Magic Journalism

Imperium

by Ryszard Kapuscinski, translated by Klara Glowczewska
Knopf, 331 pp., $24.00

In his new book on the fall of the Soviet Union, Ryszard Kapuscinski describes a visit he took to Armenia in 1990 to report on the worst of the many conflicts that erupted as the empire crumbled. The USSR was still officially one country, but Armenia and Azerbaijan were unofficially at war over the mountain enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited largely by Armenians. The Soviets were attempting unsuccessfully to suppress the bitter guerrilla fighting there. Among other things, they were trying to keep inquisitive foreign journalists like Kapuscinski out of the besieged territory, which lies entirely within Azerbaijan, and can be reached from Armenia only by air.

The Soviets are in control of the airports at both ends. How can Kapuscinski get there? Armenian friends come up with a solution: he will pretend to be an Aeroflot pilot. They dress him up in an Aeroflot uniform and with the collaboration of the plane’s real pilots (who are Armenians), they get him to Nagorno-Karabakh.

With his cool wit, Kapuscinski makes the most of this story. First, at the airport in Armenia, crowds of exasperated passengers who’ve been waiting there for days take him for a real pilot, and surround him. The crooked airport officials then muscle their way toward him, alarmed that this unfamiliar pilot is trying to cut himself in on their racket of extorting bribes from passengers. Kapuscinski silently follows the commands the Armenians whisper in his ear as they smuggle him into the cockpit, then past the tight security of the Nagorno-Karabakh airport, and through the many roadblocks manned by KGB troops: “Sit down at the controls, and put on the headphones.” “Get out and immediately walk straight ahead.” “Push your way through the crowd.” “Get into the back seat of that car.” “Lie down and pretend to be dead drunk.”

The disguise works. Kapuscinski gets to see Nagorno-Karabakh. But what his Armenian hosts never realize is that his role as a journalist is also a disguise—and one that also works. The Chicago Tribune calls Kapuscinski the “reporter’s reporter…the best in the business.” Corriere della Sera calls him “the greatest living war correspondent.” But if a reporter means someone who accurately presents facts normally thought important (“The President’s press secretary announced today that…”), Kapuscinski is anything but one. He takes few notes. His dispatches from odd corners of the world often ignore the main political events. If the work of contemporary Latin American novelists, sprinkled with trees that move and birds that talk, is magic realism, Kapuscinski, a Pole, has created a kind of magic journalism.

This was clear from The Emperor, his first book to be translated into English, about the fall of Haile Selassie. Soon after the Emperor was deposed, Kapuscinski went to Ethiopia and interviewed members of the former ruling circle. In the book they speak in long monologues, and are identified only by initials. Can it be that there really was a Minister of the Pen …

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