Here we go again. But at least this time, it might be a slightly more interesting discussion. Artur Domoslawski, reports G, has ‘sought to start a debate over the relationship between truth and fiction, a biographer and his subject, and how far modern Poland remained haunted by its communist past’. When it comes to Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Africanists in the world seem to be most upset by their limited comprehensions on truth. I have often wondered if there is as much noise about his writings on say, Iran. Or is it only truth vis á vis Africa that matters? And I am sympathetic, of course, given the amount of ignorance and bile and racism that has been written about that great continent. But I am not sure why the defense of truth & Africa within literature is so protectively fought, as if it were a matter for Oxfam or Save the Children. Unfortunately, RK has suffered as a result. And he has suffered because he is a journalist, and people’s somewhat naive (and, ok, I’ll be generous, reasonable) expectations that journalists are out to write the truth. Whatever that is. Between the last time I got a little sweaty about views of RK’s writings and now, I have read a whole lot more, including – like many others – WG Sebald. Truth & fiction & travel & autobiography. RK is not in the same writing league as WG; in fact I have never been convinced that RK is even that good (apart from his first hellbent rattle through Angola in the 1970s). But I would be delighted if this new biography* approaches RK’s work with more maturity and imagination and, heck, truth, than the self-righteous journalists (in the main) who bang their fist, shouting It’s not TRUE! It’s not TRUE! as if they had just discovered the earth wasn’t flat. We await a whole pile of protective (of Africa) reviews that slam RK as a liar whilst accepting that he was an awfully good writer.
Meanwhile, let us ponder the relationship between the mind and power. And the fact that RK separated his notebooks between ‘mundane facts’ and ‘impressionistic notes’. Why the separation? Why the distinction? Intriguing, since in the end, ‘the truth’ won out in the books in which the author was unable to keep these two sides apart. Although, he ought to have had a third for things he thought he had seen but was not sure about. They are the most interesting. Indeed, the epitaph to the book is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life’ which lends a little symmetry to my point.
*Kapuściński Non-Fiction: The Man, the Reporter, and His Times, is to be published by Świat Książki next month. Meanwhile, here is a piece I have written about him in The Guardian.
P.S. So Neal Ascherson reads my blog? I’m delighted. But just remember that you saw it here the day before.
P.P.S. 3quarksdaily has some more on Mr K starting – or ending – here.