Ryszard Kapuscinski’s second book, a collection of his dispatches from Africa and South America first published in 1978, provides a useful starting point for examining the way in which the author’s legacy has been contested and debated in the five years since his death.
They take their football seriously in Latin America, people say. The title chapter of Kapuscinski’s The Soccer War describes the author’s journey to Honduras immediately before tensions with neighbouring El Salvador boiled over into four days of armed conflict.
In the weeks leading up to the hostilities, the two countries had been engaged in playoffs for the 1970 World Cup.
Immediately after the first match, won 1-0 in the final minute by Honduras, El Salvadorian teenager Amelia Bolaños shot herself in the heart with her father’s pistol, apparently in a fit of distress brought upon by watching the defeat on television.
Her funeral became a state affair, with the president, Cabinet and soccer team marching behind a public display of her coffin.
The next match, won in El Salvador 3-0 by the home team, was preceded by a riot outside the Honduran team’s hotel.
Windows were smashed and rotten eggs and dead rats were thrown in by a furious mob, some of whom brandished pictures of Bolaños, in the course of a week canonised as a national hero.
A month later the Salvadoran military bombed strategic targets and launched a ground invasion of Honduras, and 3000 people were killed before the Organisation of American States brokered a ceasefire.
Along comes swashbuckling Kapuscinski to insert himself in the narrative, flying into the Honduran capital and chasing around the ensuing outbreaks of mayhem, getting lost in the forest and narrowly escaping with his life after yet another threatening confrontation with a group of natives. The action concludes when, during a lull in the fighting, the author overhears a radio broadcast, the presenter announcing that the Apollo 11 mission has launched.
“Congratulations were pouring into Houston from all corners of the world, the presenter informed us, and all humanity was rejoicing at the triumph of reason and precise thinking.”
Elsewhere, Kapuscinski regales the reader with half a dozen dances with death. In Stanleyville he lives on canned sausages while hiding from black militias intent on blindly avenging the murder of Congolese premier Patrice Lumumba, In Nigeria he is stopped at a roadblock, stripped and doused in benzene, about to be set alight before his captors change their mind.
If these stories seem to good to be true, that’s because they probably were. These kind of embellishments that have cast a pall over Kapuscinski’s posthumous reputation, over and above lingering questions about the extent of the author’s collaboration with intelligence services in his native Poland during the Communist government.
In a way, Kapuscinski’s works serve as a microcosm for broader debates about journalism and ethics. Not even his most trenchant critics suggest his work contains anything quite so egregious as the fabricated quotes of Wired’s Jonah Lehrer, or the out-and-out fabrication of former New York Times journalist Jayson Blair.
Perhaps it’s a result of the larger-than-life personality that the author cultivated for himself through his dispatches that critics can’t attack Kapuscinski with the same vehemence. (In its obituary, Blair’s former employer sought to rehabilitate the author’s works by categorising it as a forerunner to the “magical realism” of García Márquez and others.)
Perhaps it’s testament to how journalism’s traditional ethics have been treated like an ill-fitting sweater by a vocation which greets egotists with open arms—many others have made the point that to cast aside Kapuscinski is to jettison the likes of Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe.
“I do not believe in impartial journalism,” the author was once quoted as saying. “I do not believe in formal objectivity. A journalist cannot be an indifferent witness.” The Soccer War shows his knowledge of events, his tireless advocacy for third-world liberation movements, and his prescience in understanding the tragic and insurmountable problems of the governments that succeeded them. Most of all, it shows the author as the towering figure he wished to render himself—the Indiana Jones of journalism, all fighting evil without the tedious digging and fossicking that forms the backbone of his labours. Kapuscinski’s biggest crime is egotism, but that’s not to say that egotists can’t be charming.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at email@example.com