Ryszard Kapuscinski: He was hailed as the greatest reporter of his time. But how much did he make up?

Ryszard Kapuscinski said he knew Che Guevara. He recounted how he met Patrice Lumumba. But according to a new biography, his books were more fiction than fact. Tony Paterson reports

Throughout much of the Western world, Ryszard Kapuscinski was eulogised as the most perceptive and brilliant reporter of his time. As a foreign correspondent, he claimed to have befriended Che Guevara and to have narrowly escaped death by an African firing squad. Salman Rushdie once said of him: "He is worth a thousand whimpering and fantasising scribblers."

Yesterday, however, a biography was published in Kapuscinski's native Poland which portrays much of his work as invention. Kapuscinski – Non Fiction, by the Polish journalist Artur Domoslavski, says he "consciously built on his status as a legend" and "extended the boundaries of reportage far into the realm of literature".

Domoslavski says that the journalist famed for books such as The Soccer War and Imperium never met Guevara and many other figures he claimed to have known as a globetrotting reporter. His claims that he narrowly escaped death by firing squad are dismissed as fantasy; his insistence that his father was a prisoner of war in Russia, a lie.

Kapuscinski died in 2007 a national hero, aged 74. Predictably, Domoslavski's assault has elicited a mixed if not choleric response in Poland. The former Foreign Minister Vladyslav Bartoshevski has compared the biography's publishers to "purveyors of brothel guides", and Kapuscinski's widow, Alicja, has tried in vain to have it banned.

Yet Domoslavski's work is plausible. For many years, he was both a journalistic colleague and personal friend of Kapuscinski. "He used to call me up and say Artur, come over, let's have a chat," says Domoslavski, who works for the respected liberal Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborczca. He refers to Kapuscinski as "Richi".

Domoslavski says that his suspicions about his colleague were aroused because he habitually gave evasive answers when pressed on the details of his prizewinning books. To research his biography he was given access to Kapuscinski's private archive, but he also retraced his steps and re-interviewed several of the figures who featured prominently in his writings. His conclusion is that there were many glaring inconsistencies in his work.

Kapuscinski was born in Belarus and brought up in Communist Poland after the war. After studying at Warsaw University, he started out as a journalist on a youth newspaper before joining the Polish state-controlled news agency PAP in the late 1950s. For decades he was in the extraordinary and privileged position of being PAP's only foreign correspondent. He spent much of his time in Africa, covering the whole continent, 27 revolutions and coups. He went on to cover similar conflicts in Asia and Latin America. One of his most famous books, The Soccer War, is an account of the 1969 war between El Salvador and Honduras which was sparked by two football games. In Britain, Kapuscinski's account of the overthrow of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, The Emperor, was turned into a play and staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London.

Yet Domoslavski comes to the conclusion that Kapuscinski manipulated his reportage to improve its dramatic effect. In his biography he quotes a well-known Ethiopian woman journalist on her opinion of Kapuscinski's account of Haile Selassie's overthrow. She replies that much of it would have looked better in Arabian Nights than in a piece of factual reportage.

Similar manipulation, according to Domoslavski, was applied in the case of Che Guevara. The fly covers of several of Kapuscinski's books about Latin America state that the journalist personally knew the revolutionary. However when asked by an American biographer of Guevara when their meeting took place, Kapuscinski admitted that the Guevara claim was "a mistake" made by his publishing house. However the publishers never removed the claim from the fly cover. Kapuscinski also continued to maintain in subsequent interviews that he had been with Guevara on dangerous missions.

Domoslavski also debunks Kapuscinski's account of his supposed encounter with Patrice Lumumba, the 1960s Congolese freedom fighter. His research shows that Kapuscinski could never have seen him in action because he made his first visit to Africa after Lumumba's assassination. He also dismisses as "self-important fantasy" Kapuscinski's claim that while in the Congo, he was rescued from a firing squad at the last minute.

The reporter's ability to massage the facts allegedly did not stop there. Domoslavski also badly dents the heroic wartime image Kapuscinski ascribed to his own father. As a Soviet prisoner of war, he was reputed to have narrowly escaped being killed in the Katyn massacre of the Second World War in which the Soviet secret police slaughtered thousands of Polish officers. In fiercely Catholic post-Communist Poland, the story seemed to prove that Kapuscinski came from a noble and patriotic family. Kapuscinski claimed that his father managed to escape from a Soviet prisoner-of-war transport. However Domoslavski maintains that his father was never a Soviet prisoner.

Later sections of Kapuscinski – Non Fiction delve into the reporter's seemingly dubious relationship with the authorities in Communist Poland. Domoslavski notes that Kapuscinski was a card-carrying Communist Party member for most of his life. His reportage from Third World countries helped at the time to convince liberal Western audiences that the region's problems were a result of Western colonialism. In that sense he helped the Communist cause.

However the extent to which Kapuscinski may have been an outright stooge of the Communist regime is only hinted at. He renounced his Communist Party membership during Poland's Solidarity era, but Domoslavski suggests that the regime may have allowed him to do this on purpose to show that it was not prepared to persecute a figure of international repute. He notes, however, that the idea of opening his secret police file induced panic.

But it is for Kapuscinski's factual reportage, frequently described as "magnificent", that Domoslavski reserves his most withering criticism. "Some of his books just don't belong on the non-fiction shelves," he says.

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
football
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
Life and Style
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsenal signing Calum Chambers
sportGunners complete £16m transfer of Southampton youngster
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Advertising and Marketing Communications Manager

£52000 - £58000 per annum + benefits, company car: Ashdown Group: Advertising ...

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

ERP Business/ Implementation Analyst

£40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: This is an e...

Software Developer / Software Engineer

£Neg. (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: Combining a passion for Softwa...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on