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Ryszard Kapuscinski, Polish Writer of Shimmering Allegories and News, Dies at 74

Michael T. Kaufman

New York Times

Ryszard Kapuscinski, a globe-trotting journalist from Poland whose writing, often tinged with magical realism, brought him critical acclaim and a wide international readership, died yesterday in Warsaw. He was 74.

His death, at a hospital, was reported by PAP, the Polish news agency for which he had worked. No cause was given, but he was known to have had cancer.

Mr. Kapuscinski (pronounced ka-poos-CHIN-ski) spent some four decades observing and writing about conflict throughout the developing world. He witnessed 27 coups and revolutions. He spent his working days gathering information for the terse dispatches he sent to PAP, often from places like Ougadougou or Zanzibar.

At night, he worked on longer, descriptive essays with phantasmagoric touches that went far beyond the details of the day's events, using allegory and metaphors to convey what was happening.

"It's not that the story is not getting expressed" in ordinary news reports, he said in an interview. "It's what surrounds the story. The climate, the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town; the smell; the thousands and thousands of elements that are part of the events you read about in 600 words of your morning paper."

From the 1970s on, these articles appeared in a series of books that quickly made Mr. Kapuscinski Poland's best-known foreign correspondent. They later drew international attention in translation. The books included "The Soccer War," which dealt with Latin American conflicts; "Another Day of Life," about Angola's civil war; "Shah of Shahs," about the rise and fall of Iran's last monarch; and "Imperium," an account of his travels through Russia and its neighbors after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The book that introduced Mr. Kapuscinski to readers and critics beyond Poland was a slim one, ostensibly about Ethiopia, which he wrote in 1978 and which appeared in English five years later under the title "The Emperor."

Subtitled "Downfall of an Autocrat" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), the book on one level portrayed the lapsed life of Haile Selassie's imperial court by citing the recollections of palace servants, like the man responsible for cleaning the shoes of visiting dignitaries.

A number of critics noted that despite the book's documentary form, it provided an allegory of absolutist power everywhere. Writing in The New Yorker, John Updike said the book emphasized "the inevitable tendency of a despot, be he king, ward boss, or dictator, to prefer loyalty to ability in his subordinates, and to seek safety in stagnation."

His fame growing, Mr. Kapuscinski began writing for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and the British journal Granta.

Though each of Mr. Kapuscinski's books was distinct, they all shared a sense of shimmering reality. There was, for instance, his account of the departure of Portuguese settlers from Angola as independence and civil war settled on the country. He described how everything of value, from cars to refrigerators, was leaping into boxes and floating off to Europe.

In preparing these articles he never took notes and used memory to stimulate his poetic imagination. In "Imperium," he evoked the wintry cold of the old Soviet penal colonies by quoting a schoolgirl who said she could tell who had passed by her house by the shape of the tunnels they had left in the crystallized air.

Mr. Kapuscinski, the son of schoolteachers, was born March 4, 1932, in Pinsk, a city now in Belarus. In an interview in Granta in 1987, he remembered Pinsk as a polyglot city of Jews, Poles, Russians, Belarussians, Ukrainians and Armenians, all of whom were called Poleshuks.
"They were a people without a nation and without, therefore, a national identity," he said. That quality, along with the poverty of Pinsk, inspired his empathy for the third world.

"I have always rediscovered my home, rediscovered Pinsk, in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America," he said.

Mr. Kapuscinski was in elementary school when the Nazis marched into western Poland and the Soviets took the eastern part in 1939 at the outset of World War II. His family eventually made its way to Warsaw, where Mr. Kapuscinski's father fought with resistance groups.