How It Felt to Be There

9781844678587 KapuscinskiNeal Ascherson in the LRB:

In a few weeks, all going well, I will get to see my Polish file. Any foreign journalist who visited Poland regularly in the Communist period must assume that the old Security Service built up a dossier on him or her. Mine is now in the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw, and I can read it. I don’t know what it contains. Much irrelevant rubbish, no doubt: surveillance teams have to justify their expenses. But one thing I am prepared for: reports to the secret police by people I considered to be friends or at least friendly acquaintances. Some ‘targets’ find the idea of such reports so horrible and distressing they prefer not to see their file at all. My view is different.

‘People’s Poland’ was the land Ryszard Kapuściński lived in, but left as often as he could. Many men and women there who despised the regime made bargains with themselves: if the price of getting a passport to a conference in Paris, or of befriending a Western foreigner, was to visit a certain Major Kowalski now and then and invent some harmless platitudes – cheap at that price. A few of my friends admitted this and joked about it. Others kept it delicately unsaid. They were reluctant informers, not professional spooks out to entrap me, and knowing that, I trusted them.

I thought Kapuściński was in that sort of league. We met quite a few times, mostly in Warsaw, and I felt that we were friends. Perhaps I was wrong. He was charming, intent, always apparently interested in what you had to say. And yet, as Artur Domosławski observes in this biography, that warm, complicit smile was for everyone. I can’t remember much of what he said. This is because he never said much. He was one of those rare journalists whose way of listening makes other people open up and talk. That’s what this elusive man used his smile for. That, and to take attention and curiosity away from himself. Kapuściński was evasive, and it turns out he had plenty to evade.