Kapuscinski, Ryszard 1932-2007

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Kapuscinski, Ryszard 1932-2007

PERSONAL: Name is pronounced Rish-ard Kap-ush-chin-ski; born March 4, 1932, in Pinsk, Poland; died January 23, 2007, in Warsaw, Poland; son of Jozef (a teacher) and Maria (a teacher) Kapuscinski; married Alicja Mielczarek (a pediatrician), October 6, 1952; children: Zofia Grzybowska. Education: University of Warsaw, M.A., 1952. Religion: Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: “Writing is my only interest. This is my hobby.”

CAREER: Writer. Worked in Warsaw, Poland, for Sztandar Mlodych (youth magazine; title means “Banner of Youth”), 1951-58, and Polityka (political-cultural weekly, title means “Politics”), 1959-61; Polish Press Agency, Warsaw, foreign correspondent in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, 1962-72; freelance writer, 1972-74; Kultura (weekly magazine; title means “Culture”), Warsaw, deputy editor in chief, 1974-81; freelance writer, beginning 1981. Vice-chair of Committee of Prognosis and Research at the Polish Academy of Science, Warsaw, beginning 1981.

AWARDS, HONORS: Cross of Merit and Knights Cross from the Order of Polonia Restituta, 1974; Boleslaw Prus Prize from the Polish Journalists Association, 1975, for general achievement; State Prize for literature (second class), 1976, for general achievement; International Prize from the International Journalists Organization, 1976, for journalistic achievement; German Prize for European Understanding, 1994; Literary Award, Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation, 1994; Prix d’Astrolab, 1995; Jan Parandowski PEN Club prize, 1996; Literary Award, Turzanski Foundation, 1996; Joseph Conrad Literature Award, J. Pilsudski Institute, 1997; Hansische Goethee-Preis, 1999; S.B. Linde Award, Twin Cities Torun-Götingen, 1999; Viareggio Award, 2000, Omegna Award, 2000; Calabria Award, 2000; Creola Award, 2000.


Busz po Polsku (nonfiction; title means “The Bush Polish Style”), Czytelnik (Warsaw, Poland), 1962.

Czarne Gwiazdy (nonfiction; title means “Black Stars”), Czytelnik (Warsaw, Poland), 1963.

Gdyby cala Afryka (nonfiction; title means “If All Africa”), Czytelnik (Warsaw, Poland), 1967.

Kirgiz schodzi z konia (nonfiction; title means “The Kirghiz Dismounts”), Czytelnik (Warsaw, Poland), 1967.

Dlaczego zginal Karl von Spreti (nonfiction; title means “Why Karl von Spreti Died”), Ksiazka i Wiedza, 1970.

Chrystus z karabinem na ramieniu (nonfiction; title means “Christ with a Rifle”), Czytelnik (Warsaw, Poland), 1975.

Jeszcze dzien zycia (nonfiction), Czytelnik (Warsaw, Poland), 1976, translation published as Another Day of Life, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1987.

Cesarz (nonfiction), Czytelnik (Warsaw, Poland), 1978, translation by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mrockowska-Brand published as The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1983.

Wojna futbolowa (nonfiction), Czytelnik (Warsaw, Poland), 1979, translation published as The Soccer War, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.

Szachinszach (nonfiction), Czytelnik (Warsaw, Poland), 1982, translation by William R. Brand and Ka-tarzyna Mrockowska-Brand published as Shah of Shahs, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1984.

Lapidarium, Czytelnik (Warsaw, Poland), 1990.

Wrzenie Swiata, Czytelnik (Warsaw, Poland), 1990.

Swietokrzyski, Voyager (Warsaw, Poland), 1993.

Imperium, Plon (Paris, France), 1994.

Lapidarium II, Czytelnik (Warsaw, Poland), 1996.

Lapidarium III, Czytelnik (Warsaw, Poland), 1997.

Heban, Czytelnik (Warsaw, Poland), 1998, translation by Klara Glowczewska published as The Shadow of the Sun, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.

Lapidarium V, Czytelnik (Warsaw, Poland), 2002.

Our Responsibilities in a Multicultural World, The Ju-daica Foundation (Cracow, Poland), 2002.

Autoportret Reportera, Wydawn Znak (Cracow, Poland), 2003.

Podroze z Herodotem, Znak (Cracow, Poland), 2004, translation by Klara Glowczewska published as Travels with Herodotus, Knopf (New York, NY), 2007.

Prawa Natury, Wydawn Literackie (Crakow, Poland), 2006.

