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Ryszard Kapuscinski, 74; acclaimed Polish reporter covered Third World

Times Staff Writer

To say Ryszard Kapuscinski was an adventurer would not be the whole truth, but it was some of it. The most celebrated of Polish journalists, whose work earned international acclaim, he covered, by his own count, 27 revolutions, rebellions and coups d’etat during more than four decades on the front lines of Third World movements.

He was beaten and nearly set on fire by soldiers in Nigeria. He was rendered unconscious by cerebral malaria, came down with tuberculosis, then survived treatment in a Tanzanian hospital, where his injections were given with a communal syringe. Four times, at the direction of various despots, he was sentenced to death. Occupational hazards of such a high order should have proved fatal long before Tuesday, when he died, at 74, after heart surgery in Warsaw.

His exploits provided much of the drama and comic relief in 20 books of trenchant and surreal reportage. They include “The Emperor,” about Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie; “The Shah of Shahs,” about the fall of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran; “The Soccer War,” about conflicts in Africa and Central America; and “Imperium,” about the breakup of the Soviet empire.

What drew him to the scenes of such upheaval? “Mine is not a vocation, it’s a mission,” Kapuscinski told an interviewer some years ago. “I wouldn’t subject myself to these dangers if I didn’t feel that there was something overwhelmingly important -- about history, about ourselves -- that I felt compelled to get across. This is more than journalism.”

Kapuscinski was mourned throughout Poland, where President Lech Kaczynski called his death “a blow to Polish culture.” A celebrity intellectual, he was revered there for writings that were widely interpreted as allegories for the Polish condition, even though his ostensible subjects belonged to distant cultures.

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“He was always telling more than one tale,” said Michael D. Kennedy, director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Russian and East European Studies, where Kapuscinski was a guest lecturer in 1998.

“I admired him enormously,” said Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch. “He was a wise man, a great traveler, one of our -- the world’s -- greatest writers.”

Another friend, novelist Salman Rushdie, once said that Kapuscinski’s profound works exhibited “the gifts of the true imaginative writer” but that “nobody who puts himself in danger as much as he does is entirely sane.”

Kapuscinski lived life at the cliff’s edge from infancy. He was born in 1932, the year Hitler rose to power and the full horror of Stalin’s purges began to unfold. The son of schoolteachers, he began life in Pinsk, a part of eastern Poland later annexed by the Soviet Union and now part of Belarus. He later fled with his family to a village near Nazi-controlled Warsaw to escape deportation to Siberia, where many of his teachers and classmates were sent.

His family was so poor that he had to sell 400 pieces of soap to buy shoes. They were so hungry that sometimes all he had to quell the pangs in his stomach was tobacco given to him by Soviet soldiers. “I started to smoke when I was 7,” he told the Scottish Sunday Herald several years ago. “It was a terrible time. A terrible time.”

Many years later, he would recount to disbelieving friends in Africa and elsewhere Poland’s sad history of domination by foreign powers that made the Poles refugees for 130 years. Out of this history grew Kapuscinski the lyrical chronicler of Third World struggles.

He studied history at Warsaw University and, upon finishing in 1955, was asked to stay on to teach. Instead, he began writing for Sztandar Mlodych, a youth journal. After he wrote an investigative piece on the miserable conditions at a steel factory near Krakow, he was fired and went into hiding. After the piece won a prize, he returned and was dispatched to India, then China and Japan. By the time the Polish Press Agency hired him in 1962, liberation movements were roiling the world and Kapuscinski was immersed in them.

“In the course of one month I had driven through five countries. In four of them, there were states of emergency. In one, the president has just been overthrown; in a second, the president had saved himself only by chance; in a third, the head of government was afraid to leave his house,” he wrote in “The Soccer War.”

Although married and a father, he led a nomadic life, spending years in desolate outposts of Africa in part because the Polish news agency could not afford to bring him home. He is survived by his wife, Alicja, a pediatrician; and a daughter.

The upside of his long tenures in unstable countries was that he developed an intimacy with his subjects.

He wrote “The Emperor” from the point of view of Selassie’s servants, including the “pillow bearer,” who stocked 52 pillows of various sizes to slip under the emperor’s feet on the throne, and the poor minion whose job was to wipe up after his lapdog.

John Updike, in a 1983 review in the New Yorker, quotes long passages of the servants’ reflections, which he said were “highly artistic” and lent the story a “Kafkaesque poetry and mystery.”

Gourevitch said the book “belongs to the masterworks of Eastern European literature,” an achievement all the more astonishing because it was reported “on the dime of the Polish Communist state press apparatus” and then slipped by censors.

“He serialized it, and piece by piece, each little bit by itself was approved,” Gourevitch said, recalling what Kapuscinski once told him. “The censors didn’t see the analogy to the Soviet system until later, when he assembled it into a book, and then they couldn’t censor something they’d already approved. So they let it go.”

The book struck a chord in Poland, where most readers assumed he was really writing about political absurdities at home. It was adapted for the stage and was so popular that, at one time, there were six productions running at once. “Everything,” Kapuscinski told the New York Times in 1985, “is metaphor.”

Living with his subjects also produced stark insights. In “The Shadow of the Sun” (2001), a compilation of Africa pieces, he wrote: “Many of my neighbors here have just the one thing. Someone has a shirt, someone a panga, someone a pickax. The one with a shirt can find a job as a night watchman (no one wants a half-naked guard); the one with a panga can be hired to cut down weeds; the one with the pickax can dig a ditch. Others have only their muscles to sell.”

The first break he took from covering the Third World came in the mid-1980s, when he traveled 40,000 miles around the Soviet Union to observe its collapse for “Imperium.” He had close calls there, too, lost and almost freezing to death in the snow bogs of the Arctic.

“Danger is a very unpleasant feeling,” he told Time in 1997. “Real fear is such a disgusting feeling. Humiliating. It degrades you in your own eyes.”

But he repeatedly returned to the edge -- in Tehran; in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and other capitals of chaos -- not because he thrived on some romantic notion of the swashbuckling journalist. He was, in fact, a gentle soul, “sweet, loyal, affectionate, generous

He went, Kapuscinski once explained, because “the most important thing is to write. And to write, I need the stories.”

elaine.woo@latimes.com

Special correspondent Ela Kasprzycka in Warsaw contributed to this report.


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