Before he became a famous foreign correspondent, Ryszard Kapuściński wrote a series of astonishing dispatches for the weekly newspaper Polityka from Poland’s small towns and backwaters. Poland in 1959 still bore many visible scars of the war that had ravaged it a decade and a half previous. With Stalin’s death in 1953 the worst excesses of Soviet Communism had begun to recede, but the violent suppression of a workers’ uprising in Poznan in 1956 had shown the limits of politics within the so-called workers’ and peasants’ state.
Kapuściński was by no means a dissident, yet neither were his stories panegyrics to the party line. On the one hand, Communist authorities expected journalists to have something of a watchdog function, exposing instances where policy was not being properly administered. Provided, of course, that the story did not rock too many boats. Ideally, such a report would reveal inadequacies at a local level that could then be set right by intervention from higher authorities. And indeed, in one or two, Kapuściński does offer to connect local people with folks from the center who could straighten out a thing or two. Kapuściński also practices the long-standing Polish art of seeing how much can get past the censor; more than a century of Russian occupation from partition to the Great War gave generations of Polish writers experience in testing limits, and Kapuściński is an heir to that tradition.
In “Far Away” there’s a village that automobiles have not yet reached, but DDT is there and people who know the land well argue with men sent by the party to improve the yield. Communism never sat well on Poland. The title character of “A Farmer at Grunwald Field” does not much care about the upcoming commemoration of 500 years since a Polish victory over German armies. Piatek used to be the top farmer in the area, but a wintertime accident broke bones in his hip and thigh, and they did not heal properly. Things are getting tougher. He’s pleased that many are coming to visit for the celebration, “but he’s worried that the thousands of feet will crush his field, which has been growing so promisingly.” (p. 24) “The Fifth Column on the March” counters the official narrative of the late 1950s that West Germany was a revanchist power, itching to re-take lands that had been transferred to Poland at the end of World War II. The story traces two older German women — born in 1876 and 1903 — who hear old songs on the radio and escape from an old folks’ home, thinking that the German army has returned. The women want to reclaim their farm a few towns away, where they had once led a sizable enterprise and employed 100 Poles. Of course nothing of the sort is happening, and local officials eventually return them to where they had been settled. It’s at once a send-up of how the party line portrayed Germany and a devastating portrait of aging.
“An Advertisement for Toothpaste” sets out the marital prospects in a tiny town with four times as many young women as young men, all set around a summertime dance that might or might not be a life-changing event for the dancers. In “No Known Address,” Kapuściński sketches guys working at staying in the cracks of the system, floating from work site to work site, never settling into the heroic workers’ roles that the party and state assure them are their destinies. “The Geezer” is twenty-seven, but having been born in the early 1930s, he’s worlds removed from his pupils who were born at war’s end and have only ever known reconstruction and socialism. “The Taking of Elzbieta” depicts the knowing and pious cruelty of a religious order that tempted a young woman away from her family. In “The Stiff,” a truck breaks down but the coffin still has to be delivered a dozen or so kilometers away. The pallbearers, who in truth did not know the dead man very well, decide to carry him through the night. Unexpected bits of life intervene along the way.
Polish audiences have long seen Nobody Leaves as a key collection of his work, but this first translation into English did not appear until 2017. The collection is short, fewer than 120 pages, and most of the stories are equally compact, but their brevity serves to concentrate their power.