Friday, July 27, 2012

Truth and ... that other stuff

The debate about Ryszard Kapuściński's fabrications looks to have been a dreary affair, at least immediately following his death in 2007, perhaps because I-was-there journalism in which the journalist could not possibly have been there had gained prestige, and perhaps because many of his defenders and attackers did not bother citing examples of  his truth or his lies. The anti-Kapuścińskis found it sufficient to invoke Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, and the pros answered with Tom Wolfe but also John Hersey and Daniel Defoe in a high-toned game of name-calling. 

I don't know where The Emperor, Kapuściński's retrospective look at the downfall of Ethiopia's Haile Selassie, fits in that controversy. It looks to me as if Kapuściński may gradually have abandoned the pretense of reportage over the course of the book. 

Who could possibly believe that anyone really said
"A kind of mania seized this mad and unpredictable world, my friend: a mania for development. Everybody wanted to developed himself! ... Yet our Empire had existed for hundreds, even thousands of years without any noticeable development and all the while its leaders were respected, venerated, worshiped. The Emperors Zera Jakob, Towodros, Johannes all were worshiped. And who would ever have gotten it into his head to press his face in front of the Emperor and beg to  be developed?"
as Kapuściński has an interlocutor say in the book's middle chapter, "It's Coming, It's Coming"? (The first chapter is called "The Throne," the last "The Collapse." That should you give you an idea of how things end.)

Yet the comedy is frequently shot through with acid-tongued reminders that the lives of a country and its people are at stake, and with plausible diagramming of a revolution's progress.

Debates about journalistic ethics in America tend to become shrill, puritanical, and, when the debaters are in the newspaper business, desperately and self-laceratingly so, and I can't stand that sort of thing when I'm out of the office. So, what should readers do if they want to read 
Kapuściński in good conscience? I'm just one book into my Kapuściński-reading career, but I think one could do worse than to start with an observation from the Economist quoted in Wikipedia's Kapuściński article:
"[Kapuściński] creates an Africa of his own. It is a fascinating place. Whether it ever existed as he tells it is another matter altogether."
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Blogger seana said...

The example you cite doesn't really seem to belong to the category of journalism, and I'd be surprised if anyone judged it by those lights.

July 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Right. And I wonder, too, how Kapuściński's books were marketed -- as journalism, as its facy cousin reportage, as travel writing -- and whether it wss marketed differently in different countries/

July 27, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Good question. I think it's interesting that my general sense of his work has been 'great writing, poor attribution'.

July 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Not to mention the occasional complaint about his allegedly colonialist mindset, etc.

For this book, RK is said to have tracked down former Selassie courtiers, of whom he names a few. Again, I'll refrain from commenting on his ethics until I've read more of his work. For now, I've bought Shadow of the Sun, whose opening includes some acute thoughts about air travel.

July 27, 2012  
Anonymous proper manky said...

I read in the LRB today that there's a new biography of RK out soon: (gated)

The book is already available in the US:

July 29, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. Kapuscinski appears to have led an interesting enough life for a generation of biographers, analysts, journalists, and reputation dissectors to make their livings off him. I think I'll read more of his own work first, though.

July 29, 2012  

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