25 January 2007

Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932-2007)

Polish writer Ryszard Kapuściński died in Warsaw on Tuesday, probably of cancer. You can read the obituary from The New York Times here. I have read only a little of Kapuściński work (and not just because much of it has never appeared in English), but The Times is right to paint him as being perhaps as important for having challenged genre boundaries as for any single piece of his "reportage." In his essays Kapuściński trampled across the border of journalism and literature for reasons that seem immediately important here because of a recent post on Amos Oz. Here are a couple of paragraphs from his obituary in The Times:
"Mr. Kapuściński (pronounced ka-poos-CHIN-ski) spent some four decades observing and writing about conflict throughout the developing world. He witnessed 27 coups and revolutions. He spent his working days gathering information for the terse dispatches he sent to PAP, often from places like Ougadougou or Zanzibar.

At night, he worked on longer, descriptive essays with phantasmagoric touches that went far beyond the details of the day’s events, using allegory and metaphors to convey what was happening.

“It’s not that the story is not getting expressed” in ordinary news reports, he said in an interview. “It’s what surrounds the story. The climate, the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town; the smell; the thousands and thousands of elements that are part of the events you read about in 600 words of your morning paper.”"

So Kapuściński and Oz agree that to convey the realities of battle and other sorts of mayhem one needs to focus on details - e.g., the smell - that are extra-ordinarily difficult to put into words. The two writers simply approached that difficulty in different ways. Oz deems it beyond his capacity; Kapuściński proceeded, if not undaunted, at least with determination and considerable success.

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