The Lies of Ryszard Kapuściński

Jack Shafer in Slate:

Screenhunter_01_jan_26_1627John Updike worshipped him. Gabriel García Márquez tagged him “the true master of journalism.” But there’s one fact about the celebrated war correspondent and idol of New York’s literary class that didn’t get any serious attention this week. It’s widely conceded that Kapuściński routinely made up things in his books. The New York Times obituary, which calls Kapuściński a “globe-trotting journalist,” negotiates its way around the master’s unique relationship with the truth diplomatically, stating that his work was “often tinged with magical realism” and used “allegory and metaphors to convey what was happening.”

Scratch a Kapuściński enthusiast and he’ll insist that everybody who reads the master’s books understands from context that not everything in them is to be taken literally. This is a bold claim, as Kapuściński’s work draws its power from the fantastic and presumably true stories he collects from places few of us will ever visit and few news organization have the resources to re-report and confirm. If Kapuściński regularly mashes up the observed (journalism) with the imagined (fiction), how certain can we be of our abilities to separate the two while reading?

Should we regard Kapuściński’s end product as journalism? Should we give Kapuściński a bye but castigate Stephen Glass, who defrauded the New Republic and other publications by doing a similar thing on a grosser scale? Do we cut Kapuściński slack because he was better at observing, imagining, and writing than Glass, and had the good sense to write from exotic places? Exactly how is Kapuściński different from James Frey in practice if not in execution?

More here.

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