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.

* * *

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.

One response to “Kapuściński, the Award, and the Biography

  1. Is this book to be published in English or Polish? The Kapuscinski biog? From your blog I’m not entirely clear. Thanks so much, Lara

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