book Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski

reviewed by Mark Mordue

Published in Issue No. 133 ~ June, 2008

He seems to ramble. To wake from the book he is reading and tell you about it and his own life as well, confusing the seams of one story with another, even one world with another. You listen because he’s a great man, an old man, and because these are wisdoms and insights and experiences from the horse’s mouth. And because, quite frankly, just when you think the focus has gotten way too blurry, he completely surprises and enchants you.

So it is that the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski appears in his dotage, reflecting on the Ancient Greek writer Herodotus and his Classic work, The Histories. While doing so, Kapuscinksi interweaves reminiscences from India, China, Algeria, the Congo and Iran, just about anywhere the post-colonial world has been in foment across the latter half of the twentieth century.

More often wide-eyed and curious as a writer, Kapuscinski strikes an unusually sardonic note early on when he explains how he first came across Herodotus: “Before those future prophets proclaiming the clash of civilizations, the collision took place long ago, twice a week, in the lecture hall where I learned that there once lived a Greek named Herodotus.”

All through Kapuscinski’s travels, Herodotus’ monumental book will keep the reporter company, acting as a talisman for what he might do and be. At one point in 1960 Kapuscinski confesses that while reading it, “I experienced the dread of the approaching war between the Greeks and the Persians more vividly than I did the events of the current Congolese conflict, which I was assigned to cover.”

Some 2,500 years may separate Kapuscinski from Herodotus, but it’s all in the blink of an eye. As we are being introduced to Herodotus on the first page we hear of a city in ruins, of libraries “gone up in flames”. A neo-Classical atmosphere of chaos reigns, except Kapuscinski has switched from the Ancient to the Modern world and his youth in post-war Poland. This tendency to slide between the past and present, to place events inside an historical echo chamber, to draw us into a world where fact and myth are entwined and time becomes `timeless’, is classic `Kapuscinskian’ territory.

The details of Kapuscinski’s working life have almost been neutralized by his own mythical outlines: witness to twenty seven revolutions, sentenced to death three times, one of the greatest and most literary foreign correspondents who ever lived. Like so many other moments in his career, this last book will be a close call. No sooner is the manuscript for Travels with Herodotus complete than Kapuscinski dies in January of this year at 75 years of age.

Inevitably, there’s a last-will-and-testament feeling to this work. Kapuscinski must have known another book from him was unlikely. If you place much stock in author photos you might find it hard to connect the kindly old man on the current sleeve of Travels with Herodotus with his steelier, middle-aged counterpart depicted on major works like Another Day of Life (1976), The Emperor (1983) and Shah of Shahs (1985). The tellingly consistent detail lays in the eyes, dark as a fox.

It would certainly be limiting to picture Kapucsinski as a fact-gatherer and adventurer, though he did all that was required of him as a foreign correspondent from the mid 1950s onwards (under Communist rule he spent much of the era acting as Poland’s only foreign correspondent). Because of his impoverished journalistic circumstances – lack of money and resources are a gripe of his – Kapuscinksi was forced closer to the ground, to use time and intimacy to his advantage, anticipating major global events with an almost psychic ability to be there when it mattered most.

Arriving in Algiers on the heels of a coup in 1965, he admits to being infuriated by the ordinariness of the city. The experience was a turning point for him. “It slowly began to dawn on me that I had set myself on an erroneous path… Until that awakening I had been searching for spectacular imagery, laboring under the illusion that it was compelling observable tableux that somehow justified my presence, absolving me of all responsibility to understand the events at hand. It was the fallacy that one can interpret the world only by means of what it chooses to show us in the hours of its convulsions… But might it not be possible to pierce that spectacular stereotype, to move beyond imagery, attempt to reach deeper? It seemed only practical to try.”

As a European who lived under the shadow of totalitarianism, Kapucsinksi’s sympathies for people and nations similarly eclipsed is obvious. It’s an understanding he discusses early on in Travels with Herodotus when he recalls the way The Histories was banned in Poland during the mid 1950s: “A book written two and half thousand years ago? Well, yes: because all our thinking, our looking and reading, was governed in those years by an obsession with allusion. Each word brought another to mind; each had a double meaning, a false bottom, a hidden significance; each contained something secretly encoded, cunningly concealed. Nothing was ever plain, literal, unambiguous…”

This sense of a double life, of a double world, takes on increased resonance as news filters through that Kapuscinki may have spent from 1965 till as late as 1977 working as both a journalist and a spy. Apparently his reports for his masters, the Polish Communist intelligence service, were at best perfunctory, a duty paid rather than relished – but it’s a role that adds to the mystique of an eerily calm and observant voice throughout his books. Nothing is missed, many things are implied.

Like his hero Herodotus, Kapucinski believed “the only real repository of memory is the individual. In order to find out that which has been remembered, one must reach this person.” It’s a need Kapuscinksi brings to life when he talks about being trapped behind a desk at home, editing news wire stories for the Polish Press Agency. As he reads about the Cultural Revolution in China, he observes how “one can learn little from these brief despatches; they lack context and what one might call local colour. I can perhaps imagine most easily the professors of Peking University riding in a truck, hunched over from the chill, not even knowing where they are headed because their eyeglasses are fogging over in the cold.”

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A writer and journalist living in Australia, Mark Mordue is the author of Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip, a collection of stories, poems, and impressions written during a one-year odyssey that took him through India, Iran, Turkey, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.