Kapuscinski: disgraced or defamed?

Can it be true?

Questions about the reliability of KapuÅ›ciÅ„ski’s reportage begin with The Emperor. His informants here are mainly former Ethiopian court servants labouring under anonymising initials, making them sound curiously like characters in an eighteenth-century English novel. Only one of those who assisted him is given a full name (that, we are told, is because he is safely dead), yet the power of the book derives to a large extent from the fact that the story is told almost entirely through the transcribed speech of these unnamed witnesses. Their antiquated cadences have a mesmeric quality. With courtly unctuousness they speak of “His Venerable Majesty”, “His Most Virtuous Highness”, “His Benevolent Majesty, “His Sublime Majesty”, “His Charitable Majesty”, “His Exalted Majesty”, “His Indefatigable Majesty”, “His Masterful Highness”, “Our Omnipotent Ruler”.

It is a subtle piece of reportorial rhetoric, yet native speakers of Amharic say that these honorifics correspond to no known expressions in their language. In particular, they say, they could not occur in the formal registers of speech that were employed at the court, where there were only one or two acceptable forms of address for the Emperor. So it seems these resonant phrases cannot have been spoken as transcribed. Some of the ceremonial titles that Kapuściński gives his sources are invented too. In the absence of proper names these inventions may be held to cast further doubt on the actual existence of these informants. What Kapuściński and his unnamed translators created in The Emperor was a brilliant device, Chinese whispers rather than transcription, an imaginary archaic language, with touches of comic opera, one that bespeaks homage while conveying subversion. It falls short, though, of both scholarly and journalistic standards of verity, even of verisimilitude.

That is a 2001 article by John Ryle in the Times Literary supplement, from reader Peter. It hardly ends there.

I am diminished.

9 thoughts on “Kapuscinski: disgraced or defamed?

  1. Is this really so surprising? Kapuscinski writes incredibly beautifully, but his books and stories are characterised by an intense romanticisation of his surroundings; many times this requires artistic license. Of course making up informants is going far too far, but surely he must have exaggerated a lot of what he experienced. It’s probably quite easy to get carried away gussying up someone’s speech until it no longer resembles the manner of how they spoke in the first place at all.

  2. There was an event here in London last year where Michaela Wrong critiqued him using less nuanced arguments, but of the same kind.

    I am always struck by people who take Kapuscinski as “gospel” or “truth”… Are his books “reportage” or something much more complicated?

  3. having read the article (at the expense of writing a report I’m meant to finish today, damn my eyes – working late today now!), i note that the criticisms are a bit fiercer than I first assumed. But still unsurprising. Ryle says the same thing I was getting at:

    “The baroque note in KapuÅ›ciÅ„ski’s prose confirms the movement away from fact towards the realm of fantasy and symbol.”

    I loved the Shadow of the Sun for the first few chapters, showing sections to lots of friends. But as it continued, and covered parts of Africa I had direct experience of and as I unblinded myself from his writing I recognised it more for what it is: a brilliantly written book that falls foul of a great number of the poverty porn rules. There are sweeping generalisations, exoticisations and romanticisations galore. In such works of journalism, you can never trust them enough to cite them as fact. It’s like reading the front page of a grauniad report on Haiti – they were writing ‘good news’ not the ‘truth’ – exploiting a grey area we don’t think about nearly enough.

  4. I never read his K’s journalistic work, or The Emporer, but I thought the Shadow of the Sun was great. It was enjoyable, romanticised and generalised reminiscences about an old man’s work in Africa. Surely out-of-date and eurocentric, but it was the memoirs of an old european man, after all. The critique seems pretty nit-picky to me, and not without fault itself (Tutsi are Sudanese? Bari don’t live in Uganda?). I would say he broken at least a few of your writing tips from the previous post, most egregiously number 6.

  5. Have you ever seriously thought that communist Poland used fact checkers when the country of 40 million had only one foreign correspondent (K.) and food was rationed? Fact checking was unheard of in former communist countries. Although editing (i.e. often meaning cenzorship) was much more serious than these days, the publisher has simply no way of reviewing and checking what Kapuscinski wrote. Kapuscinksi wrote very well and his texts are enjoyable also in English (the translations are great) and in my opinion his views are still relevant, but he certainly should not be taken for granted.

  6. I love the three books by Kapuscinski that I read (The Emperor, Shadow of the Sun and Travels with Herodotus), but I never really took them to be ‘the whole thruth nothing but the truth’. Ryle’s criticism makes some sense, but it also has flaws as Mike above has suggested, Bari do live in Uganda, and Tutsi may have their origins in Sudan, but do no longer live there (I may be mistaken). When I read Kapuscinski, I don’t read him in my role of anthropologist and Africanist looking for valid data, but as a reader who is fond of great stories, of good fiction writing about Africa. I think of his writing as fiction/travelogue. When I read Kapuscinski I don’t have the same expectations that I have when I read Michaela Wrong or an article in some respectable journal. I like Kapuscinski’s poetic prose, I like how when reading The Shadow of the Sun, I can smell the african soil and hear the sounds. And yes, he likes to generalise, but he does it an way that does not bother me so much. But I don’t consider him as someone I would quote as a reliable source on Africa. I would like to be able to write as beautifully though.

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