THE BLOG
05/06/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Believe Kapuscinski's Biographer?

Towards the end of The Other, Ryszard Kapuściński credits Bronislaw Malinowski, a Polish social anthropologist, with the contestable maxim: "To judge something, you have to be there."

The sentiment may have been noble, but the journalist who witnessed 27 revolutions and survived 40 jailings (as well as four death sentences); the writer who is widely seen as the greatest practitioner of his trade in the 20th century; the man who inspired a whole generation of reporters (myself included) is now the subject of fierce debate on whether or not he was in fact "there".

Since Artur Domoslavski published his Polish biography of Kapuściński - which describes the latter as a liar and communist spy - the web has been alive with commentators either sticking the knife in or mitigating his alleged fabrications.

The deceased Kapuściński, Domoslavski accuses, "extended the boundaries of reportage far into the realm of literature."

During his extraordinary travels, goes the charge, Kapuściński selected and exaggerated certain truths, dismissed others, and occasionally printed bare-faced lies.

Talk of Kapuściński's imagination is not new; people have been raising an eyebrow at his barely credible tales since he began to achieve fame as an internationally published author.

In his 2008 essay, Neal Ascherton addresses allegations of Kapuściński as a peddler of whoppers.

Kapuściński, I think, did what many journalists do at times: he selected from his notes, perhaps changed the order in which things were said, dropped the parts which didn't interest him, and then sharpened up the best passages - not for 'sensational revelation' purposes, but for literary effect. For me, such 'heightening' doesn't really detract from what was written, as long as the text is not presented as a verbatim record.

As tempting as it is to say that Kapuściński's elaboration - if that is what it was - is permissible because the man as an author gave the world brilliant and vivid accounts of some of recent history's most dangerous moments, this doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

As a journalist, Kapuściński's sole purpose was to find the facts and tell them. (Which, it seems, he did in an exemplary manner in articles, if Polish speakers' recent comments on his time at the Polish Press Agency are to be believed.)

As an author, his job was to inform and entertain. There is nothing wrong with fictionalizing events, as long as they are presented as such. Kapuściński's unique selling point as an author was that he was a journalist, albeit one who led an extraordinary life.

To make a career from telling the truth then getting rich and famous from lying is base hypocrisy.

But whether or not he told the truth and whether or not this is acceptable has been debated at length. What concerns is the timing of such a debate's resurfacing.

The fact is that many commentators are buying the discrediting of one reporter's testament based on that of another. It is a 'your-word-against-mine' situation, only Kapuściński is not around to defend his corner, having passed away in 2007.

The man who wrote the biography in question is himself a journalist. There is no evidence to say that this man is anything other than a professional, truth-seeking individual. But he is not irreproachable just for having written a book. Another journalist wrote plenty of them and is now having rather a hard time of it.

To believe one reporter's version of events while discrediting another demonstrates the very hypocrisy that many commentators now are unfortunately accusing Kapuscinski of having displayed.