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War Correspondent, Author Ryszard Kapuscinski

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 25, 2007

Ryszard Kapuscinski, 74, a danger-courting Polish journalist and widely translated author who covered 27 revolutions and was among the most celebrated war correspondents of his generation, died Jan. 23 at Banacha Hospital in Warsaw after a heart attack. He also had cancer.

With prose that was punchy and lyrical, and in which he was often a central figure amid the action, he became a foremost chronicler of the developing world in his books. Likened to a modern-day nomad, he carried only a camera, a clean shirt and money. "The less you have the better for you," he said, "because to have is to be killed."

He met the guerrilla fighter Che Guevara in Cuba, political leaders such as Salvador Allende of Chile and prime minister Patrice Lumumba of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and strongmen such as Idi Amin of Uganda.

Famously, he interviewed a former employee of the deposed Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, a man whose sole duty for 10 years was to use a satin cloth and wipe the shoes of dignitaries soiled by the urine of the emperor's Japanese dog, Lulu.

Mr. Kapuscinski admitted he could embellish scenes for effect and use composites. His many fans, including John Updike, tended to classify him with Truman Capote as a master of literary nonfiction. One of Mr. Kapuscinski's book editors linked his atmospheric writing to a tradition of "magical realism" found in Latin American novels that were subjective and blended absurdities with blunt truths.

"Everything is a metaphor," Mr. Kapuscinski once said. "My ambition is to find the universal."

During his extensive travels, he could be daring to the point of reckless. This characteristic prompted Salman Rushdie to praise his writing -- "an astonishing blend of reportage and artistry'' -- and to question his friend's sanity.

At the outbreak of the 1967 Biafran secessionist war in Nigeria, Mr. Kapuscinski heard of a road that was blocked by burning roadblocks and from which "no white man can come back alive."

Testing the rumor, he passed the first roadblock but was assaulted at a second by machete-wielding thugs who supported the United Progressive Grand Alliance political party. They took his money and doused him with the flammable liquid benzene.

"The boss of the operation stuffed my money into his pocket and shouted at me, blasted me with his beery breath: 'Power! UPGA must get power! We want power! UPGA is power!'" Mr. Kapuscinski later wrote. "His face was flooding sweat, the veins on his forehead were bulging and his eyes were shot with blood and madness. He was happy and he began to laugh in joy. They all started laughing. That laughter saved me.

"They ordered me to drive on."

For years, he was little known outside Poland, but his increasing prestige brought him freelance work for the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Granta and other English-language publications. He began writing books in his off-hours, "second versions" of the brief, dreary and highly official dispatches he filed for his day jobs writing for the Polish press.


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