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Nobody Leaves: Impressions of Poland – Ryszard Kapuscinski

by Venky

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Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed everything else is public relations” – George Orwell

Often times, the most memorable reportage has at its apotheosis, the discovery of voices that are otherwise drowned in a sea of obscurity, and relegated to the confines of oblivion. More likely than not, such voices are the preserve of the commoner, the man on the streets whose plaid and prosaic existence is beyond the remit of glamour and outside the responsibility of conspicuousness. The late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński almost made it his credo to invert the pyramid of journalism. Daring to venture into uncharted territories with an iconoclastic attitude – which at first glance, might seem to many as the synonym of downright recklessness – Kapuściński took great delight in making acquaintance with, and assimilating the perseverance and perspective of the neglected “Other”. His works reveal the “Chutzpah” possessed by the underprivileged and ignored. An impudence that allows its possessor to buck trends, and face adversity with a novel combination of parody and patience.  This ingrained bravura almost cost this famed reporter his life, on more occasions than one. Detained 40 times and giving death sentence a slip on four different occasions, Kapuściński pursued his craft with the single minded dedication usually reserved for the possessed.

Kapuściński’ was greatly inspired by the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. Forced to be sequestered in the Trobriand Islands on account of World War I, Malinowski seized this opportunity accorded by isolation to live amongst the aboriginal tribes in New Guinea and Melanesia. This extraordinary stint of ethnography led to the publication of his seminal work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific. This stupendous work not only established Malinowski’s position as one of Europe’s most formidable anthropologists, but also underscored with great emphasis the need for proximity towards any subject of research. “To judge something, you have to be there”, insisted Malinowski. This became a gospel for Kapuściński’. He was there in the dangerous climes of Liberia, and the chaotic power struggle of Ethiopia. He traversed the paths taken by pilgrims in India and merchants in China and mercenaries in Russia. In the true spirit of Captain Kirk and the Enterprise SS, he boldly went where no man had gone before.

In Nobody Leaves: Impressions of Poland, Kapuściński’, wanders the length and breadth of his own nation, Poland to glean from her children their woes, wisdom and vicissitudes. An ambivalent Poland which in the middle and late part of the 20th century was racked by confusion, confabulation and confoundment. Just when the nation was rejoicing the defeat of Germany in the bloodiest war in history and the regaining of lost territories, this territorial joy was short lived as the spectre of Soviet style Communist/Central Planning firmly took Poland in a vice like grip. So off sets Kapuściński’ to places far and wide, away from the comforts of the capital Warsaw. From the thinly populated village of Bachotek, in the administrative district of Gmina Zbiczno, to the even more bleak province of Platki in Elk county, Kapuściński’ wanders like a purposeful nomad. An itinerant Bedouin armed with paper and pen. A perpetual chronicler of poverty, depravity, despair and yet, hope.

In “The Taking of Elzbieta”, Kapuściński’ comes across a set of most unfortunate parents. Enslaved by chronic illness (the mother’s lungs are ravaged by tuberculosis, while the father is rendered fragile by two heart attacks), the couple go to Herculean efforts to provide the best education to their daughter, Elzbieta. However, just on the threshold of University, the daughter coming under the thrall of the Order of the Church, abandons both education and family before withdrawing herself into the robes of the Church and the confines of its architecture. The screams and wails of a mentally assailed mother plagues the villagers every night. Repeated letters imploring the daughter to return home are an exercise in futility as the Mother Superior ensures that the letters are never read by their newest recruit. Even a plea to see her frail father in the hospital is met with a steely stone hearted resolve by the Church. Two representatives are dispatched to the hospital to ascertain the veracity of the parents’ claim. When Kapuściński’ finally meets Elzbieta, he tells her that he has brought along with him “the screams of her mother”.

“A Survivor on a Raft” has two destitute University Professors taking extreme pride and joy in indulging a rustic raftsman in absorbing conversation. The raftsman, Mister Jagielski, is a single link in a long chain of raftsmen. The twenty segments making up the raft are lashed together and stretch for over 200 meters. Assembled in the forest of Ilawa, this serpentine raft has to float to Drweca before finally being chopped and shaped in a sawmill. This journey takes 120 kilometres, and several raftsmen guide the raft by taking turns.  

“Danka”, the darkest story in the collection revolves around the imagined notions of erosion of faith. A sculptor and his female companion, who happens to be his model, occupy the rectory in a small village. The sculptor has promised to produce a statue of the Virgin Mary for the local  Church. But he has some unfinished business of his own and hence is occupied with studying the model. The woman who is the model, in a brazen show of liberty appears scantily clad in public and sun tans herself in the most inconvenient of manner (to the rest of the village). When the priest at the Church gets bewitched by her beauty and forces the sculptor to carve Mother Mary’s statue with the exact contours of the model’s stunning face, all hell breaks loose. Under the impotent gaze of a semi-literate police officer and the helpless intransigence of the  local party boss, a bunch of outraged and infuriated elderly women, end up lynching the poor model.

A recurring theme in all of Kapuściński’’s tales in Nobody Leaves, is an uncontrollable and repressed urge to ‘escape’. People who are stuck in villages wish to escape to the hustle and bustle of city life and all the pleasures that it promises, while city dwellers bashed in by the uncompromising exactitude of a mundane but tiring existence seek to unshackle themselves from the prison of repetition and flee to the tranquility offered by a ‘proto-beatnik’ style of living. A Kerouacian desire, in short.  

In “A Farmer at Grunwald Field”, Kapuściński’ accosts a farmer, who is absolutely indifferent to, and uncomplainingly ignorant of the fact that the site of his field happens to be seeped in rich history. The seminal battle of Grunwald that signified the victory of the Polish Commonwealth over the Teutonic Knights in 1410, represents a memorable bookend in Polish history. The perplexed farmer, however, could not care a jot whether the battle was a mere footnote or an immortal event. All that he is concerned about is the health (or the lack of it) of his crops.

Nobody Leaves is an ‘unputdownable’ conflation of cynicism and candour. A cynicism that has at its nub, innumerable lessons. Lessons of, for and by the downtrodden. Candour supplements these lessons by being a perfect foil, a true handmaiden of the cynic. There is neither exaggeration nor muted fervour. The stories are narrated as they occur and for what they are. No judgment is made, and no decrees are delivered. The “Others” are introduced to the reader and the rest is up to her to either continue with the acquaintance or abandon it without remorse or regret.

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