Books, Explorers

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Accidental Gonzo

“Then he poured benzene on me, because here they burn people in benzene: it guarantees complete incineration”

In 1966, in the same year that Hunter S. Thompson’s relationship with the Hell’s Angels was ending with a sentimental goodbye beating, Ryszard Kapuscinksi was being doused in benzene at a burning roadblock in rural Nigeria. The voice of dissatisfied American counterculture and the Polish foreign correspondent couldn’t have seemed more different, and yet there they both were, having their asses handed to them for the sake of a story.

Starting out in Iron Curtain Poland, Ryszard Kapuscinksi (there should be some weird Polish accents over the ‘Kapuscinski’) made a name for himself by negotiating conflicts and then writing about them. The only foreign correspondent at the Polish Press Agency, Kapuscinski is said to have covered 27 coups and revolutions, and was sent all over the world any time the agency could raise the funds to get him there.

These days the average Anderson Cooper probably clocks up many more than 27 revolutions – today in Tunisia, tomorrow Egypt, next week Libya and Syria – but Kapuscinski worked hard for his 27, and was rewarded with unique perspectives on conflict. He was one of the first to report on the El Salavdor – Honduras ‘Soccer War’; he was in Tegucigalpa when it was bombed, and later crawled around the front lines after his jeep was shelled. Not exactly the usual CNN sob story.

Throughout his many travels and ordeals, it was Kapuscinski’s ability to find street-level stories that distinguished him. On the front lines of the Soccer War he met a conscripted farmer who left his rifle behind and instead collected boots that he could take back to his barefoot family on the farm. Kapuscinski dwells on this guy as much as the actual battle, noting the absurdity of the shoe fetish, but also its poignancy before the grander absurdity of a spiteful war started over a World Cup qualifying match.

Angles like this made Kapuscinski world-renowned as a literary-journalist. Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez became big fans, and he won a slew of awards (although never the Nobel prize, which many say he deserved). He has had his share of critics too, however, and especially in the years since his death in 1997 more and more questions have been raised about the objectivity of his reporting.

These claims – usually that he did not witness first-hand all of things he wrote about – suggest that Kapuscinski had more in common with his magic-realist fans than the average journalist would care to admit. They do nothing, however, to diminish the man’s skill as a writer, or his balls as a traveller.

A semi-credible journalist may not seem like much of a Gonzo figure, especially given the lack of sordid drug binges in his tales, but there are deeper resonances between Kapuscinski and the likes of Hunter S. Thompson. One is their resistance to authority, their determination to live and write the stories that matter to them. When Belgian Congo became independent, Kapuscinski was desperate to go there. His editor sent him to Nigeria instead, so Kapuscinski changed his ticket, flew to Egypt and then Sudan, and from there drove into Congo without permits or protection.

Like Thompson, Kapuscinski was also far less concerned with personal safety than with getting to the bottom of an experience. While Thompson’s self-destructiveness took the form of binges in the desert and riding with bikers, Kapuscinski collected tropical diseases and incarcerations. He arrived in Congo at a time when white people were being rounded up and beaten by directionless paramilitaries; although he escaped the worst of the beatings he still ended up half-dead in a military prison.

At the heart of Kapuscinski’s tales is an obsession with experiencing things for himself. It’s almost as though he distrusted journalism as a medium for communicating real experience. This is really what Gonzo journalism is all about; putting yourself into the story, so deeply that objectivity is impossible.

The Nigerian roadblock story is one of Kapuscinski’s best known. Passing through consecutive roadblocks, he was beaten, had guns shoved in his face, and had first his car and then his body doused in benzene, ready to be torched. His survival came down to luck, and maybe a little grit (but mostly just luck). In the same story Kapuscinski offers this explanation of why he was doing what he was doing; it encapsulates the whole restless drive of Gonzo journalism…

I was driving along a road where they say no white man can come back alive. I was driving to see if a white man could, because I had to experience everything for myself. I know that a man shudders in the forest when he passes close to a lion. I got close to a lion so I would know how it feels. I had to do it myself because I knew no one could describe it to me. I cannot describe it myself.

Kapuscinski didn’t set out to achieve the same kind of notoriety as the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He didn’t want to be imprisoned or threatened or flattened by blood poisoning, but worse than any of these for him were his attempts back in Poland to adjust to life at a desk. Better to throw himself into the thick of the action and satisfy his restless, investigative spirit, no matter the cost. The true Gonzo way.

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Phil Johnson

Phil Johnson is an editor at Road Junky and more of his work can be read atHe keeps a his blog. You can also enjoy his bountiful wit via Twitter.