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The Lying Traveler: The Kapuściński Case

The Lying Traveler: The Kapuściński Case

He was a great story-teller, but not a liar.
Neal Ascherson, The Guardian, Mar 3, 2010.

Few would complain about the psychedelic, acid-fueled impressions of gonzo specialist Hunter S. Thompson as being accounts of the literal. Yet, despite their frenzied moments and over-heated descriptions, many could have discerned the truth in the mescaline binges and the extraordinary renderings of the acid generation. Truth, told ever slant, in sharp prose.

The controversial reaction to the latest biography of the famed Polish writer Ryszard Kapuściński – that he did not, in fact, have anything to do with Che Guevara; that he had not actually faced a near-death experience at the hands of a death squad in the Congo, say little about the strength of his writings. Whether it’s drug-heavy gonzo, or myth-heavy Kapuściński, the astonishing pictures rendered at the time retain appeal. Kapuściński – Non-fiction by fellow journalist Artur Domoslavski of Warsaw’s Gazeta Wyborcza, does little to puncture it.

Writing in such a genre provides a medium of criticism and exposure, itself a highly useful way to take the light to dark. Where that writer is located may well be another story. One should, as William Blake put it, see through eye. We are back to the old dispute that dates to antiquity, demonstrated when Herodotus’ The Histories (420-450 B.C.) was excoriated by Plutarch. Of the Malice of Herodotus is, in short, a hatchet job on Herodotus’ libel against his fellow Greeks. Perhaps it is little surprising that Kapuściński retraced Herodotus’ footsteps in his final book Travels with Herodotus.

There are, to put it simply, different ways of seeing. Additionally, there are different ways of telling. When Domoslavski claims that a sin is being committed by an extension of ‘the boundaries of reportage from into the realm of literature’, he is going over well trodden ground. We can at least be certain that Kapuściński was being a selective recorder, the way any story telling vocation permits. Neal Ascherson in the Guardian (Mar 3) came out with a confession in light of this event. ‘Almost all journalists, except for a handful of saints, do on occasion sharpen quotes or slightly shift around times and places to heighten effect.’

The lying traveler spins yarns and tells fine tales. ‘As an author, his job was to inform and entertain,’ came Patrick Galey’s response in The Huffington Post (Mar 6). ‘There is nothing wrong with fictionalizing events, as long as they are presented as such.’ Acherson again: ‘You’re meant to believe what you are being told, but not every literal detail.’ It would, indeed, be hard to take the observations of the last days of Haile Selassie’s court in The Emperor as a literal, unvarnished depiction. Surely the courtiers could not have all been so eloquent, terrified as they had been by their godly sovereign. The issue is one of duty to distinction – by all means dabble in the world of literary reportage, but make that distinction clear.

A useful recent parallel might be Bruce Chatwin, one of Britain’s leading authors of the travel genre who perished at the hands of what was deemed an unusual Chinese disease transacted through a bat bite (in truth, AIDS). Chatwin’s Song Lines and In Patagonia are descriptive and inventive, ‘embroidered’ and layered. Fellow travel writer Paul Theroux, who felt that the eye’s impressions had to be recorded without lying, had this to say about his late colleague in writing: ‘How had he traveled from here to there? How had he met this or that person? Life was never so neat as Bruce made out.’ Chatwin’s preference, in his own words, was not to ‘believe in coming clean.’

As Thompson himself suggested in his account of the US Presidential campaign trail in 1972, objective journalism is itself a fiction. ‘With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a contradiction in terms.’ With the recent controversy, one is left to ponder one journalist’s word against the other, surely a rather sorry state of affairs. To hell, it would seem, with neatness and open your doors to the lying traveler.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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