PEN Atlas editor Tasja Dorkofikis talks to Artur Domosławski, author of the controversial and popular biography Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life. Artur Domosławski will be touring the UK from 19 – 26 September. You can find the full events schedule here.The Polish version of the text can be read here.Why did you decide to write a biography of Kapuscinski? Because he had a fascinating life – he lived through a few historical events in several parts of the world, was a witness to so many crucial events in Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America that one could parcel out his experiences to several reporters and writers. He was also the most important journalist of his time in Poland, and one of the most important in the world. He was close to me, personally and intelectually, and we shared a similar view of the world. Also, because despite his fame we knew very little about him; and what he had to say about the world – despite admiration for his literary talent – was not understood and considered in Poland.Did the fact that you were friends with Kapuscinski make writing his biography more difficult?Sometimes it helped, sometimes it made it more difficult. It helped, because I talked to him intensely during the last nine years of his life, and soaked up his way of thinking. It hindered when I encountered events which – I thought – some readers might take as negative, though I didn’t necessarily see them as such myself. Then I was faced with a challenge: how to describe these events honestly, but at the same time with empathy and understanding. Each author of a biography, who knows his subject, and was friends with him or her, has to confront such difficulties, I am not an exception.Was Kapuscinski, according to you, an outstanding writer as well as an outstanding reporter? Yes, he was both. Some of this books are strictly journalistic – but also in those he was an outstanding writer. One of the most wonderful descriptions, both journalistic and literary, is, for example, the scene describing the wooden city of crates departing from Luanda with all the possessions of the Portuguese leaving Angola when it gained independence. This is one those moments when reportage becomes great literature.But amongst Kapuscinski’s works there are also books which were treated as reportage, but were – even though they had the element of reportage – in the strict sense of the word, literature. I think that this is the case with The Emperor, which is an outstanding treatise about power based on the motif of the Haile Sellasje’s court, but also, above all, great literature. In the 70s Poles read this book as a metaphor for the court of Edward Gierek. One of Kapuscinski’s friends said once that The Emperor is the greatest Polish novel of the 20th century. I think that Kapuscinski wouldn’t have anything against such a classification.Do you think that the fact that Kapuscinski wrote from behind the Iron Curtain sharpened his imagination as a reporter?I think that the place of birth and the part of one’s life which has not been freely chosen can give some additional sharepened vision. But I don’t think that life behind the Iron Curtain could equip anybody with any particular wisdom not accessible to others. It simply gave Kapuscinski a lot of experiences, which he was able to transform into literature.Which elements of Kapuscinski’s writing have made him so popular? I am sure that there are a few elements. One of them is being able to evoke emotions understood by readers of various ages, education and experience. Secondly, his seductive style and the melody of his sentences. And thirdly, relating complicated world events: power, revolutions, issues often excluding the public, through images, and stories and not through abstract, analytical concepts.Why do you think Kapuscinski was beyond criticism in Poland?I think that in Poland we like having blameless heros, saints, we like turning them into statues, and then worshipping them. That happened with Kapuscinski. He was admired superficially, though certainly in an authentic way – as a compatriot, who was successful abroad. Unfortunately, his reflections about the world haven’t been taken seriously in Poland, and what he had to say has been ignored. Because one does not debate the merits of a saint, one does not criticise a saint. This has consequences – paradoxically, Kapuscinski is not well known, understood and taken into account in Poland.What subjects would Kapuscinski write about nowadays? Which subjects would he consider most important?I think that he would be fascinated by the Arab Spring. Kapuscinski described mass movements for liberation – both political and social. Rebellion against dictators in the Arab world would certainly be his subject. Though he might not have much energy to travel at his advanced age. Maybe not. He had a few ideas for other books, which he didn’t have enough time to write: about Bronislaw Malinowski, about Latin America, about his childhood town – Pinsk.Do you think that Kapuscinski has successors in Poland? Who would you recommend to British readers and publishers? I think that Poland has very good reportage, but it would be hard to nominate successors. I will leave this to readers and publishers.
Additional InformationArtur Domosławski writes on international politics for the weekly review Polityka and for the Polish edition of Le Monde diplomatique, and for two decades reported for the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza. In 2010 he received Poland’s prestigious Journalist of the Year Award. A Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 2005-2006, he is the author of five books and is currently working on a book about contemporary Latin America.Tasja Dorkofikis is the editor of the PEN Atlas as well as a freelance editor and publicist. She used to work as Publicity Director at Random House and most recently at Portobello Books as Associate Publisher and Commissioning Editor. Tasja shares her time between London and a small village in Vaud in Switzerland.Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life is translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, a full-time translator of Polish literature. Her published translations include fiction by several of Poland’s leading contemporary novelists, including The Last Supper by Paweł Huelle, for which she won the Found in Translation Award 2008. Her translations of non-fiction include reportage, literary biographies and essays. She also translates poetry and books for children, including illustrated books, novels and verse. She occasionally takes part in translation conferences, reads her work at public events, and interprets for the writers whom she translates at literary festivals. Last year she participated in Translation Nation, a project to teach primary school children the value of knowing languages. She recently mentored a younger translator within a project run by the British Centre for Literary Translation, and initiated by the UK Translators Association, of which she is currently a committee member.Ryszard Kapuściński: A Lifehttp://rcm-uk.amazon.co.uk/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=enpe-21&o=2&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=184467858X
Recent Polish reportage available in English: The Night Wanderers: Uganda’s Children and the Lord Resistance Army by Wojciech Jagielski, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, (Old Street, 2012)http://rcm-uk.amazon.co.uk/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=enpe-21&o=2&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=1908699086
White Fever by Jacek Hugo-Bader, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, (Portobello Books, 2011)http://rcm-uk.amazon.co.uk/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=enpe-21&o=2&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=1846272696
Like Eating a Stone by Wojciech Tochman, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, (Portobello Books, 2009)http://rcm-uk.amazon.co.uk/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=enpe-21&o=2&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=184627088X