Ryszard Kapuściński Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ryszard Kapuciski (kah-pewsh-CHEEN-skee), a journalist, was among the most trenchant observers of the Third World and its modern revolutions. The son of two schoolteachers, Jozef and Maria Bobka Kapuciski, he experienced the upheavals of World War II in his homeland, but it was his native city Pinsk, not the war, that he credited with nurturing the ability he possessed to understand widely different parts of the world. Being reared with Jews, Poles, Armenians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Gypsies in close proximity, if not harmony, allowed him to experience how others lived and, he claims, to develop the empathy necessary to talk with ordinary people in the Third World.ci{nacute}ski, Ryszard[Kapuscinski, Ryszard]}ci{nacute}ski, Ryszard[Kapuscinski, Ryszard]}ci{nacute}ski, Ryszard[Kapuscinski, Ryszard]}

Kapuciski began his journalism career while still a student at the University of Warsaw, writing for Sztandar Mlodych (banner of youth) from 1951 to 1958. In 1952, he received an M.A. from the University of Warsaw, and he married Alicja Mielczarek, a pediatrician, in October of the same year. He honed his skills in political analysis writing for Polityka, a political/cultural weekly, from 1959 to 1961. Then in 1962, when he published his first book, Busz po Polsku (the bush Polish style), he began his productive career as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Asia, and Latin America for the Polish Press Agency. That position signaled a turning point in his career, for thereafter he would write primarily about the Third World. Beginning in 1962, he lived in or passed through more than a hundred countries, witnessing, recording, and analyzing coups, revolutions, and various national upheavals.

The book that first brought Kapuciski international attention was The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, a haunting collage-style reconstruction of the end of Haile Selassie’s reign in Ethiopia. Written from the perspective of palace insiders, including minor princes and the royal pillow bearer, this fascinating work is neither journalism nor critical history but a selective record of an imperial court in its final years as seen by its courtiers. Through Kapuciski, they describe their own world as it was, one of routines as rigidly exact and comic as the those of the court of Versailles. Haile Selassie is revealed as maintaining his authority—until its sudden, humiliating end in 1974—by keeping the court confused about his intentions and by appointing second-rate individuals to high positions. According to insiders, the “King of Kings preferred bad ministers . . . there can only be one sun.” While various toadies, flatterers, and servants went about their archaic comedy, the emperor, in the 1960’s, belatedly attempted to preserve the crown and stave off political reform with rapid economic development. Through Kapuciski’s carefully constructed vignettes, the courtiers detail this disastrous program. Foreign contractors swooped in to build bridges and dams. The security services moved into high gear, and the army consumed 40 percent of the annual budget....

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ajami, Fouad. Review of Shah of Shahs, by Ryszard Kapuciski. The New Republic 192 (April 8, 1985): 36. Praises the book’s “great economy and power” and claims that “There is a fatalism in Kapuscinski’s reportage and insights that must be the gift to him of Poland itself.”

Finnegan, William. “How I Got the Story: A Collection of Reminiscences by a Polish Journalist on His 40-Year Career of Covering the Third-World.” The New York Times Book Review 106, no. 21 (May 27, 2001): 11. This mixed review of The Shadow of the Sun includes a useful overview of Kapuciski’s career as a journalist.

Kapuciski, Ryszard. Interview by Bill Buford. Granta 21: The Story-Teller, March 1, 1987. An illuminating discussion.

Kapuciski, Ryszard. “Ryszard Kapuciski: The Polish Journalist and Author Has Led an Active, Dangerous Life Covering Upheavals and Revolutions.” Interview by Josh Weiss. Publishers Weekly 238, no. 16 (April 5, 1991): 124. A detailed interview that provides considerable background information.