Post Your Opinion
Seven Encounters with Ryszard Kapuscinski
by Marek Kusiba

Here are the notes from seven of my meetings with Ryszard Kapuscinski. They took place over eighteen years. In the past twelve months, I had the opportunity to visit him while he was writing Ebony.

1. On Empathy (16 December 1980, Gdansk)

Unveiling of the Shipyard Workers' Monument (erected in honour of those killed during the December 1970 clashes with the police and military). A special platform built for the press. Journalists mill around, talking to each other. Kapuscinski doesn't talk, he just stands, staring at the monument, motionless. I introduce myself. He says, "I know your work." I'm surprised: "You must read a lot." Kapuscinski puts his finger to his lips.

An hour later. Kapuscinski isn't recording anything, isn't taking any notes. He just gazes at the tall tower with its three anchors made into crosses.

The ceremony ends. My question to Kapuscinski about why he didn't record the speeches. His answer: "I did."

(Years later, he publishes one of the most profound accounts of the Solidarity period. After reading those five pages in Lapidaria, I understood that even though he had been standing on that platform with his colleagues, in spirit he had been amongst the mourners-the mothers and fathers of the young workers killed by the Communist regime. Rather than taking notes, the process of which would have distracted him, he was listening and remembering. He wasn't just a witness to history-in-the-making. He was part of it. I realized that identification is fundamental to his work.)

Kapuscinski tells me, "I try to be a part of the world I'm describing. I try to completely immerse myself in it and to forget about other realities."

(Thirty pages into Lapidaria, he writes: "At the time one witnesses an event, one thinks: `This is incredibly important!' And one notes down each detail. Three months later, it becomes clear that most of this wasn't really that essential. Only the quality of the observation and, more so, the quality of the reflection is what remains.")

2. On Cynicism (29 January 1988, Toronto)

A walk along the harbourfront. Topic of conversation: what makes a good war correspondent. Kapuscinski: "He has to be polite, cooperative, easy-going, strongly motivated, and self-sacrificing."

Near the hotel. A bag lady. His questions to me: Where does she sleep? Who is taking care of the street people? Who'd eventually take care of her? How to save her from freezing to death? He wants to go to the nearest shop and buy her some food. She rejects our offer with the dignity of an old English Lady: "I don't need your f- pity."

Taxi to the airport. He says, "It's important to preserve the ability to experience, it's important that there exist things which can surprise you, shake you up. It's important not to be touched by the serious disease of indifference."

(Later, in Lapidaria, he writes: "A cynic isn't suited to be a war or foreign correspondent. This profession, this mission requires that one have a certain understanding of human poverty, a certain empathy for people."

Kapuscinski's knowledge of poverty originates in his childhood: he grew up during the war; his family was poor and often went hungry; he was exposed to death on a daily basis; he witnessed several executions in the Palmiry, a Nazi killing site outside Warsaw. Since then he's been describing, analyzing, explaining, and fighting war-in his writing.)

3. On Learning (6 December 1996, Toronto)

A visit to the house where Hemingway stayed in the 1920s. Diana Kuprel: "Hemingway started as a reporter but dropped journalism in order to write his first novel. For Hemingway at the time reporting was at odds with `real writing.'" Kapuscinski: "In my own case, there was no need to switch from journalism to writing." His reporting evolved naturally into literature.

Visits to libraries and bookstores. He is especially interested in books on anthropology. Upstairs in Chapters. Photo albums on Africa. His story about a visit to the university in Adis Abeba: "It had the only bookstore in the city, which was, in fact, the only bookstore in all of Ethiopia. I was shocked. The shelves were empty. No books, no magazines, nothing. This is what it's like in the majority of African countries. There was a good bookstore once in Kampala, three in Dar es-Salam. Now, there's nothing anywhere. Imagine, over fifty million people live in Ethiopia, which is about the size of Ontario."

Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Kapuscinski on the students working away at the library computers: "Look at these faces. I feel like I'm in Peking or Seoul or Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. It seems like the Third World is taking its revenge for years of marginalization-quietly, diligently, and methodically, it is taking over the sciences. And the sciences will determine the future of the world."

Queen's Park. A large group of school children. Kapuscinski observes them. He comments: "Children in Canada live as though they were in a glass bubble. There is nothing like this in the rest of the world. Eighty percent of the children on this planet live in poverty. African children... If you stop anywhere in a village, in a town, or even along the road, a group of children will show up immediately. All in these indescribable rags. Tiny T-shirts, short pants in tatters. Their only possession, their only source of nourishment is a small bottle-gourd with a bit of water. Each piece of bread or banana disappears in a fraction of a second. Hunger for these children is a constant, a form of life, second nature. And yet they don't beg for bread or fruit, not even for money. They ask for a pen. A ballpoint pen that costs about ten cents. They'd all like to go to school, they'd like to learn. Sometimes they do go to school, but they can't learn to write because they don't have anything to write with. They don't have a pen."

