Tribute to Ryszard Kapuscinski

My heart is so full. The place was standing room only. The line was (literally) around the block. It went from the door on 42nd Street all the way to 6th Avenue. I heard Polish being spoken in line, we all had dog-eared copies of Kapuscinski’s books – I heard one young woman, she was probably 23 years old if she was a day, say to her friend, “I think The Emperor might be favorite of his. What’s yours?” It is always a great comfort to me to find “my own kind”. To show up for a matinee on a Sunday, a tribute to this great writer – and to find hundreds and hundreds of people who had the same idea. It was a bright sunny day, and we queued up – making quite a spectacle, the line snaking around Bryant Park. “What is this for?” people asked, drawn to us. Someone would answer, “Tribute to Ryszard Kapuscinski.” “Who?” someone asked. But then someone else thought a bit, nodded seriously and said, “Oh!”

I think one of my favorite parts of the entire day was when the Polish writer and newspaper editor Adam Michnik got up to speak, a longtime friend of Mr. Kapuscinski. His English was halting, so he spoke with a translator – a tall laconic gentlemen over to the side, holding a microphone – who was the striking resemblance of George Plimpton (his name was Jan Gross). Anyway, the Mr. Michnik was red-faced, jovial – (oh, and the entire panel was drinking vodka the entire time … in tribute to Kapuscinski and his love of life, good alcohol, companionship, and recklessness. It was great – there was Salman Rushdie, raising his glass of vodka to the memory of his dead friend …) But anyway, the Michnik spoke, and it was obvious the vodka was having some effect – he was humorous, and anecdotal – he didn’t stand on ceremony, he told very funny stories about Kapuscinski- and I loved him. But it was great because there were, of course, huge numbers of Polish speaking people in the audience (most of them sitting in the first 10 or so rows) – so he would come to the punchline of some joke, in Polish – and there would be a huge spontaneous thunderclap of laughter from the front, from the Poles … then our Plimpton-esque translator would tell us the punchline in English 2 seconds later – and all of the English speakers in the audience would burst into a huge thunderclap of laughter. It came in waves. Like a time-released punchline, reverberating backwards in concentric circles. Laugh from front … pause … laugh from back … and so it went, on and on, throughout the Michnik’s entire speech. It was gorgeous. The interconnectedness of it, but also the separation – by language … and yet humor is universal. We just might not “get it” at the same moment. It (to me) was the biggest tribute to Kapuscinski’s overwhelming humanistic appeal: those time-lapsed waves of laughter. The jokes making it through the translation. The message received.

I took some grainy pictures below. Salman Rushdie was marvelous. The dry wit … obviously very comfortable with public speaking – he appeared to speak off the cuff. Maybe he had some notes – but he didn’t refer to them often. He just sipped his vodka and told funny stories. He related a tale about a time he and Kapuscinski had in London – a stage production of Kapuscinski’s book The Emperor was going on – and protests were being staged outside the theatre.

Rushdie said to us (and his timing was impeccable – it was all in the pauses):

“Speaking as someone whose writing has …… occasionally … generated …. protests ……”

HUGE laugh.

It was the “occasionally” that made the joke.

And what an unbelievable pleasure it was to see my husband, Philip Gourevitch, in the flesh, for the first time. To hear him speak. My God. I admire him so much. I love his writing so much. Man, what a day.


Crowded. Photos of and by Kapuscinski were projected up onto huge screens around the room.

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The ceiling in that room never ceases to amaze me.

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The man of the day.

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Another funny anecdote from Rushdie. Back in the early 80s – when Kapuscinski’s books were starting to come out – he and Rushdie were part of the same publishing house in London. Rushdie, young, ambitious … had never heard of Kapuscinski. He walks into the editor’s office and the editor says to him in a portentous dramatic tone, “I have just read what I believe might be the best book ever written.” (A lot of Rushdie’s charm and humor was in how he told the story … just the WAY he related the editor’s words told us the whole thing – Rushdie felt jealous. He wanted the editor to be saying that about HIS book.) Rushdie, feeling jealous, said, “What’s the book?” Editor said, “It’s a book about Haile Selassie by a Polish writer.” Long pause. Rushdie then said, “Well, that certainly sounds like the best book ever written.”

So dry, so funny!!!

(Excerpt from “the best book ever written” here)

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Another quote from Rushdie, on Kapuscinski’s time in Africa: “He was sentenced to death every Tuesday.”

Here’s a grainy shot of the panel. Rushdie clearly seen over on the right … and Gourevitch clearly seen over on the left.

