Kapuściński and the others: about the authors and the tradition of Polish reportage
by Lorenzo Berardi
One of the very first things foreigners may notice once they arrive in Poland or move there is that people still read on public transports. Polish commuters flip through free press and chick-lit, but prefer engrossing themselves in quality dailies such as Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita or in weeklies such as Polityka or Newsweek Polska. What they seem to enjoy even more, though, is good old paper books with the occasional e-book reader popping up. By looking at or asking what kind of stuff Poles read, the foreign observer will soon find out that it’s mostly non-fiction. And their subject of choice is often a specific kind of journalism known as reportage here. The term dates back to the 17th century French verb ‘reporter’ meaning to ‘carry back.’ However, in both British and American English reportage is rarely used.
What is labelled under ‘reportage’ in Poland may be investigative reporting, travel journalism, ethnography or a blend of the three. Even biographies seem to fit, albeit loosely, into the genre. The books Polish readers enjoy the most are those where the reporters choose a first person narrative and express their own point of view, sometimes flirting with sarcasm or irony. The writing style itself could be sparse and factual or rich in details and digressions, depending on the author. One thing many of the successful writers of reportage have in common is that they have written for Gazeta Wyborcza, the most sold non-tabloid newspaper in Poland. This is not a coincidence as the daily founded by Adam Michnik has been publishing features by many Polish reporters on its weekly issue Duży Format for years. It’s a kind of in-depth, well-documented and thoroughly researched journalism whose natural following step is book publishing.
This is helped by the fact that literary reportage works in Poland are popular and sell well. Suffice it to say that every Polish bookshop, from the small independent one to the chain store, has its own well-stocked ‘reportage’ section. Also, Poland has its fair share of publishing houses interested in this non-fiction genre. Most of the best reportage titles published in Poland are printed by Wydawnictwo Czarne. This publisher boasts an extensive reportage catalogue including Polish journalists and books in translation. Among the foreign authors published by Czarne there’s Nobel Prize for Literature 2015 Svetlana Alexeievich as well as American journalists such as Barbara
Demick, Peter Hessler, and Jon Krakauer.
The roots of the Polish literary reportage
The most famous Polish journalist to this day is Ryszard Kapuściński who is seen as the founding father of the contemporary reportage-like style. Working as a foreign correspondent for PAP (the Polish state news agency) from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, he had the opportunity to travel in years when socialist Poland borders were shut. He seized the most of this rare chance by living in and covering countries as diverse as Angola, Ethiopia, Honduras, Iran, Mexico, and Senegal. During those years and all through the 1980s and the 1990s he published dozens of books written in a very recognizable literary style that made him immensely successful in Poland.
Kapuściński gave his compatriots the chance to learn something about the rest of the world in years in which the most exotic destination Poles could hope for was the shores of the Black Sea. Also, he gave Poles the tools to understand complex international issues emerging in Africa and Latin America in books that are at the same time profound and engaging to read. It’s no surprise that works by Kapuściński have been translated in dozens of languages and that their author delivered lectures all over Europe til his death in 2007. Even though his reputation has been undermined by speculations that his reporting was sometimes embellished, the founding father of Polish reportage is still a household name in his homecountry. After all, one of Poland’s most prestigious journalism awards today is the Kapuściński Prize.
However, as popular as he can be, it was not Ryszard Kapuściński who invented modern Polish journalism. That honour belongs to less internationally known Melchior Wańkowicz , a journalist and a wartime correspondent, who wrote popular journalism books in the 1930s but was also an advertising consultant for the Polish Sugar Union in the interwar period. In the 1950s he lived in the United States for ten years and became an American citizen in ’56, then returned to Poland where he died in ’74. His most famous book is a three-tome work on the Battle of Monte Cassino during WW2, but he also wrote reportages on Afro-Americans in the US and on American women. Surprisingly enough, none of his major works has ever been published in English translation.
Another author who played a key role in developing Polish journalism after the Second World War, and is still a powerful voice today, is Hanna Krall. Her non-fiction book ‘Shielding the Flame’ is available in English translation as well as some of her novels. When it comes to travel journalism, it’s impossible to forget Kazimierz Nowak. He was an adventurous Pole who travelled on his bike across Africa for five years in the 1930s and wrote about it. He would have probably left us more travelogues and stories had he not died in 1937, only ten months upon returning home from Africa.
Kapuściński himself wished Nowak’s book ‘Across the Dark Continent’ to become a classic of modern Polish reportage and quoted him as an inspiration. A special mention goes to ‘Medaliony’ (Medallions) by Zofia Nałkowska which was published in 1946 and is maybe the first book to address the Holocaust in a poignant but objective way without steering away from sheer horror.
Present and future of the Polish reportage
Those who don’t read Polish can enjoy plenty of excellent reportage books written by a bunch of interesting authors hailing from Poland and translated into English. Among them, it’s worth mentioning Anna Bikont, Jacek Hugo-Bader, Wojciech Jagielski, Filip Springer, Andrzej Stasiuk, Witold Szabłowski, Mariusz Szczygieł, and Wojciech Tochman. However, there’s also a long list of brilliant Polish reporters whose books are not (yet) available in English translation such as Kamil Bałuk, Marcin Kącki, Małgorzata Rejmer, Paweł Smoleński, Małgorzata Szejnert, Maciej
Wasielewski, Ewa Winnicka, Ilona Wiśniewska, and Cezary Łazarewicz. Many of the aforementioned authors are under 40s and have a long career ahead of them. Chances are some of their books can reach out to an English speaking audience sooner or later. In the meantime, completists who read Polish may purchase a 2848 pages long anthology of the best Polish reportage published in the 20th century selected by Mariusz Szczygieł and published by Czarne.