SIDELIGHTS: Polish author and journalist Ryszard Ka-puscinski gained international fame for his books chronicling wars, coups, and revolutions in Africa, the Middle East, and other regions of the world. As Victoria Brittain noted on the Guardian Online Web site, for Kapuscinski, “journalism was a mission, not a career, and he spent much of his life, happily, in uncomfortable and obscure places, many of them in Africa, trying to convey their essence to a continent far away.” Kapuscinski gained notoriety as an intrepid traveler, braving all sorts of dangers to get a story. Time International contributor Donald Morrison noted that throughout his long career the Polish journalist was jailed forty times, witnessed twenty-seven coups and revolutions, survived four death sentences, contracted tuberculosis, cerebral malaria and blood poisoning, and was once doused with benzene and nearly set ablaze.” Kapuscinski’s booksdespite, or perhaps because of the way they sometimes played loosely with the strict journalistic truth (some called him a magical-realist journalist)—gained a worldwide audience, were translated into thirty languages, and earned the author literary prizes in his native Poland and from numerous other countries. Before he died in 2007, it was often speculated that he would be a Nobel laureate, yet following his death his reputation, particularly in Poland, was called into questio because it was discovered that he had worked for the Polish communist intelligence services in the 1960s and 1970s. Kapuscinski had been given the job of collecting information on American companies and citizens, as well as intelligence agencies of the United States, Israel and West Germany.

Kapuscinski’s most famous work is The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, a chronicle of the decline of Haile Selassie’s regime in Ethiopia, which many Polish readers interpreted as a subtle critique of Poland’s communist regime. After the dethronement of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, Kapscinski went to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. While there, he interviewed the surviving courtiers of the fallen regime in their hiding places. From these discussions, Kapuscinski compiled his 1978 book, The Emperor. Reviewer Geoffrey O’Brien of the Village Voice Literary Supplement called The Emperor “a collage of [the courtiers’] words, a haunting reconstruction of life in the inner precincts of a rotting empire, of ornate and self-perpetuating rituals of power, and of their sudden and humiliating end.” Other critics considered the book to be more than that. They received The Emperor both as a documentation of events leading to the Ethiopian revolution, and as what author John Updike referred to in the New Yorker as “a parable of rule which offers a number of lessons.” Foremost among these lessons, Updike explained, “looms the inevitable tendency of a despot, be he king, ward boss, or dictator, to prefer loyalty to ability in his subordinates, and to seek safety in stagnation.”

Some critics attributed the double meanings found in The Emperor to Kapuscinski’s writing technique. Updike, for instance, commented that “the editing and sequencing of these interviews is highly artistic, and creates a more than documentary effect.” And New York Times Book Review critic Xan Smiley observed that “one is never quite sure whether one is in the world of Ethiopian fact or Polish political fable” when one reads The Emperor. It is this uncertainty, however, that accounts for the impact of Kapuscinski’s book as a parable. As O’Brien explained, lessons of The Emperor are under the guise of the permissible dissection of a reactionary’ regime.”Consequently, O’Brien concluded, Kapuscinski can be both penetrating and perfectly ambivalent—an ambivalence both politically expedient and artistically fruitful.”

Kapuscinski once told CA: “I think that the industrialized world is, to a large degree, a stabilized world. And many people write about it—there is a plethora of writers analyzing very particular aspects of ‘industrial’ and ‘post-industrial’ society. Writing about the third world—what I’m doing—gives me a greater chance because so few people go there. It is a risk and demands great effort. But I think that because the social and political structures of unstable third world countries are not quite so sophisticated as those of the developed world, one can more easily observe man and his behavior in those countries. It is easier to observe the essence of modern conflicts, their generation. The field of observation is sharper, more focused.

“Contemporary mass media, the entire electronic news machine, works to provide man with an enormous amount of information—quick, but very superficial information, because behind its frantic flow of facts no attempt is made to help to understand the world. And to try to understand this tragic and magnificent world is precisely my aim.”

This philosophy of journalism saw Kapuscinski through his almost fifty-year career and two dozen titles of biography and reportage. Other major works include Another Day of Life, “a harrowing account of the 1970s Angolan civil war,” according to Morrison, which examines the collapse of Portuguese colonialism in Angola; Shah of Shahs, a chronicle of the last days of the Shah of Iran and the second of a projected trilogy of works on modern dictators (the third, about Idi Amin, was left uncompleted); The Soccer War, “a kaleidoscopic view of people and places,” according to Publishers Weekly contributor Genevieve Stuttaford; Imperium, a “perceptive travelogue-memoir of living under communism and watching it collapse,” as Morrison described this look at the last days of the Soviet Union; The Shadow of the Sun, about his travels and reportage in Africa; and Lapidarium, collections of his poetry and essays. William Finnegan, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted that “Kapuscinski found strange and wonderful angles on his subjects,” partly explaining his international popularity. Finnegan also praised the author’s “mordant, lapidary prose.”