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The organizer of the event asked Kapuscinski once about the many times he had been thrown in prison in Africa during the 60s and 70s. I think it was over 40 times, and he had gotten a “death sentence” 4 times. Crazy decades in Africa, anarchy, etc. Kapuscinski, with his gentle self-effacing way, told a story about how he was in a dark cell, and the guards kept throwing in poisonous snakes with him. Kapuscinski’s verdict on the whole thing, as he re-told the story? “It was ….. not so good.” Never one for dramatizing the alreaady dramatic. Although he put himself in all of his books, it was never in a self-aggrandizing way. But it is true that after his time in the prison cell with the poisonous snakes – this particular imprisonment went on for 2 weeks, I think, and by the time they let him out – freed him from the pitch-black room with the poisonous snakes – his hair had gone completely white.

God, I love his face:

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Rushdie asked him once about all of the times he had faced death while trying to get the story out to the wire service. Rushdie asked him, “How do you do it?” Kapuscinski had to answer that question a lot – he was asked often, “Are you attracted to danger?” He was always so incredulous at the stupidity of that question. He saw nothing attractive about danger – that’s the whole point of his books. But in order to write them, he needed to be there, not behind some desk. – His whole essay about what happens to a man when he sits behind a desk is vintage Kapuscinski. So anyway, Rushdie was hearing the 100th story about Kapuscinski somehow conniving his way through some flaming checkpoint in Uganda, with rifles pointed at his head, and drunken soldiers rifling through his papers … and Rushdie asked, “How do you do it? How do you escape death so many times?” Kapuscinski thought a bit and then said, “I make myself unimportant. I make myself seem unworthy of the assassins bullet.”

Here’s Rushdie at the podium – you can’t see it, but he has a huge glass of vodka next to him.

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Gourevitch spoke eloquently about Kapuscinski’s thing as a writer. I loved one thing he said – he said that Kapuscinski is a ‘great artist of the pixel’. And you know – thinking of his various books – it is the minutia that sticks with you: the cushion-bearer in Selassie’s court, the long treatise on making cognac in the Imperium, the image of the pool hall built by the Soviets in what was once a mosque in Samarqand … the old Muslims sitting outside under a tree, with the sound of pool balls clacking around the green baize table in what was once their holy place … Oh, and so much more. The little puddle-jumping girl in Irkutsk. The wooden city in Angola floating away into the ocean (excerpt here). The gin-soaked nights in Ghana. The entire essay on the soccer war (excerpt here). His long essay on the Armenians. Their books. (excerpt here) Gourevitch told a very funny story too about how Kapuscinski was once asked to be on a panel discussing foreign policy issues – I can’t remember which country, maybe it was the EU, I don’t know. But it was to be a highly detailed conversation regarding this or that policy, this or that bill. He sat there, and was asked what he thought of such and such policy. He had never heard of any of them. He was not a wonk. He did not go in for the tiny details of government. He abhorred them – they were dehumanizing.

But his books! Look to his books.

Here’s Gourevitch speaking.

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9 Responses to Tribute to Ryszard Kapuscinski

  1. DBW says:

    There are giants striding this Earth. Never let anyone convince you otherwise.

  2. amelie / rae says:

    so, if i were to start reading Kapuscinski, or Rushdie, or your husband at this time in my life, where would i start…? [[or should i wait a couple of years?]]

  3. red says:

    Amelie –

    For Gourevitch – read his book on Rwanda. I can’t praise it highly enough.

    Here’s the amazon link

    And Kapuscinski hasn’t written that much – I think 6 books in all (sniff sniff) …

    but I would say you can’t go wrong with starting with The Emperor, his book on the Emperor of Ethiopia.

    I started with The Soccer War – a true high-water-mark of this type of journalism.

    His other books:

    Shah of Shahs – about the 1979 revolution in Iran
    Imperium – about the USSR
    Another Day of Life – about the revolution in Angola
    Shadow of the Sun – about his 30 years in Affrica

    and that’s it, sadly.

    His memoir – Travels with Herodotus – has just been published in English – I think it comes out here this month. Can’t wait! But sad that it will be the last one.

  4. red says:

    Oh, and Rushdie … I’m partial to his essays, but I also really enjoyed his novel Midnight’s Children.

    So there’s your reading list for ya!

  5. amelie / rae says:

    thanks, sheila! although, was that linked supposed to take me to Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or was that a subtle suggestion of another thing to add to that reading list?

  6. Teju says:

    Wonderful report. I was there too, and everything you say is true! You’ve captured it very well indeed.

  7. red says:

    Teju – a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon, huh?? :)

  8. Pingback: Red Cliff (2008); Directed by John Woo | The Sheila Variations

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