Ryszard Kapuściński: Where does journalism end and literature begin?

By Rebecca Omonira

The significance of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński was the topic of a heated debate at the Frontline Club on 19 September.

Fans and a few critics flocked to the Frontline Club to discuss the writers’ life with: renowned Polish journalist and recent Kapuściński biographer, Artur Domoslawski; Victoria Brittain, former associate foreign editor at the Guardian; John Ryle, a British writer and specialist in Eastern Africa; and Antonia Lloyd-Jones, an award winning translator of Polish literature.

Revelations about Kapuściński’s possible involvement with the Communist Polish secret service, after his death in 2007, polarised opinion about the veracity of his writing and legitimacy of his position as one of the great journalists of the twentieth century.

Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who translated Artur Domoslawski’s book to English, said: 

The facts of Kapuściński’s biography don’t detract from Kapuściński as a writer. It made me want to read his books again.”

Lloyd-Jones’ thoughts reflect the tone of the debate; most wanted to focus on the singular brilliance and political significance of Kapuściński’s reportage, rather than possible inaccuracies. Victoria Brittain, an “unabashed Kapuściński fan”, referred to the event’s title Where does journalism end and literature begin? as “quite unhelpful”. “I think more interesting is Kapuściński,” she said. 

Aside from the literary quality of his writing, Brittain said Kapuściński’s work was relevant and important. She recalled meeting people living in Angola during her time reporting there who read his book Another Day of Life about the Angolan civil war.

“…people in Angola lived with him, really enjoyed him and found the book told the story they wanted told”.

John Ryle, a lone detractor during the debate, said adulation of Kapuściński should not distract from questions over the truthfulness of the writer’s accounts.

“He was a great stylist, but if you are interested in the history of Ethiopia it is problematic,” he said.

Ryle was concerned that though readers in the west and Poland voice opinions on the significance of Kapuściński’s work, little attention is given to his subjects, particularly those in Africa.

“It is important not to allow our admiration for his style, I don’t think we should take that as an authority about the things he writes about,” he said. It is not just the “elasticity of the facts”, he added, “but the whole representation of Africa.”

To support his argument Ryle referred to the Granta article by Kenyan writer Binyavanga WainainaHow to Write About Africa. “The main inspiration for the essay was Kapuściński,” said Ryle

But Domoslawski staunchly defended Kapuściński, his work and his legacy. Kapuściński’s style derived from a school of reportage particular to communist Poland, he said, which was heavily censored at the time.

“Reportage became a description of the darker side of reality of life in Poland under Communism. The reporters changed the names of the people in order to [protect] them, they created fictional characters,” he said. “From the perspective of the free world you can say that is absolutely unacceptable in journalism.”

However, at the time it was necessary to convey a certain message. In reference to criticism of Kapuściński’s book The Emperor, about the last days of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, Domoslawski said people reading it in Poland at the time saw it as an allegory of their own society. One of the sources for his book told him that, “The Emperor was the best Polish novel of the 20th century”.  Domoslawski added: “I think Kapuściński wouldn’t mind [this accolade].”

Where does journalism end and literature begin? The question remained unanswered as both the audience and panel succumbed to the “great seducer” Kapuściński. However, insight into the creation of lyrical, yet accurate, reporting came from Domoslawski:

“Instinctively, you can write things that capture the spirit of the moment. You have to use real ingredients, you can’t make things up. There are some descriptions in Kapuściński’s books which are very poetic, they are literature but they are journalism.”

Watch the full discussion here: