Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Lies of Ryszard Kapuscinski

Jack Shafer in Slate
The Washington Post obituary of Ryszard Kapus´cin´ski, who died Jan. 23, calls him "among the most celebrated war correspondents of hisgeneration."
The Los Angeles Times obituary proclaims him the "most celebrated of Polish journalists, whose work earned international acclaim."
In the Guardian, director Jonathan Miller speaks of Kapus´cin´ski's "magnificent reportage" from Haile Selassie's royal court. The Daily Telegraph obituary describes him as "Poland's most renowned foreign correspondent and a witness to much of the turbulent birth of the Third World."
The obits and appreciations published this week make much of Kapus´cin´ski's bravery in reporting storiesfrom Africa, Central America, the Middle East, and elsewhere. He's credited again and again for witnessing 27 coups and revolutions, of enduring malaria, tuberculosis, and blood poisoning in backwater hellholes.
He is said to have lived on almost nothing while filing brilliant stories about deprivation andoppression, and he cheated death time and again as it claimed others. Take, forexample, the much-repeated account that he wrote about escaping death after agang soaked him with benzene at a roadblock in Nigeria during civil war. Irony,in the form of demonic laughter, saved his life.
John Updike worshipped him. Gabriel García Márquez tagged him "the true master of journalism."
But there'sone fact about the celebrated war correspondent and idol of New York's literaryclass that didn't get any serious attention this week. It's widely conceded thatKapus´cin´ski routinely made up things in his books. The New York Timesobituary, which calls Kapus´cin´ski a "globe-trotting journalist," negotiatesits way around the master's unique relationship with the truth diplomatically,stating that his work was "often tinged with magical realism" and used "allegoryand metaphors to convey what was happening."
Scratch a Kapus´cin´skienthusiast and he'll insist that everybody who reads the master's booksunderstands from context that not everything in them is to be taken literally.
This is a bold claim, as Kapus´cin´ski's work draws its power from the fantasticand presumably true stories he collects from places few of us will ever visitand few news organization have the resources to re-report and confirm. IfKapus´cin´ski regularly mashes up the observed (journalism) with the imagined (fiction), how certain can we be of our abilities to separate the two whilereading?
Should we regard Kapus´cin´ski's end product as journalism?
Should we give Kapus´cin´ski a bye but castigate Stephen Glass, who defrauded the NewRepublic and other publications by doing a similar thing on a grosser scale?
Do we cut Kapus´cin´ski slack because he was better at observing, imagining, andwriting than Glass, and had the good sense to write from exotic places?
Exactly how is Kapus´cin´ski different from James Frey in practice if not in execution?
Some Kapus´cin´ski sympathizers want us to understand his books as allegoriesabout the place he came from-totalitarian Poland.
As a reporter for thegovernment news agency, he couldn't write the truth about his country, so hechanneled his experiences in Sudan, Ethiopia, Angola, El Salvador, Bolivia,Iran, and Chile, among other places, to speak about Polish life under Communism.
That's fine with me as long as nobody calls his footwork journalism. John Ryleinventories Kapus´cin´ski's skills at inventing details in a Times LiterarySupplement piece published in 2001 and recently revised. Ryle, currently of theRift Valley Institute, documents scores of embellishments, fabrications, errors,and fictions in Kapus´cin´ski's work, most of which even the greatest fan of theman's work would not have gleaned had they given every page a close reading.
So much for understanding Kapus´cin´ski in his context.Ryle quotes a 2001interview in the Independent, in which Kapus´cin´ski complains about the excessof "fables" and "make-believe," saying, "Journalists must deepen theiranthropological and cultural knowledge and explain the context of events.They must read."
He also captures Kapus´cin´ski criticizing the shoddy reporting of other foreign correspondents, which establishes that he paid lip service to thetraditions of accurate reporting, even if he didn't observe them in the field.He wasn't very consistent on this point.
In a 1987 interview in Granta, he speaks disdainfully of journalistic conventions, saying: You know, sometimes the critical response to my books is amusing.
There are so many complaints: Kapuscinski never mentions dates, Kapuscinski never gives us the name of theminister, he has forgotten the order of events. All that, of course, is exactlywhat I avoid. If those are the questions you want answered, you can visit yourlocal library, where you will find everything you need: the newspapers of thetime, the reference books, a dictionary.
The liberties Kapus´cin´ski takes withevents, places, and people matter for the same reason it would matter if anEthiopian journalist had covered the Solidarity uprising but ginned up his storyin order to speak allegorical truth to the authorities in Addis Ababa.
Nice try, but no journalism. Ryle writes that the criticisms do not rob Kapus´cin´ski's work of its bright allure, its illuminating moments, its often lively sympathy for the people of the countries he writes about, but they warn us not to take itseriously as a guide to reality.
A "guide to reality" is a pretty good pocketdefinition of journalism, if you ask me. Some Kapus´cin´ski enthusiastsbelieve that his "techniques" are defensible because they allow writers to reacha higher truth than does the low-octane variety of journalism.
Slate's MeghanO'Rourke writes that our culture needs a label for the hybrid bred byKapus´cin´ski, and such writers as Joseph Mitchell and Truman Capote, whose books straddle the wall between fiction and nonfiction.
Dave Eggers attemptssuch labeling (successfully, I'm told) in his new book, What Is the What, whichbills itself as the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng done as a novel.Truthin packaging for wall-straddling authors would calm my savage, beating heart, but I'm still bothered by the conceit. Every news story ever published could bebetter-contain a higher truth, if you will-if reporters were allowed to make upstuff. The measure of a journalist, especially a foreign correspondent, is to achieve the effect of Kapus´cin´ski without scattering the pixie dust of magicalrealism. Dexter Filkins, John Burns, Anthony Shadid, Carlotta Gall, and othergeniuses of foreign correspondence have astonished readers without"allegorizing."
To create a special category of international reporting that is true-except where not specified as true-would diminish the true masters' feats.

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