Travels with Herodotus

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

As one of the twentieth century’s most notable journalists, Ryszard Kapuciski often brought a personal element into his writing, especially in his essay collections Wojna futbolowa (1979; The Soccer War, 1990), Imperium (1993; English translation, 1994), and Heban (1998; The Shadow of the Sun, 2001). In Travels with Herodotus, his final book of essays, he reveals more about his life and approach to writing than in any of his previous works.CI{NACUTE}SKI, RYSZARD[KAPUSCINSKI, RYSZARD];Travels with Herodotus (Kapu{sacute}ci{nacute}ski)}ci{nacute}ski)}ci{nacute}ski)}ci{nacute}ski)}CI{NACUTE}SKI, RYSZARD[KAPUSCINSKI, RYSZARD];Travels with Herodotus}

In Travels with Herodotus, Kapuciski returns to his origins as a foreign correspondent, describing many of his early assignments, as well as his devotion to Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e.; The History, 1709; also translated The Histories) by Herodotus, a work Kapuciski carried along on his journeys to cover coups, wars, and revolutions in places few other writers would go. For Kapuciski, Herodotuswith his love of travel, his appreciation of a good story, his fascination for the unusual, and his broad understanding of disparate civilizationswas both a literary companion and role model. The writings of Herodotus reinforced the Polish journalist’s reportorial instincts, helping Kapuciski become a writer who combined informed journalism, multicultural knowledge, vivid prose, and surreal imagery to create true literature. At the time of his death, Kapuciski’s books had been translated into twenty-eight languages, and critics favorably compared his work to the wide-ranging novels of Joseph Conrad and the Magical Realist writings of Gabriel García Márquez.

The opening essay of Travels with Herodotus, “Crossing the Border,” establishes the book’s central motifsKapuciski’s desire to encounter the world and his admiration for the ancient Greek historian. With this essay, Kapuciski also begins the book’s parallel structure, with events in Herodotus’s history echoing Kapuciski’s experiences. For example, Kapuciski explains that a scholar named Seweryn Hammer translated Herodotus in the mid-1940’s, yet the Polish government kept The Histories off the shelves until 1955, after Joseph Stalin had died and the Soviet bloc could breathe easier. Kapuciski intertwines this discussion of Communist censorship with Herodotus’s description of King Thrasybulus’s advice to Periander, the tyrant of Corinth, on how to keep one’s kingdom under absolute control by killing off all the outstanding subjects, thereby creating a mediocre populous that would be easier to rule. In this passage, Kapuciski comparatively links Stalin to Periander, a technique he used in Cesarz (1978; The Emperor, 1983), a portrait of Ethiopia’s King Haile Selassie I, which Poles read as an allegory criticizing Soviet totalitarianism.

In “Crossing the Border,” Kapuciski recounts landing his first job in 1955 with Sztandar Modych (The Banner of Youth), a newspaper based in Warsaw. When on assignment in the Polish countryside, he occasionally goes near the borders, and he becomes obsessed with the desire to cross national boundaries. Finally, summoning his courage, he asks his editor if he could be sent abroad. She assigns him to India, a country he knows nothing about. Before he leaves, she gives him a copy of Herodotus’s The Histories to accompany him. Thus, the pattern of the book’s essays is setKapuciski travels to exotic and often dangerous places he knows little about, and Herodotus helps him to survive these journeys and to thrive as a top-shelf foreign correspondent.

However, what Kapuciski calls his “first encounter with otherness” is not very successful. As he travels across India, he finds its complex tapestry of ethnicities, religions, gods, castes, landscapes, and histories overwhelming. Its vastness and mystery humble him, and he realizes the need extensively to prepare when entering an alien culture. Also in India, Kapuciski discovers the need for a lingua franca to get around in the world. In this, he envies Herodotus, whose native Greek was widely spoken in the fifth century b.c.e. As a citizen of the twentieth century, Kapuciski must learn English, which he begins to do by crawling word by word through Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). It is also on his assignment to India that Kapuciski experiences his first serious problem in crossing borders. On his return flight to Poland, he is detained in Kabul for not having...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 17, 2007, p. 5L.

Booklist 103, nos. 19/20 (June 1, 2007): 31.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 7 (April 1, 2007): 316-317.

Los Angeles Times, June 10, 2007, p. R8.

The Nation 285, no. 9 (October 1, 2007): 25-32.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (June 10, 2007): 18-19.

The Spectator 304 (July 14, 2007): 39.

The Wall Street Journal 249, no. 134 (June 9, 2007): P8.

The Washington Post, June 24, 2007, p. BW08.