Domosławski lists many other veracity problems. Kapuściński’s agency stuff is fairly straightforward reporting, salted only with analysis and opinion. It’s in his long feature articles, and in the anecdotes he tells in his books, that he habitually exaggerated, often changing details for effect. It seems to be untrue, for instance, that he was awaiting execution by Belgian mercenaries at the Usumbura airfield; other journalists tracked down by Domosławski say nothing of the sort happened. When Kapuściński told him he was in Mexico City for the massacre in 1968 or in Santiago for the Pinochet coup in 1973, the truth was he was in Mexico ‘a month later’ and in Chile a couple of years earlier. In Bolivia, he wrote a scandalous, colourful but quite untrue story about a rebel editor; he could easily have checked it with the man himself but – he isn’t the only journalist to do this – didn’t want facts to get in the way of a great story. When a friend pointed out that a Tanzanian riot he described had happened in a different place in a different way, Kapuściński shouted at her: ‘You don’t understand a thing! I’m not writing so the details add up: the point is the essence of the matter!’ And sometimes this works. In Amin’s Uganda, he described the horror among a group of Africans who had caught a gigantic fish, swollen to monstrous size by devouring the corpses thrown into Lake Victoria. Kapuściński knew this wasn’t true: the fish was an introduced Nile perch bloated by eating the native species. And yet the story captures exactly the terrified atmosphere of those nightmare times. Again, well-founded doubts about whether he really did interview all those Ethiopian courtiers in The Emperor, and whether they really spoke to him in that melancholy, philosophical way, don’t prevent that book from being a revelatory account of the way a ‘medieval’ court felt and functioned.

Neal Ascherson reviews ‘Ryszard Kapuściński’ by Artur Domosławski, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones · LRB 2 August 2012. Here we go again. Making up stuff is okay if it gets to the essence of the matter, if it’s essentially correct. The “essence” to be defined by … whom, exactly?

I have another question: How can we be so sure that The Emperor is “a revelatory account of the way a ‘medieval’ court felt and functioned” if the very stories that constitute that account are made up? The only people who could make that judgment are people who know Idi Amin’s “court” from the inside: if we were to ask them and they replied, yes, Kapuściński got it essentially right even if he made up the dialogue, then that would count for something. But how does Ascherson know that Kapuściński’s account is “revelatory”? Was he there? Can he corroborate Kapuściński’s take on Amin’s Uganda? If not, then he’s in the same boat the rest of us are in: we have no idea whether Kapuściński’s narrative is “essentially” accurate or total fantasy. No idea.