Travels with Herodotus

by Ryszard Kapuściński

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Travels with Herodotus

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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...

(This entire section contains 1937 words.)

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a lingua franca to get around in the world. In this, he envies Herodotus, whose native Greek was widely spoken in the fifth centuryb.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 a visa. Dressed for the tropics, Kapuciski must spend a frozen night camped out on the runway with only a wan fire and a guard’s overcoat to keep him warm.

Next, Kapuciski travels to China, a largely unsatisfying voyage since he is always in the presence of his guide and keeper, Comrade Li, and except for some brief trips to the Great Wall and Shanghai, he remains largely in his hotel room. With a lot of time to wile away, Kapuciski reads the works of Mao Zedong, Confucius, and Laozi. Kapuciski finds much to consider in the two sixth century b.c.e. Chinese sages, with Confucius calling for social engagement and an adherence to form, and Laozi for a departure from social structures and an embracing of nature and spontaneity. Despite these differences, Kapuciski notes that they both promote humility, as did their contemporary philosophers in India and Greece.

Abruptly, the Chinese authorities send Kapuciski home, and he returns to Warsaw, where he leaves The Banner of Youth to join the Polish Press Agency. In the essay “Memory Along the Roadways of the World,” Kapuciski describes reading Herodotus late at night when the agency’s offices are empty. With this essay, the parallels between Kapuciski and Herodotus go beyond experience to include motivations, beliefs, and methods as well. Herodotus writes that his purpose in writing The Histories is “to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time.” Kapuciski’s enthusiasm for this statement makes it clear that this is also his motivation for writing. Just as there is an allegorical correspondence between Haile Selassie and all autocrats in The Emperor, so too is there a connection between Herodotus and Kapuciski in Travels with Herodotus, so that when Kapuciski describes Herodotus’s characteristics as a writer and historian, he is essentially revealing his own literary and reportorial approaches and precepts.

In the next essay, “The Happiness and Unhappiness of Croesus,” Kapuciski begins an extended digression through The Histories, describing the defeat of Croesus, king of Lydia, by Cyrus the Great, king of Persia. In turn, Cyrus meets his nemesis in Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae, who defeats the invading Persians in a bloody encounter that devastates both armies and leaves Cyrus dead on the field of battle. Kapuciski sees in these battles the epic conflict between East and West, Asia and Europe, that continues into the twenty-first century. After Cyrus’s violent end, Kapuciski explores Herodotus’s fascination for Africa, especially Egypt. Herodotus proposes that the Greek gods originated in Egypt, and Kapuciski argues that this belief supports the concept that European culture derived from Egypt, and that Africa is the cradle of the West.

Like Herodotus, Kapuciski felt a deep fascination for Africa, and he made the first of many journeys there in 1960. The Polish journalist finds Africa to be a kaleidoscope of joys and terrors, wonders and horrors. In Cairo, he is robbed in a minaret of an abandoned mosque. In the Sudan, he smokes hashish with two strangers from the desert in a Land Rover and later joins them at a Louis Armstrong concert in Khartoum. The Congo he finds in a state of bloody anarchy, as it transforms from a Belgian colony into an independent nation (present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo). Describing a stateless land infested with gangs of former policemen preying on bands of refugees, Kapuciski writes, “One could see clearly how dangerous freedom is in the absence of hierarchy and orderor, rather, anarchy in the absence of ethics.” He makes his way across hazardous stretches of Ethiopia’s outback with a driver who knows only two phrases in English“problem” and “no problem.” When he goes to Algeria, he witnesses the overthrow of its first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, precipitating the struggle between a modern Islam open to contemporary ideas and a fundamentalist Islam that turns inward, toward the past. In his most hopeful note, Kapuciski describes the first World Festival of Black Art held in Senegal in 1963, with its masked dancers, impromptu street theater, and exhibits of sculpture ancient and modern.

As a narrative counterpoint to his African journeys, Kapuciski weaves together his recollections of that continent with Herodotus’s accounts of Persia’s wars. After recovering from the defeat by the Massagetae, and subduing an internal revolt by the Babylonians, the Persians, under the leadership of King Darius the Great, turn on the Scythians, who occupied what is today southern Russia. With modern-style guerrilla tactics, the Scythians, whose warriors scalp their foes and drink their blood, force Darius to withdraw from their lands. The Scythian victory inspires the Ionians to revolt, and though they fail to break from Persia, the aid the Ionians receive from Athens leads Xerxes I, son of Darius, to invade Greece and wreak revenge.

Now the stage is set for the great conflict between Persia and Greece, a conflict that for Kapuciski epitomizes the struggle of East and West. Darius sets off with an army that may have numbered in the hundreds of thousands. All of his vast realms, stretching from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean to India, gave troops to the effort. He builds a bridge across the Hellespont made from connected ships, and his horde pours unchallenged into Europe, crossing Thrace, Macedonia, and Thessaly. Then, Xerxes’ army encounters a small Greek force at Thermopylae, a narrow strait of land between the Aegean Sea and the mountains. The Greek force, massively outnumbered, nevertheless slaughters a great portion of Xerxes’ men, and may have ultimately won the battle if it were not for treachery. Despite overwhelming odds in its favor, Xerxes’ fleet also loses at the Battle of Salamis. Xerxes, in despair at seeing his incredibly massive armies defeated by a comparative handful of Greek soldiers, retreats to his palace at Persepolis, where he will devote his remaining fifteen years to his harem.

By alternating between Herodotus’s The Histories and his own African and Asian encounters, Kapuciski emphasizes the universality of human experience across time and space. The full range of human reactionsfrom bravery to cowardice, kindness to crueltyalong with a breathtaking array of cultural paradigms, have been present for thousands upon thousands of years. At the same time, Kapuciski explores the eternal verities of a writer’s craft, especially the writer of travel literature, which have not changed since the days of Herodotus, who traversed the known world to gather stories, witness events, and see new places and peoples. As authors, Kapuciski and Herodotus share mucha passion for journeying, a desire to understand the world, a strong narrative instinct, an attention to detail, an eye for the unusual, and an ability to penetrate the causes of violence.

Most important, Kapuciski, like Herodotus, expresses a compassion for humanity, along with a desire to share its grief and its joys, and to celebrate its nearly infinite variations. In the essay “Herodotus’s Discovery,” Kapuciski describes Herodotus’s most important insight about humanity and its multitude of cultures: “That there are many worlds. And that each is different. Each is important. And that one must learn about them, because these other worlds, these other cultures, are mirrors in which we can see ourselves betterfor we cannot define our own identity until having confronted that of others, as comparison.” As shown by Travels with Herodotus, one could say the same for Ryszard Kapuciski.


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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.