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Ryszard Kapuœciñski: the interpreter

Wiktor Osiatyński
30 January 2007

When Ryszard Kapuściński wrote about tyrannies and their falls, the desire for freedom and the need for tolerance, he influenced millions. Not just because of what he wrote, but how. He achieved mastery in conveying deep truths and important ideas without resorting to generalisation.

He favoured simple descriptions - of a single event, a detail, a mood. He dissolved the boundary between reporting and literature, not by inserting fiction into his writing but by pouring in feeling. He elicited empathy and identification in his readers rather than mere understanding. He gathered his material by listening, always attentively. When he listened, you couldn't help but feel worthy of his attention. The trust and friendship he elicited can be seen in his photographs. His sensitivity shines through in his poems. For Kapuściński was not just a reporter.

Kapuściński achieved iconic status in Poland in the mid-1970s, after publishing The Emperor. We suddenly realised that when he wrote about Africa and Latin America, he was, in fact, writing about Poland. The Emperor was about the rise and fall of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia. But the real subject of the book was the court. Leaders may differ, but the attitudes and behaviour of courtiers are universal. Kapuściński's allusions to party apparatchiks and members of the politburo were subtle but obvious to every reader in Poland. Likewise, every reader abroad could recognise the posture, speech and conduct of bureaucrats everywhere, whether they were climbing up or falling from the ladder of power.

Wiktor Osiatyński is a professor of comparative constitutionalism and human rights at Central European University. He is also a member of the board of the Open Society Institute. Osiatyński is the author of twenty books, including Contrasts: Soviet and American Thinkers Discuss the Future, Rehab, and Citizen's Republic. In the 1970s, he worked with Ryszard Kapuściński for the Kultura weekly in Warsaw, Poland

Also in openDemocracy about the work of Ryszard Kapuściński:

Neal Ascherson, "Ryszard Kapuściński: from Poland to the world" (25 January 2007)

The uniqueness of the other

Kapuściński wrote his books in weekly instalments; he needed a deadline to write. The Emperor was first published in the weekly Kultura, where we both worked in the 1970s. Once, he called in to replace a chapter that was already at the printers with one describing the Ethiopian emperor's decree to build dams on the Nile. Just two days before, the Polish party's central committee had heralded a program to regulate the Vistula river. Like Ethiopia, Poland was in the middle of a crisis.

The crisis led to Solidarity and to the historic Gdańsk shipyard strike in August 1980. Most journalists at the time wrote about workers' demands and the tension of their negotiations with the government. Kapuściński was among those reporters who joined the workers. Then, instead of writing about the issues behind the strike, he wrote about the people striking. He gave a name to what was really going on, calling the protest "a revolution for dignity". Indeed, dignity soon became the essential theme of Solidarity.

In the 1980s, Kapuściński did not write a major book. During martial law, Kultura was banned and there was no weekly paper to write for. He began writing a journal, eventually published in six volumes entitled Lapidarium. He also attended to a rapidly blossoming international career, which had started with the publication of English editions of The Emperor and Shah of Shahs.

Soon, Kapuściński became the most widely translated Polish writer. In the 1990s, he resumed writing books, this time for Gazeta Wyborcza's weekly magazine. First, he went to Russia to witness the dissolution of the Soviet Union and returned with Imperium. Next, he summed up his lifetime experience in Africa in the book Ebony. Next, he wrote Travels with Herodotus (whom he considered the first reporter in history). As a sequel, he planned take a trip to the Pacific Islands and write a book about Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski. He also wanted to write about his native Pinsk, a city on the eastern frontier of pre-war Poland, now in Belarus. He was planning another book, which he was going to call The World Boils. He was increasingly anxious that caught by the avalanche of awards, honorary degrees, conferences and lectures he may not have enough time. He did not.

His last book, The Other, is a collection of six lectures. Its title alludes to Kapuściński's own mission as interpreter of cultures, to use his own phrase. An interpreter listens and transfers what he hears (or observes, or senses) into words that are understandable to others. An interpreter does not judge or impose anything, accepting reality and the people for whom he translates. An interpreter helps people understand each other.

The Other is, like all his works, a stand against fundamentalisms, nationalisms and all the other "isms" that divide people and push them to fight each other. Kapuściński took a stand for pluralism and tolerance, freedom and dignity. These were his high values, perhaps more important to him that democracy itself. After all, he had often witnessed angry mobs and intolerant democracies, like Iran's. And in the last months of his life he expressed concerns about the fate of democracy in post-communist countries.

For Poles, Kapuściński was an example of moderation and humility. As a nation, we tend to overestimate our historical importance and uniqueness. Kapuściński taught us that others are no less unique. He warned that if we succumb to our obsession with our own problems we risk overlooking what is really important in the world. From his wider perspective these things included global warming, ecological destruction, globalisation. He observed that along with the process of global unification an opposite process of fragmentation is taking place. In 1960, if a reporter knew English, he or she could speak to every important person in the world on topics of mutual importance.

Today, in great parts of the world, new local elites have power, armies and followers, but they speak no foreign languages and are not interested in what is happening in the world. They do not watch CNN or BBC.

On the one hand, we have a world of global networks that we can see and hear wherever we go; on the other, thousands of worlds that do not know ours and rarely make it onto our "global" networks.

Kapuściński committed his life to helping us hear this other world, and to helping the world of the excluded be heard. He died on 23 January 2007, at the age of 74 in Warsaw, Poland.

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