituteR

“A very stupid, a very dull debate”: Werner Herzog weighs in on Kapuściński’s handling of the facts

Slate posted an interview with Werner Herzog yesterday in which the German film director’s narrative techniques are compared to those of Polish reportage author Ryszard Kapuściński.

Jacob Weisberg: … of course there are elements of fiction in your nonfiction films.

Werner Herzog: Sure, of course. I stylize, I invent, I do things the accountants of truth would not do. But I’m a storyteller.

J.W.: It’s very apparent in your films, to someone who has seen a lot of them, when there’s a moment of fiction that you’re using for some sort of dramatic purpose. It’s interesting to compare you to Ryszard Kapuściński, the Polish writer. There’s been a lot of debate about his use of fiction in nonfiction work.

W.H.: And it’s a very stupid, a very dull debate, because he’s a great storyteller, and what he does—and I am, by the way, doing a very similar thing—he intensifies truth by invention. By dint of declaration he creates something which gives you a much deeper insight into the truth of, let’s say, Africa or Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, and it’s totally legitimate and the debate is very, very silly. Let the accountants be happy with their debate. I’m not going to participate.

This is pretty much the same view that emerged out of the discussions about Kapuściński during the two-day symposium held in October by the Polish Cultural Institute, the NBCC, the New York Institute for the Humanities, and the new Literary Reportage concentration at NYU’s journalism school, among others. Unfortunately, the “very, very silly” ambivalence about Kapuściński in the U.S. continues to have very, very real consequences. And the specific discussion to which Weisberg refers, Morgan Meis’s “idle chatter,” is not only idle but harmful and sad, as Meis does not limit himself to questioning the Polish journalist’s veracity, but assumes that the accusation of Kapuściński’s collaboration with the Polish secret service (an accusation that has been called into question both publicly and in print by recent biographers) can be passed on unproblematically, without any discussion of the complexity involved in every interaction between state intelligence and everyday citizens in the Soviet bloc, or anywhere for that matter. (As Anna Bikont points out, Kapuściński may have sent in reports to the secret service, but a perusal of those reports reveals that he deliberately provided them with useless information.)

Herzog’s comments make one thing clear: there is probably no better litmus test for someone’s sympathies with the “accountants” or the “declarers” (and explorers) of truth than his or her position on Kapuściński (provided, of course, that the person in question has even read him). Why it is Kapuściński who regularly generates such ambivalence in the U.S. and not, say, Bruce Chatwin, is an interesting question. Maybe it has something to do with all those consonants and funny letters.

As for an extended complex and intelligent discussion about the Polish writer’s work, here is the National Book Critics Circle’s post of video coverage of Part III of “After Kapuściński: The Art of Reportage in the 21st Century,” a panel moderated by Robert Boynton and featuring Breyten Breytenbach, Ted Conover, Klara Glowczewska, Wiktor Osiatyński, and David Samuels, which dealt with Kapuściński’s legacy today.

From left: Breytenbach, Conover, Samuels, Glowczewska, Osiatyński, Boynton

After Kapuściński: The Art of Reportage in the 21st Century, parts I & II

David Varno has just posted to Critical Mass, the National Book Critics Circle blog, a summary and downloadable podcast of the second panel of “After Kapuściński: The Art of Reportage in the 21st Century.”

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This panel, titled “Literary Reportage Between Fact and Fiction, Self and Other,” was moderated by Lawrence Weschler and featured Random Family author Adrian Nicole LeBlanc; long-time New Yorker writer and Borges translator Alastair Reid; and Wojciech Jagielski, Gazeta Wyborcza journalist and author of the recent and much-acclaimed reportage about child soldiers in Uganda, Nocni wędrowcy (Night Wanderers, WAB 2009) and Towers of Stone: The Battle of Wills in Chechnya (which, translated by Soren Gauger, was just published by Seven Stories Press in the U.S.). One point made early on in the discussion is that the questionability of Kapuściński’s “fact-checking” itself needs to be called into question. At any rate, it seems to me to be a moot point, but one that is troublesome for many people and probably won’t ever be resolved.

Susan Harris’s recent podcast interview on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Here On Earth” show brings the issue up again. Harris is Editor of Words without Borders, and talks about the journal’s October issue on international reportage, specifically about the thin line between objectivity and confirmatory bias — mainly on the example of Swedish writer Peter Fröberg Idling’s remarkable book Pol Pot’s Smile — which is often considered an ineluctable feature of journalism, and not only of the literary or long-form variety.

