Tarnishing the reputation of the great Ryzsard Kapuscinski

Hearing that the legendary reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski routinely made stuff up is a bit like discovering that Henri Charrière, author of Papillion, was a model prisoner. According to Kapuscinski’s biographer, Artur Domoslavski, the great polish journalist tended to embellish the truth. It would cause me some sadness if this proves to be true. Kapuscinski (author of The Emperor: the Downfall of an Autocrat, above) is charged with inventing his friendship with Che Guevara; lying about his father’s time in a Soviet prisoner of war camp and inventing the story about his near escape from a firing squad (never mind the other three times he was said to be sentenced to death).

It is worth pointing out that many of these criticisms have been around since 2007 and doubts about the veracity of his reportage from have existed at least as far back 2001, five years before his death. Kapuscinski’s legendary status has always attracted suspicion and no little jealously. The reaction in Poland to the latest attacks on his credibility have been most bitter. The former Foreign Minister Vladyslav Bartoshevski yesterday compared the biography’s publishers to “purveyors of brothel guides”, while others have said that the claims are all about selling the new biography, other defenders of Kapuscinski have always pointed out that many of his stories were allegories, often of Soviet-era Poland. Does it matter? Yes, very. If we are going to view Kapuscinski’s work as journalism it matters a great deal. Think how you might feel if you suddenly learnt that Orwell had never fought in the Spanish Civil War. If it is true that Kapuscinski invented situations as a matter of routine, we can only ever enjoy the stories as works of fiction. Which is how we now read Papillion.