Saturday, January 27, 2007

Ian Jack on Ryszard Kapuscinski

Ian Jack is the editor of Granta (The Independent, London)
A few years ago a party to celebrate the publication of Ryszard Kapuscinski's book on Africa was held, properly enough, in the Polish Club in South Kensington. A few of us then walked to dinner with him at a restaurant inKensington High Street; no more than a luxurious toddle, but someone complained that a taxi would have been a better idea, that it was really quite far.
Obviously, said Kapuscinski of the complainant, he never went on a route march with the Polish army in Stalinist times.
A lot of Kapuscinski's passionatecuriosity about the world can be explained by the circumstances of hischildhood. He was born in Pinsk, now in Belarus, an isolated town of unmetalledroads. He was seven before he saw his first train and 30 before he owned atelephone.
During the terrible hardships of Poland's German occupation, he andhis family subsisted on pastries of flour and water and wore tree bark on theirfeet rather than shoes. Shoes were always one of his enthusiasms. In 1987, in aninterview with Bill Buford, my predecessor at Granta, he said, "I'm obsessedwith footwear."
As Pinsk was to Warsaw, so post-war Poland was to the rest ofthe world. "Don't forget that for my generation the outside world didn't exist,"he told Buford.
"Africa and India were fairy tales." It's useful to rememberthis when we think of Kapuscinski's writing. He came to places fresh, withoutthe preconceptions and cultural baggage of an English or American writer, and hewas determined to describe what they were like as vividly as he could.As aforeign reporter for the Polish Press Agency he saw an awful lot - Africa, SouthAmerica, Asia, 28 revolutions in the wake of European de-colonisation - but hisquick reports couldn't begin to describe the rich complexity of the reality infront of him. Agency reporters, filing daily, were, as he described them,"terrible victims of information".
His books could never have been writtenwithout this experience, but their success as literature is owed to a differentside of Kapuscinski. Before he was a reporter, he was a poet and short-storywriter: his sentences, with their rhythms and images and careful selection ofthe persuading detail, could have been written by a fine novelist.He used towonder where the novelists were when he covered riots, wars and coups.
Why werethey all back in Europe tinkering with their "little domestic stories" aboutmarriage and divorce? Why weren't they here in the thick of it, grappling withthe events that mattered?
Very few writers answered this call, and he had fewrivals in the business of depicting the troubled reality of poor countries andpeople. (VS Naipaul is one of them, and, perhaps not coincidentally, is fromanother place, Trinidad, which was well off the beaten track.)
The world toKapuscinski was silva rerum, the forest of things, and he believed that "tocapture it you have to penetrate it as completely as possible". He came to beknown as a literary reporter, but often saw his work more accurately as"literature by foot".
The long march has ended for him, but he has shown usunforgettable views.

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