Kapuscinski details the final days of Iran’s Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in Shah of Shahs, a chronicle also of the Shiite Revolution of 1979 that dethroned him. The author provides an overview of the last Shah life and career, as well as an eyewitness account of the events of 1979. Writing in the Nation, Edward Fox thought Kapuscinski “evokes the thrilling atmosphere in the city and records the political improvisations of the new guard in chaotic meetings in crowded rooms.” In Imperium the author continues his studies of societies on the cusp of change. Here he looks at the end of the Soviet Union. A contributor for the Wilson Quarterly felt Kapuscinski, however, was “more intent on offering an impressionistic tour of the Soviet ‘imperium’ than on arguing about its theoretical origins.” Robert V. Barylski described the book as “a psycho-cultural voyage through the declining Soviet Union,” in his Society review, while Review of Contemporary Fiction critic Frank Marquardt found it “a disparate and sprawling work, much like its subject; it’s anecdotal, laconic, and moving.”

Kapuscinski details the many decades he spent traveling in and reporting from Africa in The Shadow of the Sun. First arriving on that continent in 1957, Kapuscin-ski proved a valuable witness to the changes Africa went through in the second half of the twentieth century. The collected pieces in this volume range from Angola to Zanzibar, and from Idi Amin to Liberia’s Charles Taylor. Robert Oakeshott, reviewing the book in the Spectator, felt the author is at his best when describing the commonplaces of African experience as he observed them.” Similarly, Jeffrey Meyers, writing in the New Criterion, thought The Shadow of the Sun, while lacking the “drama and urgency of [Kapuscinski’s] earlier books,” was nonetheless “well worth reading for its unflinching vision.” Christian Century reviewer Debra Bendis voiced a similar opinion: “Kapuscinski’s close-ups of disease, starvation and predation are stark and arresting.” For George Packer, writing in the American Scholar, the book was less a history or memoir than it was “a novel, lacking… racters and plot.” Finnegan praised the book’s “strong emotional and historical arc,” as well as the “magnificent sympathy” Kapuscinski demonstrates.

Kapuscinski’s last publication in English prior to his death was Travels with Herodotus, “both a memoir and a fable, as well as a simple retelling of Herodotus,” according to a reviewer for the Spectator. Kapuscinski carried a well-used copy of Herodotus’s Histories with him all during his career, turning to the ancient Greek historian for inspiration, and with this final work deals in another form of memoir. Here he describes the course of his career, and the attempts he made with some of his writing to produce allegories of Poland communist government. Wilson Quarterly reviewer Rajiv Chandrasekaran noted, “Though this may not be [Kapuscinskis] finest, it does not attenuate the power of his life’s work.” Chandrasekaran went on to comment: “When young journalists ask me whom they should read, I’ll continue to tell them to immerse themselves in Kapus-cinski.” For Financial Times critic Elizabeth Speller, this was an “extraordinary”. And writing in the New York Times Book Review, Tom Bissell concluded: “When the last page of this book is turned, note how much smaller and colder the world now seems with Kapuscinski gone.”



African Business, September, 2001, Stephen Williams, review of The Shadow of the Sun, p. 48.

American Scholar, summer, 2001, George Packer, review of The Shadow of the Sun.

Atlantic, May, 1991, Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of The Soccer War, p. 123.

Biography, summer, 2007, Bob Keelaghan, review of Travels with Herodotus.

Booklist, September 1, 1994, Gilbert Taylor, review of Imperium, p. 20; May 15, 2001, Margaret Flanagan, review of The Shadow of the Sun, p. 1727; June 1, 2007, Vanessa Bush, review of Travels with Herodotus, p. 31.

Business Week, May 7, 2001, “What Will Africans Make of Africa?,” p. 23.

Chicago Review, June 22, 2000, Kinga Maciejewska, review of Lapidarium, p. 380.

Christian Century, July 4, 2001, Debra Bendis, review of The Shadow of the Sun, p. 35.

Economist, June 30, 2001, “Bus Rides; African Memoir; Ryszard Kapuscinski on Africa,” p. 5;July 21, 2007, “Dispelling One’s Own Ignorance; the Craft of Journalism,” p. 82.

Entertainment Weekly, March 6, 1992, review of The Soccer War, p. 52.

