Verso, £25 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life By Artur Domoslawski, trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Poland's superstar reporter led a double life – but does it detract from his achievement?

In its native Poland, this book has the English title "Kapuscinski Non-Fiction". That inspired contrivance has been replaced in the English version of the Polish journalist's biography by a generic formula that admits no hint of the tense ambivalences inside. Ryszard Kapuscinski cast a spell upon readers around the world as a reporter with transcendent literary gifts.

In his later years, and since his death in 2007, his reputation has been challenged by questions about his relationship with the facts and with his country's security services. This book is the first comprehensive reckoning.

It could even have been entitled "Anti-Kapuscinski". Although not hostile or malicious, it refuses to adopt the strategy favoured by its author's friend and mentor. Kapuscinski's books asked questions that they left unanswered, but they were stylistically resolved. The harmony of the composition counters the disturbance aroused by his accounts of war and the physiology of power.

Artur Domoslawski does the opposite. Trapped in the task he has set himself, he never spares his readers his discomfort and dismay. He fires off questions like distress flares. He is dedicated in pursuit of evidence, crossing continents to get it, but a reluctant judge. Instead he leaves the surfaces unsmoothed and the edges jagged. He has shortened the text for the English translation, largely by cutting quotations from articles, but the excisions do not substantially alter the picture. Above all, it remains clear that whatever else he may have been, Kapuscinski really was a communist.

When Kapuscinski broke through in the West with his book about Haile Selassie, The Emperor, it was recognised as a way to reflect upon power in his own country, where frank political discussion was impossible. In the 1970s criticism had to be roundabout – and Kapuscinski produced one of the most trenchant critiques of the period by going via Addis Ababa.

By the time The Emperor came out in English, the Solidarity trade union movement had emerged, gathered most of the nation under its banner, including many communist party members, and had been repressed by martial law. It was natural to take Kapuscinski for an oppositionist. But he only returned his party card after the clampdown, and hung on to the socialist ideals that had drawn him towards the scenes of armed struggles in the Third World.

He was used to overlooked places in indeterminate regions, having spent his early years in what were then Poland's eastern border marches. As a young man in Warsaw, he became an activist in a communist youth organisation in the early 1950s – during the Stalinist period, a fact he obscured in later life. He was a zealot, dedicating articles and even poems to that stilted cause. But he made his mark during the post-Stalinist thaw by setting the heroic clichés aside and reporting on the squalor of conditions in Nowa Huta, the concrete showpiece of socialist industry. His purpose was not to undermine the foundations further, but to see socialism built properly.

The system proceeded on the assumption that this could be achieved by pouring concrete and pronouncing slogans of a similar density. Kapuscinski continued to believe that if the cause was not a movement, campaigning and struggling, it was nothing. He roamed abroad to find new fronts, in Africa and Latin America, where the revolutionary spirit was being renewed. In those parts, working solo at ground level, he made himself one of a kind.

At the same time he was neither neutral nor independent. In Angola he learned that Cubans were assisting the leftist MPLA, a development that could have provoked Western intervention, but kept quiet about it. According to a former combatant, he carried a gun when in the field with MPLA fighters; by his own account, he fired it too.

As well as filing reports for the Polish press agency, he supplied briefing reports to the Polish security services. When this came out it was explained as the price of permission to travel abroad, which is true, but only part of the story. Kapuscinski's actions were consistent with his commitment to what he saw as a just cause, and to a state that he considered legitimate because of its own commitment to that cause.

Yet they were not open, and his sources were opaque too. The Emperor read like a fable, its courtiers speaking as their counterparts in Europe would have done centuries earlier. Its strategy of allusion allowed it to illuminate the murky discourse of a Soviet satellite state, but Ethiopians were entitled to feel that this had been done by making a mockery of their society.

One of Domoslawski's interviewees compares it to the Arabian Nights. Others are more sympathetic to Kapuscinski's elasticity, but there is no real defence. Sure, untruths can be used to construct a "higher truth", but you have to say that they are untrue and label it fiction.

Kapuscinski's modus operandi was based on combining journalism, literature, facts, fiction and political sympathies. In Polish idiom, "combining" refers to arranging things through combinations that are not necessarily legal, open or proper. He combined a long marriage with a career as a ladies' man. As well as collaborating with the security services, he maintained relations with the regime under which he had been raised, praying to the Virgin Mary when facing death, and taking Holy Communion when opportunity presented.

Another good title for this book would have been "The Kapuscinski Complex". Both the text and its subject are tissues of complexes, striving to construct themselves out of their own insecurities. Despite his courage in combat zones, Kapuscinski emerges as thin-skinned and under-confident. Being a reporter wasn't enough for him: he sought reassurance from being acknowledged as a literary figure and a thinker as well. Criticism unnerved him. He would have been devastated by Twitter.

Wanting to be liked, he made people feel that they were interesting and special. I can vouch for this: I met him once and that was exactly the effect he had on me. I was grateful then, and after reading Domoslawski's reckoning my feelings have warmed again. For after years of ominous hints, it appears that although Kapuscinski's transgressions were legion, they were low-level. He spun false impressions rather than flagrant lies. He did not persecute people when he was an activist or endanger people when he reported to the security services. The open questions teem around him; but that's inevitable when a man has spent so long in so many foreign countries, including one of the vanished European "people's republics", the most foreign of them all.

Marek Kohn's most recent book is 'Turned Out Nice' (Faber)

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project