4. On Solitude (19 May 1997, Wigry)

Eighteenth-century Camedolite monastery in northeast Poland. A literary conference. Rooms with two single beds and all the modern conveniences. Kapuscinski is a special guest. We speak long into the night, primarily about the price a reporter pays for his craft.

Glancing around the monk's cell, he says: "Such is the solitude of a writer who travels around the world to far-away countries: he writes about those who don't read him for those who are not terribly interested in his protagonists. As a result, this writer is someone in-between, suspended between cultures, and so has the privilege and obligation of being their translator. Here is the real question and problem: to what degree can one penetrate another culture, know it, since it is created by internal, secret codes which no one coming from another world is truly able to decipher and understand?"

(For many years, Kapuscinski was the only Polish Press Agency reporter working on the entire continent of Africa. PAP had never insured him for life. And it had never occurred to him to ask for it. In case of illness, he was supposed to return to Poland to be treated in hospital there. When he was struck with malaria, he decided to stay in Africa because he was afraid he would never be able to return. Although he risked his life, he never regretted it. "I have to live among the people I write about, I have to eat with them and starve with them.")

Next morning. Kapuscinski leaves for Pinsk in Belarussia with Swedish reporters who are doing a TV documentary on him. They want him to show and describe the places he lived as a child. (Kapuscinski tells me the advice a New York colleague gave him: "Ryszard, don't work for TV. It's like pissing into a big river.")

The previous evening at the mona-stery, Kapuscinski tells me about his first winter of war. About cold stoves. About walls glazed with a shaggy, white hoar-frost. About death sentences for stealing coal, wood. About hunger. "Once, we found out that the store by the square would be handing out candy. We queued up immediately-a long line of frozen, starving children. We stood in that frost all evening, night, and the next day, too. We hugged and held one another so as not to freeze. In the end they opened the store, but instead of candy, we each got an empty fruit drop tin. It was priceless because a trace of sugar still remained on the inside wall of the tin. My mother heated up some water and poured it into the tin. We had a hot, sweetish drink. Our only food."

5. On Wandering (13-14 December 1997, Warsaw)

Sixteenth anniversary of Martial Law. We raise a silent glass in memory. No talk of politics or Solidarity. In the study Kapuscinski reads out loud fragments from Ebony. He reads as if he were reciting poetry: slowly intoning, clearly enunciating every syllable.

"Somewhere outside of Gondaro, I met a man who was walking from the north to the south. This in fact is the most important thing that can be said about him-that he was walking from the north to the south. One can also add that he went in search of his brother.

He was barefoot, dressed in raggedy short pants and on his back he had something that might have been called a shirt at one time. He had three other things: a wanderer's staff; a piece of linen that served him mornings as a towel, during the hot hours as protection for his head, and at night as a covering for his body; and a wooden gourd for water that was slung over his shoulder. He had no money. If people give him something to eat along the way, he eats; if they don't, he goes hungry. But he's been hungry his whole life; there's nothing unusual in hunger."

Kapuscinski breaks off here. A long silence. He continues.

"He's going south because his brother once left home for the south. When was that? A long time ago. This man has been walking a long time too. He comes from somewhere in the Eritrea Mountains, outside of Keren. He knows how to go south: in the morning, you walk straight into the sun. When he meets someone, he asks if that person has seen or knows Solomon (his brother's name). People aren't surprised by such a question. The whole of Africa is moving, on the road, lost. Some escape from war, others from drought, others from hunger. The one who is walking from north to south is just an anonymous drop in the human torrents which rush along the roads of the dark continent, impelled either by the fear of death or by the hope of finding a place under the sun."

Again he breaks off. Then he gets up from the couch and starts to pace. His steps accent the reading.

"Why does he want to find his brother? Why? He doesn't understand the question. The reason is obvious, no explanation is needed. He shrugs his shoulders. Perhaps he is seized by compassion for the man whom he has met and who, though well-dressed, is poorer than he is in one crucial way.

Does he know where he is? Does he know that the place where we are sitting is no longer Eritrea but another country-Ethiopia? He smiles the smile of a man who knows a great deal, who knows one thing at least-that for him here in Africa there are no borders and no states.

There is just the scorched earth on which brother searches for brother."

Next morning. Ryszard goes to fix his fifteen-year-old car. Why doesn't he get a new car? He responds: "Why do I need a better one? This one still runs."

That afternoon. The courier drops off copies of Lapidaria, hot off the press. He opens a book to a random page and hands me this fragment to read:

"Two types of people inhabit the same planet-completely unalike, completely other.

