Travels with Kapuscinski

One of life’s great pleasures is to encounter yourself in the pages of a book written years ago. How satisfying it is to see the thoughts you’ve always had - but could never quite express - manifest themselves on the page, spilling out eloquently before you as if reflecting a hidden truth about yourself you didn’t know was there.

“This is the most intimate relationship between literature and its readers: they treat the text as a part of themselves, as a possession.”

“Finally,” you think, “someone else understands.” But this is an illusion. It is not the case that you are being understood; as the reader, you are in fact the one understanding. The beholder of nascent wisdom you could never fully articulate, you come across a simple truth or incisive analysis, and you wonder: did the author pull these ideas out of my head? Or is it possible that the ideas I’ve just stumbled upon preceded me; the author simply more capable of conveying them?

Of course, in every case the answer is the latter option. The desire and ability to connect both with our inner selves and others through enduring beauty is part of the greater human experience that binds us all. In its very essence, this is what makes great art. It is by no means unique to literature - one can find this in film, music, or good conversation; even a beautiful cityscape has the ability to evoke these emotions. This beauty that I speak of is both a reflection of - and a reaction to - suffering.

“And that the only thing that never changes is beauty itself, and the need for it dwells within us.”

It took me longer than I’d like to admit to discover Ryszard Kapuscinski, the legendary Polish reporter. However, by reading his work, I immediately felt a connection to him. Despite the temporal and geographic space dividing us, I could feel his sincerity, his effortless ability to connect with people, his unquenchable curiosity about the human experience. Of the Greek historian Herodotus, he observes:

“I began to feel something akin to warmth, even friendship, toward [him]. I actually became attached not so much to the book, as to its voice, the persona of its author. A complicated feeling, which I couldn’t describe fully. It was an affinity with a human being whom I did not know personally, yet who charmed by the manner of his relationships with others, by his way of being, by how, wherever he appeared, he instantly became the nucleus, or the mortar, of human community, putting it together, bringing it into being.”

This is precisely the sort of closeness that I felt through my discovery of Kapuscinski. In my own journeys, his books in hand, I began to develop a relationship with the author. His musings and observations became companions to my own experiences, and the transformations I was going through were precisely the transformations he spoke about.

“A new, hitherto unfamiliar world was pulling me into its orbit, completely absorbing me, obsessing and overwhelming me. I was seized at once with a profound fascination, a burning thirst to learn, to immerse myself totally, to melt away, to become as one with this foreign universe. To know it as if I had been born and raised there, begun life there. I wanted to learn the language, I wanted to read the books, I wanted to penetrate every nook and cranny. It was a kind of malady, a dangerous weakness, because I also realized that these civilizations are so enormous, so rich, complex, and varied, that getting to know even a fragment of one of them, a mere scrap, would require devoting one’s whole life to the enterprise. Cultures are edifices with countless rooms, corridors, balconies, and attics, all arranged, furthermore, into such twisting, turning labyrinths, that if you enter one of them, there is no exit, no retreat, no turning back.”

Kapuscinski was a maestro, a literary titan. Equal parts artist and reporter, he was an astute observer of the human condition. Embedding himself in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, his career spanned decades and continents, yet he always retained his simple, descriptive style. He covered coups, revolutions, postcolonial liberations, and ethnic strife: no topic was too convoluted, no subject taboo. Seamlessly blending reportage and travel writing, he pioneered his own distinct style, a style that was uniquely authentic. This distinct style undoubtedly stemmed from his very intentional approach to writing.

“My writing is a combination of three elements. The first is travel: not travel like a tourist, but travel as exploration. The second is reading literature on the subject. The third is reflection.”

His language was neither pretentious nor unsophisticated; his sharp insights accompanied by vivid descriptions. He had the rare ability to pull the reader into his world. To read Kapuscinski is to become so absorbed that one forgets that one is reading. Transported to another time and place, the reader is now living and breathing the experiences had by one man decades ago. Beyond his simple and effective language in describing complex topics, Kapuscinski was an artful observer of human behavior. Like all great authors, he mastered the ability to both understand and reflect on the forces that drive human behavior through the use of symbols and archetypes.

“In Algiers, one speaks simply of the existence of two varieties of Islam — one, which is called the Islam of the desert, and a second, which is defined as the Islam of the river (or of the sea). The first is the religion practiced by warlike nomadic tribes struggling to survive in one of the world's most hostile environments, the Sahara. The second Islam is the faith of merchants, itinerant peddlers, people of the road and of the bazaar, for whom openness, compromise, and exchange are not only beneficial to trade, but necessary to life itself.”

He understood that we are all human, and that we are all bound to react to forces beyond our control as products of our environment. In breaking down the processes of reactions to certain events, Kapuscinski’s genius would shine through the page. As Salman Rushdie put it in an article shortly after Kapuscinski’s passing in 2007, “Kapucsinki’s writing, always wonderfully concrete and observant, conjures marvels of meaning out of minutiae.”

It was his sense of self as well as his curiosity of peoples, customs, and cultures that pushed Kapuscinski to explore the places that he did. He lived through 27 coups and revolutions, and narrowly escaped death four times. Reporting from all over the developing world in the second half of the twentieth century, he traveled and observed many conflict zones during what was perhaps one of the most turbulent periods in world history, that of Cold War proxy wars as well as the independence movements and liberations of countless countries following the end of the second world war.

“To be a conduit is their passion: therein lies their life’s mission. To walk, ride, find - and proclaim it at once to the world.

There aren’t many such enthusiasts born. The average person is not especially curious about the world. He is alive, and being somehow obliged to deal with this condition, feels the less effort it requires, the better. Whereas learning about the world is labor, and a great all-consuming one at that. Most people develop quite antithetical talents, in fact - to look without seeing, to listen without hearing, mainly to preserve oneself within oneself […]

We do not really know what draws a human being out into the world. Is it curiosity? A hunger for experience? An addiction to wonderment? The man who ceases to be astonished is hollow, possessed of an extinguished heart. If he believes that everything has already happened, that he has seen it all, then something most precious has died within him—the delight in life.”

By these measures, then, and many more, Kapuscinski’s life was a life well lived.