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Critical Mass also has Varno’s summary and a downloadable podcast available for the first panel of “After Kapuściński: The Art of Reportage in the 21st Century.” Titled “The Art of Reportage on the Ground and on the Page,” the discussion was moderated by NBCC President Jane Ciabattari. and focused on its participants’ practical experiences as reporters. Those participants were: Polish journalist Paweł Smoleński, author of Irak. Piekło w raju (Iraq: Hell in Paradise, 2004, for which he was awarded a 2005 Kurt Schork Award);  poet and current American Academy in Rome Fellow Eliza Griswold, whose reportage on the faultline between Islam and Christianity, The Tenth Parallel, is forthcoming with FSG; Arif Jamal, the Pakistani journalist and author of The Shadow War: The Untold War of Jihad in Kashmir (Melville House, 2009); acclaimed American journalist Elizabeth Rubin, just back from Afghanistan; and Joshua Clark, author of the Katrina memoir, Heart Like Water (Free Press, 2007).

Hello! Przerwa skończona!

Yes, the hiatus is over! The past 5 weeks have seen, among other things, preparations for three Polish Cultural Institute events here in New York City:

the Institute’s season opener at Symphony Space on September 11, which featured readings by Polish poet Piotr Sommer and American poet Christian Hawkey and a performance by members of the New York-based ensemble The Knights of recent works by Lisa Bielawa and Jeffrey Lependorf (works composed as settings of poems by Hawkey and Sommer respectively)…

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the Polish Cultural Institute booth at the 4th Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday, September 13 (which featured an informal reading by Jacek Dehnel, the author of the acclaimed novel Lala and editor of Six Polish Poets, and a book signing by Alex Storozynski, author of The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution)…

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photos: A. Grenda

…and our first session of the European Book Club, at which both newcomers and seasoned aficionados of European literature in translation discussed Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel, recently published by Open Letter Books, together with Open Letter publisher Chad Post, who came down from Rochester to talk with readers.

pilch-cover

The rest of the autumn will be awash with Polish culture — see the Polish Cultural Institute’s website for more details and consider subscribing to the newsletters if you haven’t already. Be sure not to miss the debut performance in the U.S. of work by celebrated Polish composer Paweł Mykietyn (Thursday, October 1, at Symphony Space; the concert will be preceded by a conversation with Mykietyn and Cuban-American composer Tania Leon) and the dissident Theatre of the Eighth Day‘s return to the U.S. with their famous production Wormwood, which will be performed at Yale University November 5-7 and at the Abrons Arts Center in New York City November 11-15.

As for upcoming literary events, make sure to mark your calendar for the following:

October 6-7: After Kapuściński: The Art of Reportage in the 21st Century — a public conversation on the ins and outs of long-form and literary journalism with leading authors of the genre (these include Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Suketu Mehta, and Lawrence Weschler, as well as Wojciech Jagielski and Paweł Smoleński). The event is cosponsored with the National Book Critics Circle, the New York Institute for the Humanities, and the new Literary Reportage concentration of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU.

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November 3-4: Polish Poetry Now: Bożena Keff, Marzanna Kielar, Tomasz Różycki, and Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki will read at the new Poets House in New York on Wednesday, November 4, following a discussion there the night before with translators Benjamin Paloff and Bill Johnston; on Thursday, November 5, they will read and discuss their work together with translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones at Harvard University. Check back here and at the Polish Cultural Institute website for more details.

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November 10: As part of the Performing Revolution in Central and Eastern European festival that the New York Public Library is organizing, there will be a book party at Idlewild Books in New York for The Wall in my Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain — a Words without Borders anthology published by Open Letter Books. Polish author Dorota Masłowska will read, together with Romanian poet Dan Sociu and German author Kathrin Aehnlich; New York University professor Eliot Borenstein will moderate.

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Hope to see you at any or all of these events!

Tayeb Salih, Conrad, and the Others

The new Harper’s (July 2009) has a great review by Robyn Creswell of the late Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih’s novel Season of Migration to the North (موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال), which, translated from Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies, has recently been republished by New York Review Books (the first English-language edition appeared with Heinemann in 1969).

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The book’s unnamed narrator, a Sudanese man who has spent time in England, reconstructs the life of another anglicized Sudanese, Mustafa Sa’eed, whom he meets shortly before the latter’s suicide. The narrator’s fascination with his semblable/frère resonates, as Creswell suggests, with Marlow’s fascination with Kurtz; and evidently the novel has been held up by postcolonial critics as a kind of Heart of Darkness in reverse, “a classic example of ‘the empire writing back’.” Creswell criticizes the reductionism implicit in that reading, however, and situates the terms of the relationship between the two books within a larger argument about realism and the novel:

The central drama of Salih’s novella is not Mustafa Sa’eed’s journey to the heart of Europe but the confrontation between Sa’eed and the narrator, who, like Marlow, feels himself ‘captured by the incredible,’ faced with a character too big for the otherwise realistic fiction he inhabits. It is Salih’s understanding of this dilemma, which is ethical and literary rather than straightforwardly political, that makes his reading of Conrad distinctive.

