Fact, fiction, and Ryszard Kapuściński

Over at Three Percent, Chad Post has some complaints about a review of The Rebels’ Hour, by Lieve Joris. The book is categorized as history, but includes an unusual note: “the facts in this book have all been researched in minute detail, but in order to paint a realistic picture of my characters I’ve had to fill in some parts of their lives from my own imagination. It was the only way to make the story both particular and general.”

Which got me thinking, once again, about Ryszard Kapuściński—who, as I mentioned before, looms large in PEN America 8. (As a participant in the first World Voices festival, in 2005, he also appears in PEN America 7, which is devoted to that event). Following his death, on January 23, 2007, a tribute was organized for the World Voices festival that April.
Lawrence Weschler moderated the event, which also included Breyten Breytenbach, Carolin Emcke, Philip Gourevitch, Adam Michnik, and Salman Rushdie.

After we had settled on “Making Histories” as the theme, we knew that some of these tributes would end up in the issue (ultimately, the ones by Rushdie, Gourevitch, and Emcke). Kapuściński’s last book to appear in English, after all, was Travels with Herodotus, a meditation on the “father of history” and on Kapuściński’s own experiences traveling the world, recording what he saw. PEN America 8 ended up featuring an excerpt from that book, in which Kapuściński considers the stated purpose of Herodotus’s Histories: “to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time.”

He pops up elsewhere in the issue, too:
In “Voyage and Voyeur,” Paul Holdengräber quotes Kapuściński, leading to this exchange between Ilija Trojanow and Alain de Botton. In “Imaginary Geographies,” Daniel Alarcón cites The Emperor as one of the most imaginatively constructed books he’s ever read. Perhaps his then-recent death had sent everyone back to his books, but for whatever reason, Kapuściński kept inspiring conversations.

Which brings me back to Joris. For one aspect of Kapuściński’s work that has long inspired conversation is the occasional fiction in his otherwise nonfiction books. Rushdie mentions this in his piece, and he and Lawrence Wechsler expanded on the subject for VQR. (Neither of them gets nearly as angry about it as Jack Shafer did.) Kapuściński’s books are presented as reportage, and we expect facts in that genre. But it seems crazy (and, perhaps, distinctly American) to damn his work generally on this account. Perhaps some of his books—like The Emperor, which famously re-imagines Hailie Selassie’s death—should carry a note not unlike that in the Joris book?

(See also: Nick Owchar heralds the otherwise unheralded collection of poems by Kapuściński just published in English. The photo above, by the way, is yet another of the entries in the Public Lives/Private Lives mixed media project.)

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