Financial Times, June 16, 2007, Elizabeth Speller, “The History Man Ryszard Kapuscinski Left Communist Poland in the 1950s to Experience Life as a Foreigner. Instead of a Guidebook, He Took Herodotus’s ‘The Histories’ with Him,” p. 29.

Foreign Affairs, November 1, 1994, Robert Legvold, review of Imperium, p. 178.

Insight on the News, August 20, 2001, “The Spirit of Africa,” p. 26.

Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2007, review of Travels with Herodotus.

Lancet, October 20, 2001, “A Master of Modern Reportage,” p. 1379.

Nation, June 22, 1985, Edward Fox, review of Shah of Shahs, p. 772.

New Criterion, June, 2001, Jeffrey Meyers, review of The Shadow of the Sun, p. 82.

New Republic, June 27, 1983, review of The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat.

New Statesman, June 11, 2001, “Grace under Pressure,” p. 67; April 22, 2002, “Paperback Reader,” p. 56; February 12, 2007, “Kapuscinski, More Magical than Real,” p. 22.

New Statesman & Society, September 16, 1994, Julian Duplain, review of Imperium, p. 38.

Newsweek, April 11, 1983, review of The Emperor.

Newsweek International, May 28, 2001, “Eye to Eye with a Cobra,” p. 58; July 2, 2007, Andrew Nagor-ski, “Long Memory; Kapuscinski’s ‘Travels with Herodotus’ Is a Fitting Testament.”

New Yorker, May 16, 1983, John Updike, review of The Emperor.

New York Review of Books, August 18, 1983, review of The Emperor.

New York Times, July 30, 1983 review of The Emperor; May 11, 2001, “Africa, a Mosaic of Mystery and Sorrow,” p. 44.

New York Times Book Review, May 29, 1983, Xan Smiley, review of The Emperor; May 27, 2001, William Finnegan, “How I Got the Story: A Collection of Reminiscences by a Polish Journalist on His 40-year Career of Covering the Third World,” p. 11; June 3, 2001, review of The Shadow of the Sun, p. 30; April 14, 2002, Scott Veale, review of The Shadow of the Sun, p. 24; June 10, 2007, Tom Bissell, “On the Road with History’s Father,” p. 18.

Publishers Weekly, March 1, 1991, Genevieve Stut-taford, review of The Soccer War, p. 65; April 5, 1991, “Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Polish Journalist and Author Has Led an Active, Dangerous Life Covering Upheavals and Revolutions,” p. 124; July 4, 1994, review of Imperium, p. 46; April 9, 2001, review of The Shadow of the Sun, p. 67.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 1995, Frank Marquardt, review of Imperium.

Society, March 1, 1998, Robert V. Barylski, review of Imperium, p. 90.

Sojourners, September, 2001, Aaron McCarroll Gallegos, review of The Shadow of the Sun, p. 57.

Spectator, June 23, 2001, Robert Oakeshott, review of The Shadow of the Sun, p. 39.

Time, July 18, 1983, review of The Emperor; October 10, 1994, R.Z. Sheppard, review of Imperium, p. 87.

Time International, June 18, 2007, Donald Morrison, “Fellow Travelers,” p. 62.

U.S. News & World Report, May 28, 2001, “He Laughs at Firing Squads,” p. 11.

Village Voice Literary Supplement, April 12, 1983, Geoffrey O’Brien, review of The Emperor.

Wilson Quarterly, autumn, 1994, review of Imperium, p. 98; summer, 2007, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Father of Journalism.”


Journal of the International Institute,http://www.umich.edu/ (December 2, 2007), David Cohen, John Woodford, and Thomas Wolfe, “An Interview with Ryszard Kapuscinski: Writing about Suffering.”

Slate,http://www.slate.com/ (January 25, 2007), Jack Shafer, “The Lies of Ryszard Kapuscinski.”



Economist, January 27, 2007, “Poland’s Loss; Ryszard Kapuscinski.”

M2 Best Books, January 24, 2007, “Polish Author Ryszard Kapuscinski Dies.”

Newsweek International, February 5, 2007, “Remembering Kapuscinski; The Polish Writer Who Explored Distant Lands Always Found Just the Right Images, Just the Right Observations to Entrance Readers Everywhere.”

New York Times, January 24, 2007, “Ryszard Kapuscin-ski, Polish Writer of Shimmering Allegories and News, Dies at 74”; February 2, 2007, “Ryszard Kapuscinski.”

Time, February 5, 2007, “Milestones.”


Guardian Online,http://books.guardian.co.uk/ (January 25, 2007), Victoria Brittain, “Obituary: Ryszard Kapuscinski.”*