The works of these Polish reporters have been encompassing the entire world. So much so that a reader could travel the whole planet book after book of reportage. The first itinerary may start in Poland with the books on Poznań and on Białystok written by Kącki and move to former Czechoslovakia with Szczygieł to reach Turkey (Szabłowski) passing through Bosnia (Tochman), Albania (Stasiuk), and Romania (Rejmer). A second one may begin in icy Svalbard with Wiśniewska, move to the Faroe Islands (Michalski & Wasielewski), then to the UK (Winnicka) and
the Netherlands (Bałuk) to take a flight to Kazakhstan and Russia (Hugo-Bader) ending up in Afghanistan (Jagielski). Those who prefer starting from the US can do it with Szejnert, go to Honduras and Mexico with Kapuściński, travel across Africa with him and Nowak, visit Iraq with Smoleński and finish their trip in the remote island of Pitcairn in the Pacific Ocean where Wasielewski traced the steps of the Bounty mutineers.
Today reportage is very much alive in Poland, but its local authors seem to struggle in gaining the international recognition and audience they would deserve. This is due to the reluctancy of many foreign publishers to have Polish reportage books translated, but not only. On August 2017 the first edition of Miedziankafest, a journalism festival, took place in the abandoned town of Miedzianka, some 60 miles from the city of Wrocław in south-western Poland. However, the festival didn’t have meetings and events in English and it’s not clear whether its next edition will include them. Those who visit Warsaw will be delighted to know that the Polish capital hosts a ‘Reportage Institute‘ with its own cafè-cum-bookshop, Wrzenie Świata (The Boiling of the World). It’s in this cosy place that you can buy foreign editions of Polish reportage books and spot the best reporters in the country working on drafts or editing their next book while enjoying a cup of tea or a latte.
10 Polish reportage books worth reading in English…
Kazimierz Nowak – Across the Dark Continent
Nowak crossed Africa by feet, bike, canoe, horse, and camel twice from Libya to South Africa and back to Algeria between 1931 and 1936. A story of human resilience and cultural enrichment with hundreds of stunning photos taken by the author. Translated by Ida Naruszewicz-Rodger.
Zofia Nałkowska – Medallions
The author anticipates Hannah Arendt in portraying the banality of evil and chooses a writing technique later mastered by Svetlana Alexievich letting her interviewees talk in eight short stories based on true tragic events happened during WW2. Translated by Diana Kuprel.
Hanna Krall – Shielding the Flame
A conversation with Marek Edelman, one of the few who survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, recounting his story before, during and after that experience. It also provides a good introduction to Krall’s peculiar and apparently chaotic writing style. Translated by Joanna Stasinska.
Ryszard Kapuściński – The Shadow of the Sun or Shah of Shahs
The first book is a collection of engrossing reportages from a score of African countries often caught in their struggle to gain independence. The second is an account of the Iranian Revolution that forced the Shah to flee and saw Khomeini seize power. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
Anna Bikont – The Crime and the Silence
A well-documented and long-researched account from the Polish village of Jedwabne where something evil happened during WW2. A much better book than earlier ‘Neighbours’ by the historian Jan Gross that helped shedding light on this controversial event. Translated by Alissa Valles.
Jacek Hugo-Bader – White Fever
A collection of reportages from Russia and Kazakhstan including a hilarious meeting with the Russian self-proclaimed ‘prophet’ Vissarion and a tense interview with Mr. Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
Filip Springer – History of a Disappeance
The settlement of Kupferberg-Miedzianka was founded in the 15th century and survived wars, invasions, plagues, and fires. It was a thriving mining town, but in the 1960s its inhabitants left it and the town destroyed. The author digs out the truth. Translated by Sean Gasper Bye.
Witold Szabłowski – The Assassin from Apricot City
A series of brilliant reportages from Turkey addressing important topics such as the Kurd minority, the LGBT community in Istanbul, the protests in Taksim Square, and the story of Ali Agca who shot Polish Pope John Paul II in 1979. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
Mariusz Szczygieł – Gottland
A successful reportage book written in a very original style. The author is fascinated by former Czechoslovakia and tells the stories of famous people from there from tycoon Tomasz Bata to actress Lída Baarová passing through singer Karel Gott. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
Wojciech Jagielski – The Night Wanderers
The LRA’s insurgency, a little known civil war that has been going on in Uganda for thirty years, has seen thousands of children abducted from their homes and forced to kill. Jagielski finds a way to speak to these kids and portays Uganda through their eyes. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
…and 5 worth translating
Kamil Bałuk – Wszystkie dzieci Louisa (On a sperm donor and his ‘sons’ in the Netherlands).
Marcin Kącki – Białystok (On a Polish city where the far-right discourse is strong).
Angelika Kuźniak – Papusza (On a gypsy poet whose verses became famous in Poland).
Marcin Michalski and Maciej Wasielewski – 81:1 (On living in the Faroe Islands).
Ziemowit Szczerek – Tatuaż z tryzubem (On Ukraine ten years after the Orange Revolution).