in Frieze | 05 MAY 04
Featured in
Issue 83

After the Fact

The vices and virtues of literary reportage

in Frieze | 05 MAY 04

In Who Killed Daniel Pearl? (2003) the French philosopher and gossip column regular Bernard-Henri Lévy looks into the kidnapping and murder of the American reporter in Karachi in January 2002. As you might expect from a book that, among other things, asserts that responsibility for the death leads straight to the Pakistani state, it has been controversial. The blurb claims Lévy 'combines a novelist's eye with riveting investigative journalism', and many critics have focused on his odd mixture of make-believe and fact. For a supposed work of non-fiction it is a strange read, with its speculations, lurid recreations of the murder and inadvertent comic turns (the joke's on Lévy, with his enormous ego). But it is very compelling.

Although most of the failings of Lévy's book remain specific to his own defects as a writer, some of them go with the territory. In its attempt to bring elements of fiction into a work that claims to be true, it comes close to a genre of writing that the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski calls 'literary reportage'. Kapuscinski's best books, such as Another Day of Life (1976), about the war-torn beginnings of independence in Angola, or The Emperor (1978), recounting the last days of Haile Selassie, are classics in this self-defined genre, merging novelistic qualities of form and style with hair-raising first-hand witness. He writes with a universal resonance and depth that equal the best fiction, without intending to compromise fact.

Perhaps because it blurs established genres and evades categories, such reportage is often trumpeted as a completely new form. But as Kapuscinski said last year in a speech at the first Lettre Ulysses Award for literary reportage in Berlin, the tradition stretches back as far as Herodotus. You can find more recent precursors in Tom Wolfe's New Journalism of the 1960s, the 'Nuevo Periodismo' of Gabriel García Márquez and books such as Truman Capote's famous 'non-fiction novel' In Cold Blood (1965), for which Capote moved to Kansas for over five years to research the murder of the Clutter family in the small village of Holcomb.

Wolfe's introduction to The New Journalism (1973) points to other precursors too, and soon more and more works, by writers from Dickens and Twain to Chekhov and Orwell, start to crawl out of the woodwork. At least one major book is often overlooked: Rebecca West's monumental Balkan travelogue Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1942). But whereas Wolfe's interest in the genre seems to spring from his view of the exhaustion of fiction writing in general, Kapuscinski's main impetus for working in this area comes from his years as a reporter writing about countries, often in Africa, that are woefully under- or misrepresented in the 'Western' media.

Beyond the bare facts and chronicles of what was said and done that are allowed within the structure of the news - especially television news - is a vast void of experience and texture that this 'literary reportage' tries to fill. The medium of writing, as opposed to photography and film, is ideally suited to such a task, being able to get underneath surfaces in a way that is difficult, if not impossible, with visual means. But the problems are intertwined with this very advantage: beyond the bare facts and chronicles it is hard, if not impossible, to be objective. The invisible line between fact and fiction is sometimes thin, and the reader doesn't always know when it's being crossed.

When In Cold Blood first appeared in installments in The New Yorker, Capote must have come up against this problem, as people looked at the photographs of the people described in the text and wondered if they looked like he said. The criticisms levelled at Kapuscinski's work range from this to the more damaging accusation that he often gets his facts wrong. The arguments seem trivial - such as one critic's discovery that when, in The Emperor, he describes being brought a translation of Haile Selassie's autobiography, this can't have happened since it wasn't published for another two years. But you soon wonder: what else has been made up?

Similarly, when William Dalrymple writes in a review of Who Killed Daniel Pearl? that Colvin Street in the East End, where Lévy tells us Omar Sheikh's family lives, 'does not exist on the London A-Z street atlas', you realize you have to take Lévy's impressions of Pakistan, as well as his conspiracy theories about Al-Qaeda, with a large pinch of salt. Which is a shame because, to paraphrase an interview with Kapuscinski in The Independent in 2001, nowadays we receive a lot of information, but fewer explanations: 'we have too many fables, too much make-believe. In reality, people are hungering for authenticity and an understanding of the trends which affect their lives and those of others.'