While reading Creswell’s review (and I am so intrigued by it that my reading of Salih’s book is not far off either), I found myself recalling my own encounter with Heart of Darkness many years ago, and with V.S. Naipaul’s 1974 essay on it, which Creswell discusses. While Creswell is eager to shed a more complex, literary and ethical light on Salih, and by extension on Conrad, than has been done thus far by postcolonial critics, there is another critique of the postcolonial reception of Conrad that I think bears dwelling on. I had always wondered why postcolonial critics disregarded Conrad’s own history as a colonial subject in an area of the world marked by successive waves of colonization and subjugation of one ethnic group by another (not just of the Poles by the Russians, but of the Ukrainians and Lithuanians by the Poles, and the Jews by everyone), and of empire (which in that part of the world in the nineteenth century had three faces: Russian, Prussian, and Austrian).

Very little has been written about this aspect of Conrad, but it’s crucial, of course, to his relation to Africa and to European imperialism. The translator and scholar Clare Cavanagh has published what I think is the only article so far that addresses this negligent reception (“Postcolonial Poland,” Common Knowledge 10:1 [2004], 82-92). There she not only critiques the postcolonial blindspot to the so-called second world, but situates Conrad into a Polish context that includes Czesław Miłosz, Aleksander Wat, Zbigniew Herbert and Wisława Szymborska. “The most astute and gifted of Poland’s postwar artists,” Cavanagh writes, “have shared Conrad’s wariness, not simply toward one empire or another, but to the very idea of empire that has informed the West from the time, under Rome, that it conceived itself as a global civilization.”

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More aptly, Cavanagh discusses Conrad in relation to Ryszard Kapuściński, whose writing of Africa (no less than that of Iran) invokes all sorts of questions about realism and fiction and empire and ethics and the Other:

Kapuściński’s writing not only expresses much of the postcolonial attitude of Polish poetry and fiction but also clarifies the possibilities for an expanded critique of colonialism than current theory offers. He demonstrates, in other words, a way of incorporating the Second World into our present theoretical frame. In a recent review of Kapuściński’s The Shadow of the Sun, Neal Ascherson, the historian, calls attention to the peculiar tradition to which Kapuściński belongs. It is a tradition, including Conrad, that consists of travel writers from European nations invaded, conquered, culturally dominated, and often settled by the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, or German empires. These writers knew all too well what it meant to be at the wrong end of colonialism—and during sojourns in Africa, Asia, or Polynesia, they continually recognized aspects of their own experience.

Of course, central and eastern Europe is just as affected by Western cultural hegemony as it has been by Russian and Soviet imperialism, which is no doubt an important reason why its experience has been ignored by Western postcolonial theorists, even Conrad scholars, and is often received along the most conventional of patterns. Miłosz, Herbert, and Szymborska themselves are often only legible for Western readers as witnesses of tragedy, as the “victims of history,” as one American poet put it not long ago. Just as the poetic and ethical dimensions of Salih’s or Conrad’s work have been overlooked by postcolonial scholars, so too are the Polish poets often instrumentalized for ideological reasons that ultimately impoverish our understanding of them.

But Cavanagh’s article has another objective, which is to link the study of Polish literature to discourses with which literary studies and literary theory have been saturated for decades, but in which Slavic Studies as a discipline has, until recently, been largely uninvolved. And maybe that encounter between fields will be achieved eventually. It is an objective that is a necessary one for Polish Studies, and ideally will also facilitate the reception of Polish literature more generally outside the typical post-Enlightenment/Cold War binarism of West vs. East (Europe) and re-situate it in terms of a broader, global dynamic. The example of Conrad, from both Cavanagh’s and Creswell’s respective perspectives, demonstrates that it actually makes sense to read Salih’s Season of Migration to the North not only in relation to Conrad or Naipaul or other authors like Jamaica Kincaid (who also writes along a South-North meridian), but to Aleksander Wat’s My Century (another New York Review Books reprint, incidentally), for example, or Gombrowicz’s Cosmos or Diaries or Transatlantyk (North-South and East-West) (anything by Gombrowicz, really) .

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