If reading is a form of travel, Ryszard Kapuściński’s “Travels with Herodotus” is a multifaceted journey. A fund read. An insightful non academic introduction to a literary classic – the “Histories” by the Herodotus. A travel book through the painful days of post colonial Africa. A meditation on the nature of journalism via an ancient text. An autobiographical story of a kinship between two people who lived centuries apart. A story that makes Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BC (c. 484–425 BC), someone from our time. Those are a few obvious facets in this gem of a book. Each time I think about “Travels with Herodotus”, it reveals another.
As with all of Ryszard Kapuściński‘s (pronounced Rye-zard ka-poos- CHIN-sk) previous books, “Travels with Herodotus” was written in Polish. Thankfully the translation I read (wish I jotted down the edition) carries what I felt was an east European sensibility. Exactly what this means is hard to describe.
Kapuściński was one of the few Warsaw Pact foreign corespondents in Africa. Sent to tropical Africa from frozen post war Poland with a copy of Herodotus in lieu of training. On assignment in war zones, Kapuściński escapes from the horrors around him in Herodotus’ stories. Consequently he becomes intimately familiar with the nuances of the ancient author.
In the process the battered book becomes an avatar for Herodotus. Kapuściński sees Herodotus as a companion in his 20th century wonderings. The type who joins him across a war torn Africa in a battered car. Dodging machete welding death squads, and interviewing wandering nations of refugees. Herodotus’s catalogue of brutal kings, tragic historical figures and empire wrecking wars becomes a bizarre envelope of normalcy. A reflection of the chaotic violently changing environment.
You experience this throughout the powerful of immediacy of Kapuściński’s writing. His credibility as a writer rests on consists of demonstrating his trust in the reader. He does so by entrusting you vivid details as if they were confessions. They leap off the page and superglue themselves to the brain long after you have shelved the book.
The sight of Duke Ellington slumped exhausted and defeated in a Khartoum hotel lobby. Or the sensation of desert sunrise evaporating water off your face on a roadside in Iran. Later on I realised that these descriptions operated at two levels.
- They give you the immediate sensations of experiencing a particular moment
- They echo the emotional tone of that stage of the book – the changes of which gives credibility to the entire narrative.
It is this trust that makes the kinship between Kapuściński and Herodotus feel credible. Both are nosy travellers by profession. Kapuściński depicts Herodotus as a prototype of Samuel Clements (Mark Twain) who made quite a packet giving lectures on his travels. Herodotus lived in the age of oral culture where a “lecture circuit” was main stream as TV.
Kapuściński is inspired by Herodotus’s patient, persistent, stoically focused detailed reporting ethic. He is in awe at the way Herodotus milks the locals for specifics. Then winnows the plausible from the suspiciously tall tales with careful phrases. Parallels with the ideals of journalism are too obvious to ignore. You get the unavoidable feeling that Kapuściński regards Herodotus as a mentor. We in the mystic east may detect a guru/pupil aspect to the relationship.
The strongest bond I noticed between Kapuściński and Herodotus is the desire to leave their know worlds. Travel into the unfamiliar uncomfortable places. Live nomadic lives often at great personal risk. Chase stories whose context they can barely understand. Then try to make the people “back home” understand these other worlds. All traits familiar in the tribe called foreign correspondents. You absorb these realisations by the experience of reading the book. By the way each story, encounter and random asides connect themselves in the subconscious.
Kapuściński does admit the original text of the “Histories” is tedious reading if you are not “into” the classics. Thankfully he saves us from the ordeal by putting things in context with a very contemporary touch. The writing, as I remember it, is not as dreamy and allegorical as his book about Haile Selassie’s downfall
It’s been years since I last read Kapuściński’s “Travels with Herodotus”. I started writing this post about the time I began this blog. Yet years later I can still taste the flavour of this book. Which pushed me to finish what I started. Its been a while since I wrote about a book that actually exists. Give “The Travel” a spin. You might even like it. I did.