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ISSUE:  Winter 2008

(as told to Anna Mateja)

Of course, I won’t be able to tell the story of the entire forty-six years of my friendship with Ryszard—certainly not just like that, in such a short telling.

But over the last few days, I have been pondering the roots of the closeness between us. Perhaps it had to do, for each of us, with the brother whom neither of us otherwise had? Or perhaps the shared fate that threw us both, after the war, from the eastern stretches of the former Polish lands into the Polish People’s Republic—him from Polesie, me from Podole? Perhaps it had to do with the similar—at least part of the time—way in which we perceived the world? Even though I knew him, in the myriad of remembrances and articles that have been coming out about him since his death, he already seems a little different; and because of this I want to tell the story of a somewhat odd aspect of his biography and perhaps an interesting feature of his character: this vast, deep, life-long conviction that prepared him for all sorts of sacrifices.

At the end of the 1950s, Ryszard went to India and China, where he was shocked by the extreme poverty of millions of people and the stoicism with which so many of them tended to endure it. This shock stayed with him, assuming the proportions of an obsession, for many years. I think it was then, in 1962, that we met again in Dar es Salaam, the capital of today’s Tanzania and then of Tanganyika (I was setting up our diplomatic mission there). We walked along the shore of the Indian Ocean and he told me, with great conviction, about this need for self-sacrifice, about this necessity of doing something for millions of people, and for every single person. Looking back today, I can see that what he was talking about was more than just helping them, perhaps even . . . saving them. He argued that neither the First World, i.e., the West, nor the Second World, i.e., the Communist bloc, would do any good—that they were actually making the situation even worse, awakening in Asian and African peoples their worst instincts. The West, by promising “salvation through capitalism,” would only alter traditional tribal structures without addressing any of the serious problems of the postcolonial world. The Communists, on the other hand, deceiving everyone with their promises of “social salvation,” would betray the poor at the first opportunity, without risking anything and in the process inciting endless hatred between people.

“These people can only be helped by those who are ready to devote to them their health and their life, even at the risk of losing their lives”—that was the core of his idea, as Ryszard revealed it to me. All this meant, first of all, getting to know in depth the world of those who matter the least on the globe and then, second, making the rest of the world come to appreciate their tragedy. Ryszard believed that people such as himself had to find the way into the conscience of the wealthy. But this would be impossible to accomplish without truly living the life of those suffering and marginalized in Africa or Asia—and without truly devoting one’s life to them. In this concept of his, there was no room for weakness—it was to be a true sacrifice resulting from an unusually profound motivation on the part of an exceptional individual. (He was not thinking of himself as exceptional: he did have a self-knowledge of his unusualness though not yet of his greatness—this would only come later and was always carefully concealed.)

Today, I’d likely have considered all this as the musings of an idealistic lightweight, but in his case one could actually witness such ideas being translated into deeds. He travelled to be with those poor people, lived with them, contracted their diseases. In the process, he ruthlessly abused his own body, and it was a strong body. Risking his life, he was getting to know the conflicts; he wrote, he told stories, he was making the world aware of them. There was something mystical in his work, something almost Franciscan, since in doing all this, he himself led an exceedingly modest life, a life of self-denial. He was aware of being alone, but in that very loneliness perhaps was rooted his own, deeply concealed feeling of greatness.

It was all somewhat naïve and, with time, he probably came to understand his powerlessness, or at any rate the limits of the help he could extend. Despite his optimistic persona, he often had periods of pessimism, which he labelled for his own use and probably slightly unfairly, his “Returns to Reality.” And the excessively Utopian character of his theory he probably came to feel most painfully precisely in 1962, in Dar es Salaam, when, despite the fact that he was spitting blood, he was getting ready to go to Katanga (the southern province of Congo which had declared independence in 1960, only to lose it three years later). On the eve of his departure, my wife Izabella and I, practically through physical force, compelled him to get x-rays, and it turned out that he literally had holes in his lungs. We took him home where he lay in bed for several weeks taking terrible amounts of pills. And during those weeks came, well, perhaps not a total sobering up—because he continued to believe in the necessity of trying to save the world through this vocation of his—but the realization that self-immolation alone would not cure the world.

Translated from the Polish by Joanna and Lawrence Weschler


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