Substantially True

Polish Writer Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007)

Although he is usually classified as a writer on non-fiction, the late Ryszard Kapuściński has been “outed” by some journalists for embroidering the truth. In this era of fake news and outright official lying, I feel we need to appreciate someone who is 95% true, or even 90% true. Almost no one is 100% true. I keep thinking back to the ancient Greek and Roman historians who put polished speeches into the mouths of Greek heroes such as Pericles and Augustus Caesar. The idea was to give the general idea, and to adjust the truth just enough to show the basics. No matter that the historian spoke more elegantly than Pericles or Augustus ever could. Shall we dump Thucydides, Herodotus, Tacitus, and Livy for such venial sins, which were certainly not considered as sins at the time they were writing?

According to a biography by Artur Domoslawski, friend of Kapuściński, occasionally crossed the boundary between straight reportage and fiction: “Sometimes the literary idea conquered him. In one passage, for example, he writes that the fish in Lake Victoria in Uganda had grown big from feasting on people killed by Idi Amin. It’s a colourful and terrifying metaphor. In fact, the fish got larger after eating smaller fish from the Nile.”

It seems Domoslawski was perhaps less than a real friend of Kapuściński: He also included numerous accounts of the author’s sexual peccadillos and collaborations with Soviet intelligence.

I am reminded of another travel writer whose work I love, Bruce Chatwin, author of In Patagonia and Songlines. Instead of 90% truth, Chatwin aimed at perhaps 70% truth and occasionally fell short of that mark. And there was, with Chatwin, a lot of sex going on with even with his sources. (He died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 49.) I still classify both authors as non-fiction, even though Domoslawski thinks they should be on the shelf with fiction.

After Domoslawski’s book came out, a bunch of other writers jumped on the topic, including such notable historians as Timothy Garton-Ash. I know that, for many years, Ryszard Kapuściński  has been on the short list to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Now that he is dead, he does not qualify. More’s the pity.


Horreur du Domicile

Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989)

Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989)

The following is a blog I first published on April 7, 2011 for the defunct Multiply.Com:

I have just finished reading Nicholas Shakespeare’s excellent biography of British travel writer Bruce Chatwin. As I write this, I am acutely aware that Chatwin was uncomfortable with his Britishness and with being classified as a travel writer. His entire life was a series of escapes from “home.” Despite being bisexual, he married and—except for a brief separation—remained married. Married or not, nothing could stop him from straying to parts unknown by himself, or with a male traveling companion; and, after his early years, he logged far more time in places like Afghanistan, Patagonia, Australia, Indonesia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, West Africa, Nepal, and India than in the British Isles.

Chatwin was the male equivalent of Marilyn Monroe. People usually took to him at once, impressed with his looks, volubility and esoteric knowledge of faraway places and customs. Bruce seduced them, either literally or metaphorically. He would find a complaisant person and stay with them, sometimes for months at a time, while he commandeered their living quarters and set up to write books or articles.

I have read most of his books and loved every word of them. There was something new about them. Instead of any scholarly commitment to exactitude, he mixed fact and fiction into a new synthesis that somehow mirrored his evasions from workaday life.

These evasions also led to his death. Chatwin was perhaps the first famous Briton to die of AIDS. In between books, he lived the life of bathhouses and casual sex with multiple partners, befriending Robert Mapplethorpe in New York and a whole retinue of rent boys around the world. He would not admit that he had AIDS. His evasions on the subject were facilitated by the general lack of medical knowledge about the emerging global epidemic in the Eighties. He told people he had a rare Indonesian fungus, or some tropical parasite caused by his proximity to a dead whale, or something equally bizarre.

Whatever my feelings about the whole gay subculture, about which I am not the most tolerant of people, I cannot deny that Chatwin’s books, most particularly In Patagonia and The Songlines, are among the best written in the latter twentieth century. What do I care about divergences from literal truth?

There is a story about a patient going to a psychologist and telling him the details of his life.

“Hmm, that’s very interesting!” exclaimed the psychologist.

“Hah!” exclaimed the patient. “What would you say if everything I told you were a lie?”

“That’s even more interesting,” replied the psychologist.

That’s the way I feel about Chatwin’s work.

* * * * *


I have just finished reading Bruce Chatwin’s Anatomy of Restlessness: Selected Writings 1969-1989. The two things that these essays added to my knowledge of Chatwin were, first, his “horreur du domicile,” his unwillingness to be tied down to any one place. (The phrase is from Baudelaire’s Journaux Intimes.)

Secondly, it is surprising to find in a former art specialist who worked for Sotheby’s in London such a dislike of people who are essentially collectors. This is from the last essay in the book, entitled “The Morality of Things”:

Such observable disparities turned people against art, particularly valuable art. The artists started it by creating unsaleable nothings. Now they have been joined by a chorus of critics, who once jumped on the art wagon and find it convenient to jump off. A famous New York critic declared the other day that, in his experience, people who are attracted to art are—it goes without saying—psychopaths, unable to tell the difference between right and wrong.

Why psychopath? Because, in some opinions, the work of art is a source of pleasure and power, the object of fetishistic adoration, which serves in a traumatised individual as a substitute for skin-to-skin contact with the mother, once denied, like the kisses of Proust’s mother, in early childhood. Art objects, leather gear, rubber goods, boots, frillies, or the vibrating saddle, all compensate for having lost ‘mama en chemise toute nue.’

If you would like to read my review of Anatomy of Restlessness on Goodreads.Com, you can find it by clicking here.