One type is the man who has nothing. We encounter him in the mountains of Asia, in the African bush, high in the Andes or in the hot Gobi desert. He walks, staff in hand, sips water from a dish made from a date. He doesn't have a cent, he doesn't know when he last ate, we don't know if he has a roof for his head somewhere. He says little-what is there for him to talk about? He can know the names of those closest to him. And his own. Because I met many such people during my travels, I now wonder if apart from their name they have anything else. But I can find nothing specific.

The other type is the man multiplied, branched, dying under the burden of things which constitute an indispensable part of him. His extension is the computer linked to the internet. He has to have a fridge, an air conditioner, a filter for clean water. He has to swallow dozens of pills. He has a pocket full of keys-to the car, the safe, the office, the cash register. The other pocket is full of credit cards. In one hand, a cell phone; in the other, a briefcase full of documents.

These people, brothers after all, from one family of man, don't meet each other anywhere. They wouldn't have anything to say to one another anyway."

6. On Handwriting (4 March 1998, Warsaw)

Ryszard and Alicja's birthday. Alicja serves cold cuts, salad, and mango in a delicious sauce in the kitchen.

We go to the upstairs study. (Ryszard has just finished another fragment of Ebony which will be published in the weekly edition of Gazeta Wyborcza, the biggest paper in Poland.) Although he writes in fragments for the paper, he doesn't know what he will be writing for the next edition. "If I knew beforehand what I would be writing next, it would be boring. I am honestly curious about what will be."

There's no computer on the desk. Just an Erika, an old German typewriter. He comments: "Not long ago I started to write by hand again. Now when I sit down to write I automatically reach for a pen and paper. After finishing, I type it without correcting it. This is possible because I never write about anything that I haven't personally experienced. Ebony is just such a book. What there is has been touched by my hand and seen by my eyes."

Ryszard tells me that the most important thing for the writer is to have his own subject. "Your subject should be pieced together into a work. Your books should form a logical continuity and you shouldn't jump from one subject to the other. It's like writing the same text in different books".

"My main topic," he continues, "is the life of the poor. This is how I understand the notion of the Third World. It's not a geographical term or a racial term but an existential one. It is precisely living in poverty, which is characterized by starvation, stagnation, a constant threat of final collapse, a general no-way-out."

His study is packed with thousands of books, files, tapes, photos, African sculptures. All well-organized and categorized. He walks me around, pointing out some shelves with over 500 books, the majority in English. Many he read while writing Ebony. "My main problem with Ebony was how to put a great amount of knowledge into the book and still make literature of it. Writing was only part of the effort. The other part was intensive reading and research."

The attic. A cot. This attic and the study are a sort of monastery-no telephone, no outside disturbances, absolute quiet.

("In order to write, you have to focus yourself, just like when we enter a secret wood, or sink into the bottom of a bay, or metre by metre deepen unknown cellars. Then we take the next step: we achieve a mystical state, we cross the border, we enter into contact with what is internal and what is higher, with what we try to communicate with, to reach, to feel, to unite with"-Lapidaria.)

7. On Upcoming (4 November 1998, over the phone)

After almost a year of work Ryszard finished Ebony.

MK: Did you feel that you touched on all the topics you wanted to?

RK: Of course not. Just a small part of the material I possess. But I figured it was better to finish now than to burden the reader.

MK: Does Ebony represent the culmination of your writing on Africa?

RK: No, I don't look at it in those terms. Each book is different. In each one I'm trying to show a different aspect of Africa as well as our world.

MK: How would you categorize the book you've just written?

RK: In Canada, they call it creative non-fiction. When I went to Calgary (for the Olympic Gathering of Writers-M.K.), there was a discussion on the art of creative non-fiction writing. But I really don't know how to define it.

MK: How about "grande reportage"?

RK: Some critics call it that. I would call it reflective non-fiction, a panoramic reportage that tries to encompass certain regions of the world, certain cultures. This is the next volume of such reportage about the world. Marek Nowakowski (an acclaimed Polish writer-M.K.) told me once that I describe "the boiling of the world".

MK: That's it. Do you feel like returning to Africa?

RK: Yes, I'm going back in December. To Africa, Asia, Latin America. I'd like to write a book on the spiritual riches of the Third World. Because in those countries, there's not just poverty, hunger, sickness, illiteracy. There's a great spiritual wealth, ancient religions and cultures which have shaped our civilization not only in the past, but which also have a great influence on us today.

MK: Don't Western civilizations attract you as a reporter, as a writer?

RK: No, because I don't know how to write about them.

MK: Why not?

RK: I have no feel for them. That's not my subject.

MK: Are you taking a break now?

RK: I don't take breaks.

MK: Don't you go for walks?

RK: I know I should, but after a day of writing, I'm too tired to go.

MK: But you walk up and down the stairs.

RK: Yes, that is my walk. 

Marek Kusiba is a journalist and poet living in Toronto.

(Fragments from Ebony and Lapidaria translated by Diana Kuprel.)


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us